Thank U For Your Service Seapunk. Solarpunk? You’re Next!
From @lilinternet to @rihanna to @aezlelaleea, a history of seapunk and the future of solarpunk.
What ever happened to Seapunk? Back in 2011, the cyber-mermaid aesthetic was being touted as a musical genre, an artistic movement, a fashion style, and even an “ideology.” But by 2012 it had already run through the news cycle and been declared dead in the water—witness a March 2012 Noisey article headlined “Seapunk Washes Up.”
For the uninitiated (or anyone who wasn’t online that year), the invention of #Seapunk is attributed to @LILINTERNET—a then DJ who now works as a producer and music video director—who tweeted in June 2011: “SEAPUNK LEATHER JACKET WITH BARNACLES WHERE THE STUDS USED TO BE.” From there, Twitter and Tumblr took over, and the hashtag attached itself to a tsunami of memes, sounds, and styles. Notably: turquoise hair, nail art, rotating dolphin GIFs, drum-and-bass with marimba, candy-colored cyberpunkish sunglasses, and wavy oceanic background patterns—in short, all things aquatic.
As the hype picked up around what the New York Times called “an inside Web joke that feeds off its own ridiculousness,” pop stars caught wind. After a 2012 Saturday Night Live performance of her single “Diamonds,” Rihanna was vehemently accused of stealing and “commodifying” the low-tech pixelated nature imagery she took from work by the Seapunk-identified artist Jerome LOL. That same year, Azealia Banks’s video for the song “Atlantis” received similar criticism, but at least Banks publicly acknowledged the trend’s influence on her work.
That kind of angry reaction to memes’ natural behavior—to circulate and travel—might seem bizarre, especially given Seapunk’s latent metaphorical reference to the supposed liquidity of internet culture: the free exchange of information and funny or weird ideas without barriers. Not to mention the mild hypocrisy in the fact that Seapunks were themselves ripping and referencing the work of well-known contemporary artists like Petra Cortright, who had been sampling low-fi GIFs for years.
And yet in this context, the controversy over an instance of cultural appropriation was representative of another conflict about who, if anyone, profits from the overflow of digital creative production. In retrospect, Seapunk represented a confrontation between artists who expect to receive some kind of compensation for their work and anonymous creators who generate free content for the people. Seapunk became a parable about the relationship between internet culture and mass pop culture. The moral: don’t make stuff for free online if you don’t want it to be copy+pasted.
Luckily, Seapunk aficionados who were left stranded on the sea of the internet can get back to the land with Solarpunk. This new wave has been emerging slowly online since 2014, and unlike all those other punks, this one might have some actual political clout. Solarpunks are vocal about wanting to match an aesthetic with a political standpoint, which includes environmental sustainability and local production. Thus far, the Solarpunk aesthetic has largely been a sort of Neovictorian throwback (e.g. stained-glass solar panels and Steampunk getups), which hasn’t exactly caught on for a variety of reasons—not least of which is the kind of conservative nostalgia implied. Whereas Seapunk had the style down pat, Solarpunk has some worthy goals that could use a catchy soundtrack and a strong look (as John Waters might say, every subculture needs an outfit). To all the content generators out there, start revving your engines.