#seapunk: The Life & Death of a Subculture
“Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light;
entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly.”
- William Gibson, Neuromancer
A holographic background bends and swirls on the screen with each mouse scroll. In this Windows 95 inspired blog, pixelated graphics float haphazardly among one another. Tumblr user shamewave reblogs images that seemingly make no sense. In one corner, an image of two VCR’s against a psychedelic rainbow background is accented with moving bright yellow WordArt that says “ayy lmao.” In another corner, a GIF depicts a 3D dolphin animation jumping through a dissolving yin yang symbol as it melts like acid. As you continue to scroll, more of these dolphins can be seen against backdrops of bubbles, palm trees, and fading grids. One of the final images on the page is an animated rendering of Greek columns. Between the columns, two dolphins shoot neon green laser beams out of their eyes. The bottom of the image reads SEAPUNK GANG in an unfamiliar neo-stone age font.
This aesthetic mess of holographic psychedelics, cartoonish aquatics, and popular symbols is recognizable on Tumblr and Twitter as the micro-niche of seapunk. Inspired by the 1990’s cyberpunk culture (think sci-fi dystopia, dominated by computer technology,) seapunk exists as both a musical genre and a visual language that incorporates an unclear assortment of influences. To fully understand seapunk in all of its artistic facets, it is first essential to grasp its existence as a visual aesthetic on social media platforms. The style is somewhat complicated, attempting to playfully mash together a range of unexpected subjects. Ever present is a reoccurring aquatic theme. Along with the aforementioned dolphin, this aquatic focus within the seapunk community manifests itself through even more elaborate imagery. Psychedelic bubbles, CGI-rendered beach scenes and dreamscapes, as well as floating bodies of water are often crammed into glossy, dizzying GIFS. However, the iconography ranges even further with the incorporation of choppy ‘90s internet software imagery, SpongeBob, and even Illuminati references. Despite the disparate nature of these visual elements, it all ends up being cohesive in the artistic representations that find themselves all over blogs and twitter feeds.
Unlike this blatantly recognizable visual aesthetic, the music of seapunk doesn’t lend itself easily to identification. The New York Times describes the sound as “spacey electronic dance music [that] borrows from Witch House, Chiptune, Drum & Bass and southern rap,” while The Chicago Reader writes that seapunk music is “all overlaid with a twinkly, narcotic energy that recalls new-age music and chopped-and-screwed hip-hop mix tapes in roughly equal measure.” The music further incorporates aspects of the lo-fi chillwave sound, oldschool jungle, and breakbeats, with the only shared sound quality being a general muddled and watery aquatic vibe. In a great article about the new web, Luna Vega sums up seapunk music nicely by stating “you could probably pick out 15-20 genre elements which are then rearranged and put back together in a familiar but decidedly off kilter fashion.” In this way, the music style ranges greatly and can perhaps only be understood after listening to it while scrolling through a seapunk blog. This presents itself as one of the most unique aspects of the subculture: it exists as a music style that is recognizable more so by its visual influences rather than its own sound. Luna Vega writes, “the visual abstraction of the genre personifies the music” and continues to explain that “it literally sounds like how it looks, but unless you’re online or familiar with new web culture, that concept is extremely confusing.” So while there may be a shared similarity in the sound across the genre, it still doesn’t present itself as concrete and tangible of a concept as the visual aesthetic exists to be.
This can all reasonably be attributed to the fact that seapunk is rooted in its online origins, where visuals often superimpose upon sound. The movement began on twitter merely as an inside joke. In mid-2011, the idea of seapunk was born in a surreal dream to Brooklyn D.J. Julian Foxworth, otherwise known by the twitter handle @LILINTERNET. At around five in the morning, @LILINTERNET tweeted “seapunk leather jacket with barnacles where the studs used to be,” which sparked a wave of nautical in-jokes and inspired the hashtagging of #seapunk among a loose-knit group of twitter users. In a Vice Noisey article, @LILINTERNET himself explains the progression of seapunk from a joke to a genre. He writes that these jokes, which included “crab claw earrings, fishnet, smoking hashtags and seaweed, etc,” eventually began including Cyberpunk references, wherein the lines between the internet and the sea began to blur.
Soon enough, @LILINTERNET explains in the article that #seapunk grew into an identifiable group who shared music and “lulz” online together. Twitter user @ULTRADEMON formed a secret #seapunk Facebook group. Members of the group included twitter users @LILINTERNET, @LILGOVERNMENT, @ULTRADEMON, @ZOMBELLE_, and @TTTEAMS. Two of these members, @ULTRADEMON and @ZOMBELLE_, eventually went on to spearhead the seapunk music movement themselves. @LILINTERNET describes this eventual movement into the music scene as being a moment where lines were drawn in the sand – what was once a “free-flowing exchange of quips, ideas, and imagery in the seapunk secret group turns into squabbles about what “is” and “isn’t” seapunk.” Albert Redwine (@ULTRADEMON) decided he’d start a seapunk electronic music record label so that he could produce sounds that he felt best represented the seapunk movement. However, @LILINTERNET, @LILGOVERNMENT, and @TTTEAMS found themselves wary of Redwine’s shift to the music. @TTTEAMS explains this in the article, stating “I stopped relating to seapunk when I realized it had surpassed a fun Twitter joke/fashion style.” Meanwhile, Albert Redwine and Shan Beaste @ZOMBELLE_) went on to make seapunk a real-life genre, music label, and scene.
Moving from LA to Chicago, Redwine and Beaste started producing and performing their music. Redwine launched his record label, Coral Records Internazionale, in the fall of 2011. He began producing under the name Fire for Effect and DJing as Ultrademon, while Beaste recorded and performed as Zombelle. The duo worked together to create original content, eventually releasing several EP’s and two compilations titled #Seapunk Volume 1 and #Seapunk Volume 2. Judging off of the comments sections on the Coral Records bandcamp page, some of the most beloved songs have titles like “Yr so Wet” and “U Will B Mist,” no doubt alluding to aquatic seapunk themes. The two artists, with their bright turquoise hair and perpetual dark circles, went on to perform live and bring the music to warehouses and clubs in major cities across America. Thus, a scene for seapunk sprouted up in places such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. However, seapunk remained a rather modest phenomenon, with few club-goers actually knowing what subgenre the music belonged to. An article by The New York Times explains this experience at a “Seapunk Alien Disco Indie Rave,” where there were just a few “mops of hair dyed blue and green” and only some sported “T-shirts plastered with pixilated sharks.” Rather, the warehouse was filled with dancing 20-somethings who didn’t at all identify with the subculture that this music belonged to. This is most likely what @LILINTERNET and his twitter friends were wary of when Redwine wanted to bring seapunk into the real world. Instead of catching on, these live performances were proof that the seapunk experience could only truly thrive and perform best as an online experience.
With seapunk’s limited ability to transcend the internet, the scene began to quiet down. On Twitter, the original core group of users began to shift focus in their tweets, with some accounts eventually having no mention of seapunk altogether. Scrolling through blogs and the #seapunk tag on Tumblr, posts during 2012 similarly exhibited a slow decline and began shifting into new aesthetics. Users argued with one another through long text posts, stating things like “#SEAPUNK IS DEAD” and “#vaporwave is better” or even, “seapunk was never anything!! 2 want to be hipsters created it after a botched hair dying sesh!! its regurgitated rehash!!” Whether or not these Tumblr users were right, there was a troubling seapunk semi-revival about to take place in the following weeks.
On November 10th, 2012, singer Rihanna used a seapunk inspired background during her performance of “Diamonds” on Saturday Night Live. In her performance, Rihanna stands center-stage while waves of blues and purples pulsate behind her. Palm trees, dollar and peace signs in WordArt bubble letter font, swirling grids, and animated dolphins can all be seen making their way into the changing backdrop. Following the performance, the seapunk community was roused from its slumber and took to social media to express their backlash. A Spin Magazine article discusses this backlash, chronicling tweets from enraged fans. Many Twitter users recognized that the specific graphics used for the “Diamonds” performance on SNL were clearly based off of the work of a popular and beloved LA-based seapunk video artist, Jerome LOL. One user writes, “Congrats @JeromeLOL on getting straight up ripped off by whoever was doing visuals for Rihanna on SNL last night.” @ZOMBELLE expressed a long tweet rant, which ultimately ended in a tweet that reads, “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.” The Spin article later touches upon @JeromeLOL’s tonally ambiguous tweet, “Rihanna I See You.”
Ultimately, however, the artist’s later tweets prove he wasn’t really upset. He tweets “No one Owns the 90s” and “Internet is Culture’s Playground it’s the Best.Stay Posi.” Similarly, @LILINTERNET responded to the backlash, tweeting “Kids! #SEAPUNK is safe! Culture is free for everyone to share!” Yet, many seapunks who had seemingly already stopped caring about their subculture couldn’t quite embrace or accept this appropriation of the style into the mainstream. Interestingly, this was despite the fact that seapunks had already appropriated elements of the ‘90s culture themselves, which is perhaps what users such as @JeromeLOL and @LILINTERNET are considering in their tweets. Ultimately, these two individuals realized that the nostalgic seapunk aesthetic was no doubt put together through consciously contrived means. That is to say, it wasn’t pure coincidence that artists such as @JeromeLOL gravitated toward the use of old Windows 95 graphics, fonts, and WordArt. Embracing nostalgia has become a hugely ambient part of our culture, most likely due to the engagement that it inspires especially over the internet. Latching onto these outdated experiences allows people to connect with their generational demographic in a widespread way that is no longer dependent on individual interaction. Perhaps seapunks felt that this unspoken community would be lost altogether if exposed into the mainstream – a mainstream whose audience would just not get it because they happen to be part of a different generation.
Days later, the backlash continued after Azealia Banks released a similar seapunk inspired music video for the song “Atlantis.” A slew of tweets and textposts on Twitter and Tumblr expressed heightened rage within the seapunk community. Popular internet social news site BuzzFeed picked up on this unrest that was exploding on social media, posting articles titled “Web Artists Are Furious At Rihanna and Azealia Banks,” “Seapunks Strike Back At Rihanna,” and “Why Rihanna Going Seapunk Is Totally OK.” While the articles actually brought up some legitimate points, seapunks were outraged by the fact that BuzzFeed’s articles shed a light on their community, suddenly making it even more so a part of the mainstream. It appeared that fans of this slowly dying subculture wanted it to still retain its integrity by remaining underground. In an article by The Daily Beast, Anya Kurennaya, a sociologist at Parsons explains the issue with this position, however, stating “They don’t want celebrities to spread it, however, if they want to remain marginal and exclusive then they shouldn’t tweet or blog about it.” She goes on to say that seapunk was now perhaps no longer a subculture at all, in that “once something hits the public consciousness, things have begun to fall apart.”
And fall apart they did. Following the Rihanna and Azealia Banks incidents, things regressed back to the early 2012 decline that seapunk had started to experience. Yet, the decline came back at full force. @LILINTERNET publically took to twitter, putting #seapunk in its original form to rest and eventually even going on to produce for Azealia Banks. @ZOMBELLE and @ULTRADEMON removed #seapunk from their Twitter bios. On Tumblr, blogs changed their URLs, completed full makeovers of their visual aesthetic, and started searching for new internet phenomena. Comment sections on Youtube videos for Coral Records tracks are dead, with the most recent comments being from early 2013. This time around, the decline of seapunk was completed in a matter of weeks, with the genre seemingly vanishing from existence with little trace altogether. Thus, seapunk was short-lived, experiencing subculture and mainstream status all within a two-year time span. It was fleeting, acting to remind us of the ever-transient nature of art born on the internet.