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Is Rihanna Redefining Her Image with Seapunk SNL Performance?

If you know what's good for you as a musician right now, you'd be scrambling around to get Rihanna's publicist's number. This person is unapologetically expanding Rihanna's demo from an otherwise pop/house audience to include a more subversive, self-aware, (in some ways, postmodern) audience.

Ones who might gravitate more towards Squidbillies or Mr. Show with Bob and David than How I Met Your Mother. Or who might find Lisa Frank art more interesting than Andy Warhol. Folks more likely to reblog Windows 95 clip art than Sartorialist photos.

These are probably the exact things referenced in conversation by suits and heads when discussing Rihanna's Saturday Night Live performance. This is focus group vernacular -- a lexicon of samples, studies, and statistics.

"You need to get in with this audience. What are they called, hipsters? Seapunks?"

So yeah, Rihanna performed her single "Diamonds" on SNL with a green screen backdrop and the shit looked like a '90s PC screensaver, honestly. Green peace signs, 2-D statue images, and trapper keeper art. If someone posted just the backdrop video on YouTube (and they just might've first), I'd probably love it. It's self-conscious, funny and kinda brilliant! It's corny and subversive for a reason, taking into account our infatuation with technology, internet culture and the past.

Though, "Diamonds" by Rihanna's standards is, well, just that, standard. A really basic Rihanna ballad that has some really simple lyrics, similes and metaphors that would drive your creative writing professor insane ("Diamonds in the sky," "vision of ecstasy"). C'mon, Rihanna: Show don't tell.

All right, I'm not gonna trash Rihanna's lyrical content. I like RiRi. I really do. I mean this is coming from a guy who prefers his rap music more about getting wasted than social issues. Either way, Rihanna's lyrics aren't fully to blame for some of the backlash on this performance. The problem with it, in general is that we have images that subscribe to the idea of kitsch, juxtaposed with a song that is kitsch. Too much kitsch doesn't say much at all.

Someone in Rihanna's creative department didn't fully think of what exactly the entire stunt meant. And that's why I felt more uncomfortable with Rihanna's performance than impressed, like I'm sure lots of her fans were.

A couple years back, her video for "Rudeboy" was on some similar backdrop shit -- crazy patterns, vibrant color palettes and an aesthetic very reminiscent (maybe too much) of M.I.A.'s. And that's an audience grab. Boom! She got the attention of an entire demographic of kids bouncing to Diplo beats.

Ever since then, though, it's been a redefinition of the Rihanna brand. Smoking blunts, wearing varsity jackets, and dissing Twitter trolls. The new Rihanna is the prototype "bad bitch" dudes want and girls aspire to be.

Look I could be wrong, Rihanna could actually be evolving in taste and truly be redefining her interests, without the help of external roles (i.e. PR execs). But, in the performance, she seems to be interpreting a culture and art to generate revenue and popularity.

Those images Rihanna "cultivated" essentially pull from a group of artists called seapunks. Maybe artists is a stretch, but they're just young people who dress in a palette of green, listen to bass music, and create art (music or graphic) that satirizes the internet and art itself.

All in all, they're youth before anything -- they're not a movement because they don't assemble and mobilize. But they're a community who communicates via the internet. The inclusion of this subculture's aesthetic, in a way, reduces the integrity of the audience, the artist, and the art. It waters everything down.

I don't wanna give seapunks too much credit, because some of facets of this micro-culture aren't rooted in any type of oppression or repression, like movements usually are. Just saying, it's not the Harlem renaissance, but it's still a culture.

Maybe I'm looking too much into it, because either way, Rihanna looked great in the cam jacket and it was, by SNL standards, a unique performance. Azealia Banks also released a video this week for her tune "Atlantis" that deploys the same signifiers, yet Banks has more in common with that culture than RiRi does, so my judgement isn't too harsh.

It just sucks to get a ripe, underground idea and then have it reinterpreted in an awkward inauthentic context, communicating something so commercial to a targeted group. Especially when the original idea is kinda commenting on all of that already.

But this is the business of pop and just music in general. Sacred is temporary, even art that makes fun of being sacred.

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Ryan Morejon

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