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Harlem Shake: A Brief History

(Still courtesy of Youtube)
(Still courtesy of Youtube)

I often find ways to bring Internet trends into classroom discussions, whether my professor is happy about it or not. These off-topic comments I provide can focus on broad ideas like social media changing the way we look at art and culture, or can reference an obscure meme  that shares the same idea as a piece of art we are studying. Normally I will talk about a meme due to its inadvertent nature of pushing a community that tends to suffer from groupthink into discussing the current state of a social issue (i.e. gender equality, “nice guy syndrome”, or racial stereotypes). Today is different: I’m here to bring you the brief history of the most recent YouTube sensation, the Harlem Shake.

The Harlem Shake is a dance move from Ethiopia, popularized in the 1980s in Harlem, New York. Variations of it have been floating around and, more recently, it was featured in the music video for “Chicken Noodle Soup” by Webstar in 2006. The Harlem Shake as we know it today was made popular by the channel The Sunny Coastal State. They were “inspired” by the original choreography/music selection of YouTube user Filthy Frank. It is only called the Harlem Shake due to the soundtrack being the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer.

Basically, this 30-second Harlem Shake video features a fully-helmeted twenty-something boy doing pelvic thrusts in the middle of a dorm room full of friends doing homework or playing video games. But wait. There is much more. About 15 seconds in, EVERYTHING changes and the bass sufficiently drops, therefore prompting all of the boys to wave their arms and look silly for the remainder of the video. It’s fun, you aren’t expecting it to happen, and the song is just catchy enough to keep you watching

A brief YouTube search of “harlem shake” videos added in 2013 produces over 57,500 results. The Sunny Coastal State’s version was uploaded two weeks ago. This meme is interesting because it actively engages with communities outside of the traditional Internet content-creating bubble. It has been repurposed for self-promotion, corporate marketing, and meta-commentary by — and I’m not exaggerating — everyone in the world. Okay, not everyone, but it sure feels like it.

The Harlem Shake isn’t going to bring world peace, but rather than everyone simply being in on the joke (like Psy’s “Gangnam Style”), they are able to share and create their own version of it as well. The band Matt Kim created a rocking and riotous version while Pepsi released a version featuring Jeff Gordon and his NASCAR crew. Just like all other aspects of social media, we’re facing this duality of communal artistry and a commercial pastiche that innundates our digital world. This meme isn’t an art house film but it definitely has created a format that is accessible to everyone.

While I’ve been unable to find any Mills College versions, I’m sure y’all won’t let me down.