Do Seapunks Have a Right to Be Pissed at Rihanna?

If like us you’re interested in internet culture, you’ve probably followed the Rihanna-vs.-seapunk controversy with interest and amusement. If not, well, in short, Rihanna’s outfit/visuals/general aesthetic on her recent Saturday Night Live performance looked an awful lot like those associated with seapunk, the curious aquatic-themed internet movement that’s been leveraging a Little Mermaid obsession since the good old days of 2010. The seapunk overlords are none too happy about their stylistic ideas being lifted by her ladyship, just like they have been similarly miffed about Azealia Banks stealing their schtick for months. If this all sounds like a storm in a virtual teacup to you, well, you’d be right. But still, the whole thing has some interesting things to say about internet culture, and culture in 2012 in general.

It seems to me that there are two issues here: a) the question of whether it’s in seapunk’s own best interests to get all pissy about its aesthetic going overground and b) a more general reflection of how we treat internet-based art/genres/etc.

On the first point, well, you can see how the seapunkers are upset: it’s definitely no fun having your ideas lifted without your permission. Pop stars are essentially tabulæ rasæ, canvases onto which fashionable ideas are painted, and they’re always looking for new material. Madonna is, of course, the classic example, and Lady Gaga has been doing her best to follow suit in recent years. It was only a matter of time before someone picked up on seapunk — which is, if nothing else, a pretty striking visual aesthetic — and co-opted it.

Having said that, seapunk’s status as an internet movement, as well as the fact that this cultural light-fingeredness is happening in 2012, means there’s no question of Rihanna just getting away with this like, say, Madonna did during the 1980s. As our art editor Marina Galperina pointed out earlier today on her Facebook page, discussing exactly this point, “there isn’t really such a thing as ‘no attribution’ in real time because INTERNET.” She’s right, too — look how long it’s taken for people to kick up a stink over the appropriation of visuals from a hitherto-unknown art movement. People who’d never heard of seapunk until last night are suddenly reading articles on Buzzfeed about it.

Not that everyone’s seen it this way, of course. Genre stalwart Bebe Zeva was up in arms about “swagger jacking” on Twitter Sunday night, arguing that “[Rihanna’s] performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement,” something that apparently means “its purpose is gone” and “all taste-makers have to start over.” This is a startlingly conservative and rather juvenile argument, honestly — if your movement’s only purpose is to be exclusive, then what use is it beyond something to prove how cool you and your friends are? What use is art without an audience? What’s the point of having something to say and no one to say it to?

But then, seapunk doesn’t appear to have a whole lot to say. I suspect that if it did, it might be less troubled by its aesthetic being borrowed by artists like Rihanna and Azealia Banks — after all, if you have a philosophy to disseminate, you’re probably pretty happy to have your ideas spread far and wide, whereas if your aesthetic is all you have, you guard it jealously. If I have a problem with seapunk, it’s exactly this: it appears to be an aesthetic and only an aesthetic, unlike, say, plain old punk-punk, which was clearly steeped in visual identity but also had at least some measure of substance beyond the style. But if seapunk aspires to be anything more than an internet in-joke — and that’s not to say it does — it shouldn’t be too upset about this. Any publicity is, as they say, good publicity. And ultimately, art doesn’t “belong” to anyone — it changes and evolves and becomes what it will. Trying to close it off helps no one.

Anyway, onto point b) — the other striking thing about the slow trickle of coverage that seapunk’s had since the start of the year, and over the last couple of days, is the general air of skepticism that surrounds its validity in the first place. Every article written about it has made generous use of inverted commas and the world “so-called.” Some of this stems from, y’know, the fact that we’re talking about a movement that consists of a few kids who have turquoise hair and apparently also a secret wish to be living under the sea like post-gummy bear Homer Simpson. But some of it comes from a general distrust of internet culture.

It seems to me that we laugh at the internet at our peril. Sure, it’s easy to scoff at seapunk, with its obligatory hashtag and its thalassic lexicon and its general air of being a big ol’ internet in-joke. (Indeed, we’ve been as guilty as anyone of doing exactly that.) And more generally, it’s easy for critics of a certain vintage to assume that anything internet-based is transitory and lightweight and concerned with pictures of cats and not Serious Culture.

This is largely short-sighted and unwisely elitist. While it’s difficult to argue that anyone in 2050 will be looking fondly back at the halcyon days of seapunk as 2012’s crowning cultural glory, they’ll certainly be looking back at the glory days of something, and your guess is as good as ours as to what that something might be. One of the interesting effects of the internet on culture in general is that it’s both more connected and more fragmented than it’s ever been in the past. As our own Sophie Weiner argues here, seapunk touches on aspects of internet culture that are a lot more interesting than it is — and, just as importantly, these seem to be genuinely new things in an era where the genuinely new is more elusive than ever.

And, of course, this makes sense: if there’s been one genuinely new cultural development over the last 20 years or so, what’s it been? The internet, of course. And, indeed, the web is unique in being both medium — as valid a canvas for art as celluloid or vinyl or, well, canvas — and also subject matter. We’ve already featured web-centric visual art here on Flavorwire, and maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the emergence of an interesting web-centric musical movement.

That’s not to say that seapunk is that movement — in fact, we’re 100% sure it isn’t. But still, while you may or may not consider seapunk to be demonstrably ridiculous, it doesn’t change the fact that if anything worthwhile is happening in 2012, it’s probably happening out there on the internet somewhere. Don’t close yourselves off to it, peoples.