The Harlem Shake: The Whole Story

by Olivia Goldman

UPDATE (Feb. 25, 6:06 PM): New York City’s radio station Power 105.1 has uploaded a video of part of their staff doing the Harlem Shake to “The Harlem Shake”and it is pretty badass.

Columbia does the Harlem Shake (and the Business School, too!)

Many of us are now well familiar with the YouTube fad of posting videos featuring Baauer’s hip-hop/trap song “The Harlem Shake.” Starting with the original video by comedian Filthy Frankie, the videos are all around 30 seconds, beginning with a lone, often pelvis-thrusting dancer amongst motionless bystanders, until the beat drops and the video jump-cuts to the whole crowd going wild and often incorporating the use of the most absurd props and situations on hand. There are a couple of really good ones, including those by the UGA swim & dive team and a squad of the Norwegian army, but then again there are also a fair amount of less amusing interpretations (Playboy’s “Playmate edition” of the Harlem Shake comes to mind).

But how does Harlem feel about its new, if indirect, internet meme status? Apparently, not too fondly.

The popularity of “The Harlem Shake,” believe it or not, looks like it will soon surpass that of “Gagnam Style.” Although viral fads have had a tendency to indiscriminately show up on iTunes’ Top Singles (e.g., Rebecca Black’s “Friday”), Baauer’s track has also reached #1 on Billboard charts, resulting from changes in the magazine’s popularity evaluations to include YouTube plays, as well as radio-play and sales.

Filmmaker Chris McGuire uploaded a video where he surveyed people around Harlem, showing them theses new interpretations of “The Harlem Shake.” In the video, Harlem residents unanimously responded with a feeling of contempt—that these videos unjustly appropriated the real dance, and they felt like the were being mocked. And maybe rightfully so. After all, where the name Harlem was once associated with an art form and point of culture, it is now being associated with (although without malicious intent) dry-humping and general stupidity.

What exactly is the real Harlem Shake? Although the actual dance is poorly represented on YouTube now (probably due to the new flood of “Harlem Shake” videos), here’s a 30 second video of samples from hip-hop music videos from the early 2000s featuring the real dance, including Jadakiss’ “Put Ya Hands Up,” “Who’s that Girl” by Eve and “Let’s Get It” by G. Dep. The Harlem Shake has been around since at least the 80s (and even has possible Ethiopian influences). Another solid video of the original dance features a bunch of kids from Harlem demonstrating the shake.

Baauer, a.k.a. Harry Rodrigues, created the
track “The Harlem Shake

The truth is that majority of the followers of the DIY YouTube formula trend probably have no idea what the real Harlem Shake is at all. It’s questionable whether even Baauer knew about the dance, since the line “Then do the Harlem Shake” is a from a seconds long sample from a song called “Miller Time” by rapper Plastic Little.

The whole situation raises many questions: Does ignorance of the real Harlem Shake give the makers of these YouTube videos reprieve? While it is easy to see how Harlem itself is misrepresented in association with these videos, is it really necessary for everyone to get all up in a huff about it? How seriously should this issue (and general internet foolishness) be taken?

Of course, like most complex cultural or social situations, there may not be any right answer. With constant global discourse and information exchange, to have to research or know the background of every culturally-related piece of information we come across would be absurd. When looking closely at the viral fad’s most pivotal enablers—Baauer, enthusiastic college students, and even Filthy Frankie—you can’t really say any of them are to blame. It’s only when you step back and see the phenomena as a whole does it really start to look ugly and you see it as it really is: a movement that, although by no one singlehandedly, dislodged a cultural synecdoche.

Does this mean Harlem is out of line in getting upset by seemingly-harmless, all-in-good-fun silliness? Of course not. But I think it is a representation of how easily our generation perpetuates ignorance, offense and is offended. Our generation is unique in that an unprecedented portion of us preach the mantras of open-mindedness and cultural tolerance—not to mention freedom of speech and expression. But as a result of our never-before-more-openminded and yet no-where-near-perfect community, we have to accept and find a way to deal with a new burden: hypersensitivity. As the rift grows ever wider between the lack of sensitivity in our actions and depth of sensitivity in our reactions, a consensus of what is acceptable in our society becomes impossible to ascertain.

The Harlem Shake by The Dominic Show:

Olivia Goldman is a junior at Barnard and Editor in Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.
Images courtesy of YouTube and Aux.

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