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...
As did LOL himself...
And despite all appearances, he had nothing to do with it...
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.
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.
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."