Image courtesy Kevin Heckart
Image courtesy Kevin Heckart

In a way, pop icon Rihanna’s role in the affair is peripheral. This is not, that is to say, a story about Rihanna. Likewise, it is significant that no matter how I write it, this will not be the story I wanted to tell. If I am pressed to explain why it made even the muted blip that it did, I would say that it has something to do with pop culture schadenfreude.

Someone like Rihanna was necessary, though. She brought profile to the story, without which a venue like Saturday Night Live might never have been available. And in the event itself, there might have been no story without Rihanna specifically. It is difficult to imagine many other pop artists foregoing SNL‘s usual stage and performing in front of a green screen for the purpose of saturating the background with what looked like images from a mid-90s screensaver. Difficult, that is, so long as you don’t happen to think of seapunk, which is, after all, the point.

Seapunk artists haven’t yet commanded enough attention to make personal appearances on a stage as visible as SNL, so most of us wouldn’t have thought of seapunk, had not several in the scene pointed out that Rihanna’s performance seemed to borrow heavily from a visual style they’d been developing for more than a year. They made that point, some more angrily than others, in their usual venues, mostly Tumblr and Twitter, but the connection to Rihanna and SNL suddenly gave those dispatches a new volume. For once, the press was paying attention.

The reason was that there was a bankable hook to the incident — the premise that a bona fide star like Rihanna had ripped off a niche scene. A number of online publications ran stories about the accusation. Most of those stories adopted a skeptical tone: skeptical not of the premise that Rihanna’s performance had cribbed directly from seapunk, but of the premise that seapunk was any the worse off for her having done so. In an article that is atypical for its seriousness, but precisely representative of the field in the conclusion it draws, Buzzfeed writer Matthew Perpetua wrote,

The response from artists involved in seapunk and Web art to Rihanna’s SNL performance suggests that they generally had a sense that their aesthetic was going to end up getting filtered into the mainstream but weren’t expecting it to happen quite so soon. There’s some irony to this: Shouldn’t a Tumblr-based art movement be hyperaware of how quickly visual memes can spread now and also how many people out there are prone to reblogging content without attribution?

Almost across the board, the message has been that the community never really owned the style associated with it, and doubly so due to the nature of seapunk. It was, in the first place, incubated over social media, where respect for property rights is the exception rather than the norm. And much of the visual style harked back to the computer-generated cyberscapes of the 1990s, which makes any subsequent appropriation of that style look like turnabout, and therefore, fair play. Bemoaning the outing of the scene on SNL is just “pissy,” as one Flavorwire writer put it.

Yet one thing that has gone scrupulously unspoken is the ambivalent position into which the coverage has put those reporters and critics. Each of has faced the same mostly implicit question — how, as a writer, do you represent a community of which you are not a part? How, moreover, do you represent a community that you don’t particularly respect, as it was clear many of the authors did not.

Probably the most direct expression of that ambivalence is “How to Talk About Seapunk Like You Already Knew About It,” The Atlantic Wire‘s faux primer on how to peddle more snark about the incident — as though anyone needed that. While it tells us virtually nothing about seapunk, it at least has the virtue of pointing us back to our own outsider status. The most generous way to read the article is as a satire of everyone’s rush to talk about a subject that had, until now, bounced off of our collective consciousness. Less charitably, you could see it as a gimmick for navigating the need to say something about seapunk, without actually having anything to say.

Such is often the nature of writing for the Web. Whatever other topics they may have in common with traditional print publications, the additional burden of Web-based periodicals is that of reporting on the quirks of the Web itself. And if you have nothing of substance to say on the subject? Well, you can always get by on tone.

• • • • •

The story I wanted to tell had as its subject that most dubious of pop culture constructs, the “scene.” The premise was that the seapunk community had deliberately constructed theirs out of disposable parts — nautical themes, cyberpunk imagery, dated 90s goofiness — and that it was bewildering to outsiders precisely because we had to have it one way or the other. Either the visual and musical elements were somehow significant in and of themselves, and the scene was therefore worth considering on its own merits; or the whole thing was a lark and could safely be dismissed by people with better things to do.

That either/or scenario, I wanted to say, is a false dilemma. Yes, the community’s style is arbitrary and ridiculous, but that’s precisely what makes seapunk interesting. On so slender a basis, a loose confederation of people had built a community they found meaningful. Some of them felt enough loyalty to that community to take offense at Rihanna’s appropriation of their style. That must be worth something, right?

The more I read about the scene, the more I started to shape the information I found into a narrative. Surely, I thought, it was significant that Albert Redwine and Shan Beaste, central figures in the music production arm of the movement, had transplanted to Chicago just as the seapunk was shaping up. A feeling of isolation would be natural after such a significant move. Attracting people to a cultural scene might have been a savvy way of quickly forming relationships in a new place. That the iconography of the scene was mostly placid and nostalgic would make for less toxic society than a scene built around, say, extreme political disaffection. The scene’s adoption of PLUR, an acronym out of the 90s rave encapsulating the social etiquette of peace, love, unity and respect, could be taken as confirmation.

At the same time, I recognized that this was a narrative of my own making, and did not necessarily correspond to the history or significance of seapunk itself. I had built it largely on information gleaned from two profiles published earlier in the year, one in Chicago Reader and a later write-up in The New York Times marking the scene’s official arrival in the national consciousness. Offline, the Reader‘s Miles Raymer noted,

it wouldn’t just be difficult to pull together a community of people with a shared interest in techno-utopian philosophies, turquoise hair dye, and rap beats from songs about dealing cocaine—it’d be almost impossible to create the circumstances under which those elements would’ve cohered into a package.

More than that, the package provided an opportunity to pull disparate, perhaps isolated people into a community online. It seemed reasonable to suppose that there was nothing particularly compelling about turquoise hair dye and nautical jokes, save that they provided a pivot on which to turn discussion.

That such passages dovetailed so neatly into my thesis was reason for concern, I decided. Narrative is a powerful tool for understanding the world, but it’s a tool that can also mislead. In our eagerness to make everything fit into a favored narrative, we are often too willing to accept second-hand premises uncritically. The question was, does that narrative correspond to anything in the scene itself?

• • • • •

Shortly after The New York Times ran its profile of seapunk, Vice‘s Noisy blog published the first insider’s history of the scene. Penned by two pivotal early figures, who publicly identify by their Twitter handles, LilInternet and LilGovernment, “Seapunk Washes Up” collates many of the original social media exchanges to provide a chronological account of the scene’s beginnings.

According to that account, seapunk originated in a dream involving a leather jacket with barnacles instead of studs. LilInternet, the dreamer, recounted the image on his Twitter account; LilGovernment responded with a joke, making a hashtag of the neologism “seapunk.”. Over the summer of 2011, the hashtag caught on with a quickly growing clique of Twitter users, and the elements of an actual style began to coalesce. The cyberpunk elements, for example, slipped in via a joke about software piracy. By autumn, the word was something more than just a social media joke.

That’s where “Seapunk Washes Up” gets interesting. Many of the original movers in the scene were content to let seapunk remain “a feeling.” Others saw the opportunity to make more of it. By LilInternet and LilGovernment’s account, Redwine and Beaste, the Chicago transplants featured in both the Reader and Times articles, were “(mis)appropriating punk terminology, pushing ‘#up_the_seapunks,’ and driving the ship full-throttle towards confusion.” Redwine would go on to form a Web-based music label, Coral Records Internazionale, while Beaste would record seapunk anthems under the name Zombelle. Both have performed at rave-like seapunk parties in major cities in three time zones.

It’s difficult to know just what to make of “Seapunk Washes Up” and its accusation of “hypocrisy” within the scene. The document makes only the broadest pretense to objectivity by its use of third-person perspective, self-referentially mocked in the preface. It is, to be sure, a chronicle with a bone to pick, but there have been, that I’ve seen, no efforts to counter it on points of fact. For the moment, we outsiders are left to take its version of events as more or less historically accurate, but it serves us best as the history of a divide forming at the heart of seapunk.

The end of the party may have been the beginning of the scene. Far from being hamstrung by internal division, the seapunk scene seems to have gotten its real start in the division of its core group. Much depends on what we mean by the word scene, but one distinguishing feature may be that a scene is something that can be consistently opposed.

By that standard, seapunk as a hashtag, as a social media joke, as a set of visual or musical elements still in the process of arranging themselves into a style — was too innocuous, too spongy to be a scene. It’s not until former insiders like the authors of “Seapunk Washes Up” could set themselves against seapunk that we really begin to see it as a scene. And that grows all the easier when the scene associates itself with a brand or institution, as with Warhol’s Factory or Redwine’s Coral Records.

But recognizing those divisions complicates the task of writing about a scene from the outside. Who, for example, are you writing about? “With regards to identifying with the community,” LilInternet told me, “I don’t.” Nevertheless, his role in coining the term and launching the style has necessitated writing as though he were an at least vestigial part of the scene.

It might seem more natural to treat the scene as consisting primarily of the artists most closely associated with its style, but that’s no less tricky. One of the names that came up in relation to Rihanna’s performance was Kevin Heckart, a visual artist who LilInternet cited as central to the aesthetic. Far from being upset, Heckart argued that seapunk could survive mainstream success unscathed. It might even be enhance his own profile. “If I could get a pop star to wear one of my shirts,” Heckart told me, “that would be insane.” When I asked Redwine about the SNL appearance, he replied, “I’m glad it happened because it brings mainstream light to an otherwise unknown movement.”

In fact, few of the musicians or artists who define seapunk style seem genuinely vexed by Rihanna’s performance. Those that I talked to seemed to see it as an opportunity to gain more commercial exposure for their work. Redwine suggested that I keep an eye out for his new video, which dropped this Monday. Heckart volunteered the use of art from his website as an example of the style (see above).

All of which begs the question, was there ever a story here at all? Some thought so, if the rash of Web articles are any indication. That leaves us with a couple of possible explanations. One is that the journalists got it wrong — that it’s a faux controversy not because the seapunk scene has no real beef with Rihanna, but because the seapunk community has no beef with her at all.

The other possibility is that, despite their role in constructing the style, seapunk artists may not really speak for the community that formed around it. That would explain the apparent disparity between the artist’s blase reaction Rihanna’s SNL appearance, and the social media eruption noted by Web reporters. Seapunk artists may not see a problem with it, but many of their fans apparently did. And because that community is more difficult to pin down than the artists who contribute to Coral Records, their story is harder to tell.

It’s possible that it even corresponds to something like the story I initially set out to tell. If they feel aggrieved by the mainstream display of the visual style associated with their community, it may be because doing so threatens to dilute the scene. “If seapunk hits the mainstream this is what will happen,” Heckart told me:

Pop stars will start wearing mermaid apparel, Kanye West probably will start flowing to grime and taping barnacles to his forehead. And their shows will have them dancing in front of pillars and palm trees, sporting Versace from last spring. But it won’t mean anything to the seapunk community because a style isn’t something you can pay an art director to make.

But the spread of the style could mean that it’s harder for members of the seapunk community to distinguish one another from the trainspotters. It might mean the weakening of what the current wave of seapunk fans see as the scene’s values and ideals — for example, PLUR. It might mean, in other words, that the growth of those tongue-in-cheek elements of style, once useful as a hook on which to hang a community, will ultimately make the community itself disposable.

So far, though, that isn’t the story they’ve told.

• • • • •

“The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simply matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views,” Janet Malcolm wrote in her book, The Journalist and the Murderer.

On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist — who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things — never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

Malcolm’s example, which she explores through the course of a book-length exploration of the ethics of journalism, is the case of Joe McGinniss, the journalist, whose relationship with the subject of his book, Fatal Vision, hinged on the dubious premise that the two men were friends and that McGinniss believed the other, Jeffrey MacDonald, innocent of the brutal murders of which he had been accused.

Those murders are both the book’s strength and its weakness. They are a strength in that they render the issue in stark, comprehensible terms, even if it turns out, as Errol Morris has argued in the Times, that MacDonald has been wrongfully convicted. They are a weakness in that their extremity makes it possible to suppose that the issues are somehow specific to journalism about crime.

Some have argued that they also led her to present journalistic morality in starker than warranted terms. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on,” the book begins, “knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” That’s debatable, and most of us are certainly not prepared to proclaim all journalism morally indefensible. But there is an issue of integrity at stake, and I see no reason why that issue should not be extended to even so dubious a cultural construction as a scene.

If we admit that the relationship between journalist and subject is problematic even when the latter has not been accused of murder — that the subject always runs the risk of being co-opted into the unfamiliar story the journalist wanted to tell — then we can also begin to address the question I asked earlier: that of how we, as writers, represent a scene of which we are not a part, and that we may not particularly respect.

On the face of it, seapunk may strike us as frivolous and absurd. In the absence of an alternative representation, some of us may go looking for a version with more dignity or significance. Neither is necessarily the real story, and the only real corrective is to take our own doubts seriously, every step of the way.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.