Last week, when two music videos by semi-pop stars Rihanna and Azaelia Banks spread around the web, they incited some to protest. Their crime: dipping their toes lasciviously into the tropical laser-hemmed fountain of ’90s seapunk aesthetics. The Times once described the look like this:
The iconography, which exists almost entirely online, includes clip art of dolphins jumping through pyramids, aquamarine-haired mermaids with SpongeBob T-shirts, and psychedelic orbs flying over computer-generated waves.
The issue here is not about authenticity, originality, or even any sense of linear time. In fashion, styles change hands so quickly it is ludicrous to discuss who “thought of it” first, but simply who did it best, at that moment, on that day, at that party. Other reactions online seem to be using words or phrases that do not make sense in 2012. Words like “stealing”, “ripped off”, or “commodified.”
Sub-culture exists when gazed at by mass-culture. The only way to ensure that your aesthetic is not going to become used by others is to never share it with anyone. Another approach is to protect your aesthetic with physical violence (see: gang colors). Otherwise, once you allow your presence to be seen, it can be consumed.
THE LONGER WE’RE ONLINE THE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE ARTISTS ARE TO THE RICH POACHING OUR CULTURE AND IDEAS AS WELL IDEALS USED AS MARKETING PLOYS
— ∞SHANTASY☹ISLAND❤✌➫ (@ZOMBELLE_) November 12, 2012
From my limited understanding of the visual tropes that made up the reference points to these two recent videos, there has been a lot of this same imagery floating around in web/real-world crossover communities for at least the past two years. But we need to remember that the sharing of these aesthetic ideas usually happens on “free” and relatively public web 2.0-style sharing sites: dump.fm, tumblr, Twitter, etc. You have to sign in and you can get kicked off but for the most part everyone with a computer or smart phone is invited. These sites need to be semi-public because a part of the game is to float an image up to the cloud and to see how far it travels. If you do not want your image to travel somewhere far away, do not release it to the cloud.
These images might begin to mean more, might start to cluster together into a set of inter-related ideas that begin to form a kind of futuristic ideology that you can inhabit. But this is not a very sacred belief system. This kind of self-image-making-as-belief-system is a form of user-generated-youth-branding that uses corporate web2.0 technologies to re-appropriate the notion of “sub-culture” that historically died in the 90s
A scene from UK streetwear brand Illustrated People’s recent catalog.
These creative strategies work with what for many of us are outdated fantasies of outsider-ism: when a disconnected and lost youth from the middle of nowhere has no access or sense of perspective on what “is cool” and decides out of the blue to “go goth.” Today, net-art/Tumblr/Twitter scenes are hyper-connected. The alienation they feel today is because of being too connected. Playing with these different forms of alienation is what makes their output so exciting. Like a lot of good art, the work is predicated on a lie and plays with that lie — like a magician. When Zombelle tweets “swagger-jackers” there is more to the story. Her project is itself a brilliant swagger-jacking project.
Unless I really misunderstand, isn’t seapunk an intentionally awkward swagger-jacking of corporate California extreme sports surfer, underwater video game levels, lawnmower-man cyber utopia/dystopia, and teen rebellion (to name a few of the references)? It was probably literally first imagined in an office as a corporate-hired creative team tried to figure out who the new evil gang should be to fight the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Manufactured-sub-culture-as-enacted-sub-culture, addressing the kind of top-down ad campaigns that makes us believe in Slurpies and Rollerblades. We are talking about very sophisticated understandings of marketing and their power on consciousness and forms of social rebellion, which are enacted by kids in subconscious, intuitive, and ephemeral ways through their highly curated selection of clothing, images, and word-play.
LOL Boys’ “123” (dir. Jerome LOL).
When an artist with a different kind of power hires art directors and deadlines approach, things get interesting. Culture begins to move at a frantic pace, and eats its own shit. If we remove the notion of authenticity, originality, or a “beginning point” from the conversation, the difference between the visuals behind Rihanna on SNL and the visuals on Tumblr blogs is thus predominantly a difference in an understanding of cultural time. Images are consumed and re-consumed and then consumed again. It is going to happen. I do not know the art directors behind these two videos (at least I think I don’t), but my impression is that someone was inspired in their own way (either by money, the creative spark, or both) to riff off of things they had seen in other contexts.
To the informed/privileged viewer, perhaps what they made looks like a mutated, or “backwards” version of something they saw in a different context. But to claim that we, all of us, are not a part of this mutation process ourselves is the kind of lie that is unproductive — different than the creative, productive lie I mentioned before. We have to embrace mutation in all it’s forms if we embrace it at all. From net kids giving new meaning to the emptiness of commercial space, to art directors getting it wrong but thus getting it right. This is an exciting cycle that is also painful, like life.
Given the reality of the internet as a major player in the youth culture manufacturing machine, where everything happens in plain view for all of us to see all the time, to deny that this kind of thing is going to happen and that it is going to happen in disgustingly faster and faster ways, seems a little naive, not in a good way. All true seapunks know how to ride the wave.
A version of this originally appeared on my website.