By now, you, like everyone else in the wired universe, have either heard, seen or done the Harlem Shake.
Based on a lean, bass-heavy electro track by New York hip-hop producer Baauer, the Harlem Shake is probably the fastest-spreading Internet meme in memory. A week after the first viral videos began cropping up on YouTube, media pundits were already declaring it dead, citing such evidence as a performance by Al Roker and the crew at the Today show.
But like Gangnam Style, which was declared dead more times than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Harlem Shake shimmies on. It entered the Billboard singles chart at No. 1, where it remains, and according to Advertising Age, the track has been co-opted for more than 60 ad campaigns worldwide. Tens of thousands of fan videos have been uploaded onto YouTube, with several versions netting more than 25 million views.
All that in just five weeks.
Naturally, the music industry is trumpeting Harlem Shake’s success as a testament to the marketing power of viral videos, and as usual, the industry is missing the forest for the trees. What these and other fan-made videos speak to is not how the Internet can ramp up the infectiousness of a dance craze, but how smart phones and social media have unlocked the power of participation.
Let’s go back to the original meme. As the website Know Your Meme reports, all videos follow essentially the same formula. Each starts “with a masked individual dancing alone in a group before cutting to a wild dance party featuring the entire group.” Usually the cue for everyone to join in is the phrase “do the Harlem Shake,” a hip-hop dance move that became popular last year.
It’s the video element that raises the Harlem Shake above the typical dance craze. By making a video, the fan becomes part of the song. And because there’s no real skill involved – as David Wagner at The Atlantic Wire snarkily noted, the point often seems to be to dance “as poorly as possible” – anyone can do it (and evidently has).
That no-skills-required aspect is key to the meme’s appeal. Although there has always been something deeply inclusive about listening to and playing music, the dominance of professional concerts and commercial recordings have enforced an us-and-them separation between performers and their audience.
Trained musicians often react to this by lamenting the decline of musical literacy or ability. As Leonard Bernstein put it, “In the olden days, everybody sang … It was the mark of a cultured man to sing.”
Perhaps so, but try to sing along at a symphony hall, and “cultured” will be the last thing they call you. The conservatory end of the Western musical tradition marks a hard line between performer and audience, with applause being the only sound the latter is encouraged to make. Musicologists may point out that keeping quiet at concerts is a practice dating back only 150 years or so, and some will even go so far as to suggest that this enforced code of silence is part of what’s killing classical music. Still, the prejudice endures.
Pop audiences, on the other hand, have been making noise at concerts for decades, since massive amplification makes talking or singing along less of an intrusion. But the most visceral form of pop audience participation is one that didn’t evolve until the 1970s: the air guitar.
Rock fans wanting to show they were at one with the music would vigorously nod their heads while pretending to strum an invisible guitar – essentially a pantomime of the action onstage. This was both an act of communion with the artist, and statement of solidarity with fellow fans, many of whom would be similarly bobbing and strumming (think of the Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World).
It’s also a perfectly valid response to the musical experience. As the musicologist Christopher Small argues in his book Musicking, “Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.” Playing air guitar may not take as much practice as playing a real guitar – although there’s clearly been some woodshedding by the folks at those air guitar contests – but that doesn’t make it less valid as musical expression.
Of course, air guitar only works when there are guitars in the music, something that’s not the case with electronic dance music styles like trap, the genre Harlem Shake springs from. (Nobody plays air laptop.) That audience, instead, joins in via video, inserting themselves into the performance by using webcams, smart phones or cheap video recorders to create their own clip: the digital equivalent of miming a guitar solo.
It isn’t a new phenomenon. Nine years ago, a teenager from New Jersey became the focus of a meme called Numa Numa, which consisted of webcam clips of fans miming the Romanian pop hit Dragostea din tei (a.k.a. The Numa Numa song). Last year, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe earned its initial momentum through the popularity of fan-made cover videos, although it probably helped that one of her biggest fans was Justin Bieber.
What sets The Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style apart is that they’re dance songs. Whether it’s the waltz, the Charleston, the twist or the hustle, everyone wants to show that they can do the latest dance craze. Moreover, dancing is itself a type of performance, one with a longer history and deeper tradition than lip-synching.
To put a dance on video and post it on the Web, to be watched on laptop or smartphone by your friends, or even perfect strangers half a world away, stems from the same impulse that inspired air guitarists. It’s about wanting to “do” music, at whatever level, to eliminate the imagined distance between musician and listener.
As Sly Stone once sang, “Everybody is a star.” It’s just now they have a way of showing it.