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'Harlem Shake' rattles nerves

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The word “meme” is tossed around quite a bit these days, but most people are unaware that the term, meaning an idea that spreads from individual to individual, was originally coined as an analogy to biological units like genes that self-replicate, mutate and spread. Although many innocent memes have become part of our everyday lives, including catchy goat remixes and “lolcats,” one sinister virus of a meme has recently infected the brains and dignity of millions — the “Harlem Shake.”

If you are mercifully unfamiliar with the Harlem Shake, let me briefly outline the formula that started this epidemic. First, an individual dances alone for 15 seconds to American DJ Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake.” Then, when the beat drops, the video cuts to a large, strangely-clothed group of people dancing convulsively. Finally, as a growling sound plays, the video slows for two seconds and comes to an end. Simple as that.

We can blame vlogger Filthy Frank for the initial idea. His video featured several men in full body suits pelvic thrusting to the song, pushing their chests out and wiggling their shoulders from side to side. Then, a group of teenagers from Queensland, Australia borrowed Frank’s concept for their own video, added the jump-cut and slow-motion, and subsequently triggered worldwide chaos.

Since then, the number of Harlem Shake videos has increased exponentially. According to YouTube Trends, more than 40,000 of these videos had hit the web before Valentine’s Day and we can only imagine the amount that have been uploaded since. The ubiquity of this meme makes everyone think they can add something unique to the conversation, but unfortunately every attempt ends with people looking like fools.

Not that everyone making these videos is an idiot — even the best can fall victim to this sort of plague. Just last week, hundreds of the University’s finest gathered on the Rotunda steps to film their version of the meme, many wearing masks and costumes to prevent themselves from being identified by saner viewers. One participant in a robot costume claimed that the Shake was “a great way to express yourself.” Later, however, she realized that it might have been “slightly silly.”

The fact that several sources refer to the Harlem Shake as an art form highlights the problem that underlies many pop culture phenomena of this sort. While the lack of effort needed to make a “good” Harlem Shake video makes it seem like an easy creative outlet, there is nothing creative about a rabble of hooligans making fools of themselves, then giggling like schoolgirls as they wait for their YouTube views. There have been a few legitimately funny videos, but the overall movement is a glorified game of Mad Libs, and each new video is merely one arbitrary variation on someone else’s set formula.

Even before the recent accusations that the Harlem Shake meme represents an appropriation and mockery of African-American culture, common sense should have told us from the beginning that this whole thing is detrimental to human society. Imagine what we could accomplish if every moment spent creating those 28 days worth of footage was put toward something worthwhile. Imagine what use we could make of the thousands of days the world has collectively spent watching the footage.

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. Just don’t “do the Harlem Shake.”


Published February 27, 2013 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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