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The “Harlem Shake”: What it is and why it’s dumb

Worse than planking and leagues away from flash mobbing is the “Harlem Shake” craze. Not only is it pointless, but it’s also a horrible parody of something cool.

Here’s a basic breakdown of a standard “Harlem Shake” video: One person, often wearing a mask or helmet, begins repeating a simple dance move, usually a pelvic thrust or a shrugging motion while leaning from side to side. While this is happening, the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer plays in the background. Once the lyrics “do the Harlem Shake” pass, the bass drops and the video cuts to a shot of the same room with several people in eccentric outfits doing strange dance moves, such as humping the air or doing the worm. Each video is roughly 30 seconds long.

Comedian Filthy Frank uploaded the first video to YouTube Jan. 30. It was being used as an opener for the rest of his video, but the intro caught like wildfire. By Feb. 2, several parody videos were uploaded to YouTube, and the video meme only grew from there.

Some incarnations of the trend are genuinely interesting. In Egypt, four pharmaceutical students were arrested for violating the country’s strict indecency laws when they stripped to their underwear in a middle-class neighborhood to film their version of the video. Another, much larger group managed to get away with it however — in front of the Great Pyramids, no less.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the Harlem Shake craze is being used as protests against social and personal restrictions as well.

It is impressive that an Internet trend can play a role in global politics — but the reality of the trend being the Harlem Shake leaves much to be desired.

The real Harlem Shake is a dance move created in 1981 by a Harlem resident named Al B. The dance was originally named after him before being referred to as the “Harlem Shake.” It was popularized in a G. Dep music video for the song “Let’s Get It” in 2001.

The first Harlem Shake video by Filthy Frank only uses this dance move and blatantly makes a mockery of it. Many other videos do the same, even if they don’t realize it.

In later a video called “Harlem’s Reaction to the Harlem Shake,” many Harlem residents expressed frustration toward the video parodies.

One man said, “I feel like they’re trying to disrespect us.” A few seconds later, a girl said, “They’re making us look bad.”

I’m sure the residents of Harlem can take a joke as much as anyone else, but this particular dance is deeply rooted in Harlem culture. It is an expression of the area’s cultural identity. Parodies of that identity are degrading and ultimately erode the identity itself. That’s never OK.

While many have proclaimed the meme’s death, it’s still cropping up in new places, such as Alaska.

On March 4, Daniel Burgess published a Harlem Shake video of Sand Lake Community Council members on YouTube. There’s nothing very inappropriate about the video, but the fact that it exists is disappointing, especially since Burgess is the president of the council.

On a larger scale, “Supernatural” stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki recently produced a version of the Harlem Shake featuring themselves and the show’s cast and crew. It may be a marketing scheme, but new popular videos prevent the trend from dying out.

And it needs to. It’s a mockery of an awesome, existing dance move, and the parody portrayal of it is tasteless.

Even the “Gangnam Style” trend was better than this — all it did was make people look silly. Flash mobbing was fantastic and can be used to both invite spectators to participate (as was done in a “New Dances” performance at UAA last year) and make a point about something socially.

Why can’t activists speaking out about social rights try those things? Surely the message would be so much stronger if its presentation was less cringe-worthy.

And please, can the next Internet phenomenon be less horrific?

Written by Heather Hamilton

Hi! I'm Heather, the A&E Editor for TNL. I like sappy romance music, long walks on the beach, watching Doctor Who... Oh, wait, this isn't a personal ad. Whoops. In any case, I love my job, and my little corner of The Paper. The art, music, dance, and theatre scenes are always so interesting to me, and I adore taking the time to explore and write about them. I feel that they are an under appreciated part of society, despite how important they are TO society. How did the Greeks introduce moral concepts to one another and debate them? Through plays. See kids, they ARE important! If you have any ideas for me, please feel free to get in touch with me and pitch your angle; I am more than happy to step outside of the box and report on something different and new!

1 Comments

  • The Harlem Shake meme was an opportunity for groups of friends (mostly young people) to get together and have some fun making a video. Other than the name, these videos don’t have any connection to the original Harlem Shake. These are kids getting together and being kids and just having fun. The notion that this meme somehow mocked the original dance or degraded the Harlem culture is absurd. You might as well say Gangnam was insulting to Gangnam culture. Ludicrous.

    These memes are fads that disappear as quickly as they appear. Looking for some meaning or substance in them is futile. They don’t have any. They are fads. That’s all.

    The Harlem Shake meme peaked in the middle of February. It is pretty much done. But Alaska does tend to lag the lower 48 and the rest of the world on these things which is probably why this article was published a month after the fact.

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