The Harlem Shake shakedown

By Kara Powell

It’s the cyber c4 that’s currently blowing up your news feeds, and has you tied to your computerized devices by your YouTubes. The Harlem Shake viral video meme has finally popped through the Claremont bubble, increasing procrastination, and causing a mad dash to imitate the dance craze that’s surpassed the peculiar popularity of Gangnam Style, Twerking, the Bernie, and planking combined. What makes the “Harlem Shake” different from previous dance video phenomena listed above, is the meme, meaning, or rather “memeing”, an idea, belief, or style transmitted from person to person through self-replication (video sharing), mutation (increasingly bizarre versions of “the Shake”), and responses to external pressures (number of views). The “Harlem Shake” is a virus that can be viewed in about a million different places at the same time, and has been re-memed over 12,000 times, racking up more than 175,000,000 views on the ‘Tubes. The majority of us internet-addicted scholars might have heard of another Shake. The one from Harlem …ring any bells?

Unfortunately for Harlem, typing “Harlem Shake” into your Google boxes could result in either trembling puppy porn, or an outraged group of Harlemites fighting the good fight for their original claim to fame. The confusion in keywords has socially enlightened Pitzer students all shaken up regarding the political correctness of the dancidemic on a worldwide web scale. And for all of you “off the grid” types that thought the Harlem Shake was a new Pitstop drink rich in flavor and culture, here’s to the Harlem Shake meme, the original Harlem Shake from Harlem, and knowing the difference.

“DO THE HARLEM SHAKE”, uploaded on February 2nd, 2013, has less (pretty much nothing) to do with the historically trendsetting New York bureau, and a lot more to do with a royally random place called Queensland, Australia. Hailing from way outback are a now very well known group of five teenage YouTubers under the channel name SunnySkateCoast, otherwise known as the unitarded beings behind the original Harlem Shake video meme. This video call to the worldwide web was actually conceived as a response to a comedic video by vlogger (video blogger) Filthy Frank, which features bass engineer (do I hear a new Pitzer major?)  Baauer’s song  Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”. Since the meme’s genesis in early February, the track has topped the Billboard Hot 100 Chart (yes they count YouTube views now), and has remained the sole theme song of the meme, still going strong as it approaches its one-month anniversary.

A typical Harlem Shake video meme starts with a 15 second intro of what sounds like broken records being scratched through a glitched out megaphone, during which just one (insert preferred gender pronoun here) jams out by themselves, usually donning headgear ranging from a fancy mask to a wild animal. Random pedestrians, or “backgrounders” casually go about their business, pretending not to notice the one-person flashmob that’s been raging on for a quarter of a minute. The bass drops at the peak of the intro’s climax (familiar to any dub step worshippers out there) then at the command of a jump cut, an organized mob of moving bodies suddenly crowd the shot, repping miscellaneous thrift shop items, and thrashing their bodies around like threatened jellyfish being tased. If you’ve seen University of Georgia’s Swim and Dive Team’s version of “the Shake”, you know exactly what kind of waterlogged antics I’m referring to. If not, guide your clicker here. Regardless of the weird, and sometimes uncomfortable things that go on in Harlem Shake videos, the 30-second visual experience is relatively quick and painless, just long enough to hold the attention of a goldfish…or a college student.

Why make a shake? It’s a super easy way to promote an institution, company, or your personal brand identity. It’s essentially a universal template sent from the advertising gods. The video meme has a transformative appeal, turning adults into children, and corporations into people, as in the case of Pepsi Cola’s Harlem Shake, in which even cans can dance. As the erratic video meme shakes things up in the corporate world, one has to wonder about controversy surrounding the original name (though unrelated to the meme) that has created a virtual fault line in New York.

Harlem, we have a problem.
A slice of Harlem as depicted in Harlem’s Reacts to ‘Harlem Shake’ Videos” does not appreciate what has become of the original dance craze that got people moving back in the smiley 80s. Most interviewed in Schlepp Film’s video thought of the new Shake phenomenon as pixelated disrespect for the artistic form of the Harlem Shake and Harlem’s overall swag. The real Harlem Shake has a rhythmic quality that the Harlem Shake meme makes a mockery of through its blatant lack of rhythm. Some in the video admit that whatever this “bugged out humping” meme is, it is most definitely “not the Harlem Shake.” So what is the real Harlem Shake?

Harlem resident Al B’s Harlem Shake jived its way onto New York’s dance scene in 1981. The dance, which features popping, shimmying arm and leg movements was finally popularized by G. Dep (“Ghetto Dependent”) when he featured the sensational shake in his video “Let’s Get It” circa 2001. Al B’s movement, which can be seen here, is rumored to have been inspired by the liberation of post-mummified Egyptian constraint. In a contradiction of terms, the Harlem Shake meme has most recently been used by peaceful protesters in Egypt to bring stability to a shaky political climate, yet their shake of solidarity may or may not be loosely based off of Harlem’s own.

Some on student-talk have called the mistaken misappropriation of Al B’s Shake “colonization of [Harlem’s] culture”, while others find the onslaught of videos inherently American, as in “we the people bear the right to use democratic social media not to Harlem Shake to a “Harlem Shake” song.”

Pitzer College Junior Kymberli Corprue believes in the latter distinction, in which the legitimacy of a shake by the same name is dependent on the content of the video.

“I don’t think there was ever a point when people claimed that the videos and the dances were an accurate depiction of Harlem itself. I always figured ‘Harlem Shake’ was included in the titles of the videos because that is the name of the song”, Corprue said.

“It’s like if I found a song called ‘Chicago Two Step’ and made a video of myself dancing to it, but I never did the Chicago Two Step. Then these videos swept the nation. Am I inconsiderate or inaccurately portraying a culture because I chose not to two step in a song about two stepping?”

Such chatty student-talkers have been surprisingly muted as to the when’s and whereabouts of Pitzer’s Harlem Shake video, or if there will even be one, due to controversy and confusion.

As for whether the dance craze is a socio-cultural faux pas, or just a random phenomenon with a highly coincidental name, The Orange Peel will side with Sweden on this one, and leave Pitzies to go at it on the interwebs and the prickly intersection of 9th and Mills. After all, isn’t the Internet just a social construct?

5C Shakes
Claremont Mckenna College performed their Shake on February 22nd (to be uploaded soon), rounding up a few dozen staggering Stags and Athenas. Other clubs and institutions here on the 5Cs that have successfully re-memed include the  “Claremont Colleges” (version 420, whatever that means), Claremont McKenna College,  the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company , and the Pomona-Pitzer swimming and diving team.

Keep checking this page for updates on 5C Harlem Shake videos and more.

The Pomona-Pitzer Swimming and Diving Team performs a version of the Harlem Shake.
The Pomona-Pitzer swim and dive team performs their version of the Harlem Shake (Feb. 2013).

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