Rihanna’s performance of “Diamonds” on Saturday Night Live this weekend took most people by surprise, mainly because she was singing in front of a green screen instead of the show’s usual stage for musical guests. A small number of Web artists were in for a bigger surprise, though, as their visual aesthetic was co-opted entirely by the singer without consultation or credit.
The screen saver–like graphics, garish 3-D animations, and deep-sea imagery used in the performance should be at least vaguely recognizable to anyone who has had exposure to the more overtly arty corners of Tumblr in the past two years, especially since the launch of the platform’s Reblorg site for original Web art.
The specific graphics used for “Diamonds” on SNL are clearly based on the work of the Los Angeles video artist Jerome LOL. Here’s a video LOL created back in 2010:
Fans of Jerome LOL on Twitter noticed the similarity…
Congrats @JeromeLOL on getting straight up ripped off by whomever was doing visuals for Rhianna on SNL last night.— Gregory H Bowler
Swear to god I saw this Rihanna snl background in a @JeromeLOL video like 2 years ago.— Corley
As did LOL himself…
And despite all appearances, he had nothing to do with it…
Who art directed the Rihanna SNL performance?!— Jerome LOL
Azealia Banks’ new video for “Atlantis” debuted online not long after Rihanna’s appearance on SNL. Banks is using extremely similar imagery here, but with a greater debt to the seapunk art movement. The clip was very likely rushed out on a Sunday morning as a response to the performance.
Needless to say, Web artists associated with the seapunk movement were furious about this too.
â€œ@6TEEN6WITCH6: Just showed @ZOMBELLE_ the Rihanna SNL thing and @Azealiabanks’ new video… NO WORDSâ€ NO WORDS. MAYBE 1 “SWAGGERJACKERS”— âˆžSHANTASYâ˜¹ISLANDâ¤âœŒâž«
Here’s a bit of seapunk art for context:
Model/fashion blogger/Web art maven Bebe Zeva defended this vaguely defined “aesthetic” in a series of angry yet pointed tweets through Sunday evening.
also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL abt the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva
…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva
“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva
…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva
in response to those RTs: false, this Aesthetic was NOT reappropriated. the juxtaposition of ancient busts with computer generated shapes…— Bebe Zeva
…is unprecedented. the hyperspatial grids and tropical motifs are elements of an Aesthetic that is specific to 2012 cyber culture…— Bebe Zeva
the Aesthetic’s purpose is to suggest membership to a counterculture. now that a mainstream artist brands herself with it, the Aesthetic…— Bebe Zeva
…suggests allegiance to her as an artist/icon, NOT membership to implied counterculture. and this is not a discussion about good/bad…— Bebe Zeva
…this is a discussion about what happened, why it happened, and what is going to happen. it is an inevitable part of merchandising ‘cool.’— Bebe Zeva
i know you guys hate it when i have serious discussions about shit but this is sincerely the only thing in the world i care about.— Bebe Zeva
This sort of appropriation is nothing new in pop music, or pop culture in general. If anything, it’s part of what keeps culture vibrant and exciting. Even still, it’s easy to sympathize with folks like Jerome LOL, or want to shout “HELL YEAH!” while reading Zeva’s tweets. It’s not just that Rihanna has stolen their style, it’s that from this point onward, their aesthetic will now be associated mainly with her. Rihanna’s SNL appearance was, after all, the first time most people in the audience had ever seen this fairly obscure aesthetic.
Well, sorta. Variations on this Web art aesthetic have been bubbling up throughout pop culture over the past few years. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim did a lot to popularize an intentionally hideous visual aesthetic based partly on early Web graphics on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! And this Dillon Francis and Diplo video from last year was created in collaboration with the seapunk artist Lil Internet.
…and M.I.A. has been pioneering this aesthetic since the early 2000s. She went all out with this imagery in the video for her 2010 single “XXXO.”