Rihanna’s performance on this week’s Saturday Night Live set everyone talking—and for once, it wasn’t about her singing or Chris Brown. Instead, the iconic performer joined rapper Azealia Banks in coming under fire for tapping into an online digital artist scene known as seapunk.
The artist’s performance of her latest single, “Diamonds,” featured smooth, lush vocals and even cooler teal-washed images of earth, sea, and sky that looked as if they had originated as spinning gifs on an ancient Geocities website. It’s all part of the seapunk aesthetic—and since Rihanna and Azealia have latched on, many musicians are questioning whether underground musical movements can ever take place on the Internet.
In March, The New York Times described seapunk as “a whimsical style that mashes together cartoonish aquatic themes, rave culture and a nostalgia for ’90s Internet imagery. 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.”
Though its joke origins are clear, seapunk can be read as a subversive take on similar X-punk movements within sci-fi/fantasy communities; like steampunk and stitchpunk, it fixates on a historical cultural aesthetic and merges it into a futuristic world full of overwrought grandeur—if you consider bleeding colors and memeified clip art grand. And there are deliberate cyberpunk elements involved, like the emphasis on computer-generated technology, pixellated everything, and the endless flow of images like data across the screen. It’s as if Max Headroom got stuck in your playlist, and now the only way out is through the music, often a chillaxed electronica dance beat that surfs its way across the ocean of your brain.