At the end of December I noticed an uptick in online chatter—especially in niche networks within Twitter and Tumblr where up-to-the-second knowledge of microtrends in dance-music culture is generally assumed—regarding something called “seapunk.” The term refers in part to a style of electronic music that incorporates bits of 90s house and techno, the past 15 years or so of pop and R&B, and the latest in southern trap rap—all overlaid with a twinkly, narcotic energy that recalls new-age music and chopped-and-screwed hip-hop mix tapes in roughly equal measure. In a broader sense it’s an aesthetic-slash-philosophy built around ocean imagery, the color turquoise, the rave-era ideals of “peace, love, unity, and respect” (PLUR), and a cyber-utopian outlook that updates that distinctly 90s concept for the era of the animated GIF.
If there’s a geographical center to the exploding seapunk scene, it’s probably Chicago. In late December—about when I noticed that surge in chatter—its main architects, Albert Redwine and Shan Beaste, moved here from LA, where they’d started the seapunk ball rolling this summer. Redwine produces music under the name Fire for Effect and DJs as Ultrademon, and Beaste records and performs under the name Zombelle; both previously lived in Kansas City, where Redwine worked with electro-disco weirdos Ssion. This fall he launched Coral Records Internazionale, which is already seapunk’s center of gravity despite having only four releases, all download-only or limited-edition CD-Rs. He’s planning a vinyl release of his own material in the spring.
There have been seapunk parties in Minneapolis and Los Angeles as well as Chicago (the first was December 29 at Berlin), but the scene’s real home is on the Internet—specifically Tumblr. A combination social network and microblogging platform, Tumblr has an interface that encourages not only the creation of original content but also the reposting (with or without comment) of other users’ material; this has helped make it a fertile breeding ground for online memes as well as a booming success with media-saturated users, especially younger ones.
The definition of seapunk “depends on where you’re at, honestly,” says Beaste—meaning online or off. As she puts it, “It depends on if you’re URL or if you’re IRL. . . . Your mentality based off of that answer alone will determine whether or not you’re gonna be able to understand it.”
Most of the people who do understand it are young and constantly Internet connected, like Beaste and Redwine—who carry on conversations via their Twitter feeds with the two roommates who share their Logan Square apartment, even when all four are home. Entire virtual communities on Tumblr are awash in signs of seapunk allegiance: turquoise color schemes, emoji (Japanese emoticons), graphics heavy with Omni magazine-style ersatz chrome a la the Netscape-era Internet, SoundCloud streams of Ultrademon DJ sets.
The raid that Odd Future pulled on pop culture, launched from Tumblr, is proof that a very small number of people can instigate a wide-reaching aesthetic-social phenomenon in a hurry without money or assistance from traditional culture-biz institutions—the labels and mainstream media outlets that flocked to the group were latecomers to a party that was well underway by November 2010, the month of OF’s breakthrough profile in the New York Times. Tumblr is the quickest and most efficient meme amplifier yet, and makes it possible to watch a catchy concept propagate across communities in real time.
That fact that myriad musical microgenres exist almost solely on the Internet is old news. For me what makes seapunk more interesting than the rest is that it reflects how communities function on Tumblr and in similar spaces. IRL 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. But in a churning remix engine like Tumblr, bizarre collisions like that happen all the time.
Redwine admits that the seapunk concept came about through the largely random accumulation of ideas. “Originally the term came from a friend of ours on Twitter,” he says. “Well, a friend of ours IRL too, but on Twitter he hashtagged ‘#seapunk’ because he had this dream about a leather punk jacket that had barnacles on it. It kind of evolved from there, but all of us were really attached to this, like, digital kind of paradise, ocean-themed aesthetic, and we’re making music and art based off of it, and seapunk just was a name and a way to unify everybody.”
Seapunk is still a rather modest phenomenon—Beaste and Redwine each have fewer than 1,000 followers on Twitter, and some of the biggest coverage the scene has received was in September on the blog of NYC fashion line Mishka. But there are a number of indications that it’s creeping toward a larger audience. Cool hunters have been casing seapunk for months, possibly drawn in by Beaste and Redwine’s roommate Molly Soda, an Internet personality with an outsize influence on an audience of media-hungry youth; Los Angeles trend-forecasting firm Trend Era has been including seapunk in its client presentations since November. Beaste also suspects that Lady Gaga has been stealing style ideas from her, which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds given the underground inspirations of many of Gaga’s sartorial stunts. (Gaga did dye her hair turquoise recently.)
Redwine says that one of his career goals is to produce beats for Soulja Boy—he’s been bugging Soulja Boy about it on Twitter—but it remains to be seen how much effect seapunk will have on mainstream pop. It could end up zero, but it’s worth noting that two years ago chillwave was a tiny, obscure sub-subgenre named after a snarky Internet joke at the music’s expense—and now a rising number of major pop albums bear its influence.
Of course the mainstream pop-culture infrastructure may not know what to do with seapunk, or with the vast number of similar microscenes willing themselves into existence at this very moment. Not only are they ridiculously idiosyncratic—imagine an A&R guy trying to explain seapunk to an executive who doesn’t know how to put music on his iPod—but they also evolve at a blinding rate. An audience constantly looking for a next big thing can always find a next big thing. By signing Odd Future and Kreayshawn to big contracts, Sony and Columbia have shackled themselves to fenceposts while their audiences are sprinting away.