February 24, 2013

And Do the Harlem Shake.


If you have access to any social media network, chances are you’ve seen it: the thriving, pulsing movements of strange, costumed bodies dancing…sort of.

It’s called the Harlem Shake.

The first time I heard about this internet phenomenon was via a text from a friend, inviting me to participate at a local restaurant. I had seen the classic dance move, but didn’t dare presume that he expected me to pull that off.

The Harlem Shake emerged as a dance style in the ’80s—a hip-hop move that requires the dancer to coordinate the upper body in a jerky, yet fluid, mixture of pivots and pops. Upon its inception, the dance was called “albee” after the originator, “Al Bm,” but the dance was renamed the Harlem Shake once its popularity pushed beyond city limits.

When mastered, it looks awesome. I, however, have a better chance of becoming a supermodel before I could dream of attempting this move without looking absurd.

The “new” Harlem Shake, as it turns out, doesn’t require choreographed movements at all. Instead, the extended invitation meant I was welcomed to dress up in the most bizarre costume conceivable, to pulsate and “dance” my way through a bass-heavy track.

Seems simple and strange (and it is), but people are going to great lengths to pull off a newer, crazier version of the already done (and redone) concept.

Harlem Shake videos are exploding all over the internet, and there are only a few requirements.

  1. First, and most importantly, a 30 second snippet of  “Harlem Shake,” a 2012 song produced by a DJ named Baauer, is the track to each and every version. If you aren’t using that background track, you aren’t part of the meme sensation, sorry.
  2. The scene can take place anywhere. I’ve seen restaurants, warehouses, aquariums, a tailor shop, an airplane with split-shots of costumed skydivers; I’ve even seen a Lego version of the Harlem Shake.
  3. A single person, in a strange costume or mask, dances to the opening beats of the song while the other occupants of the room go about their business as if nothing unusual is taking place.
  4. Then like clockwork, at a precise moment in the track, the scene explodes into a fit of movement, colors and weird. That’s right—the room explodes into weird.

This is the type of meme you can get lost in. Falling into a YouTube hole like no other, the click options of Harlem Shake seem to be endless. With the popularity of the concept, an unacknowledged competition falls, almost naturally, into place. Because of the dynamic nature of “weird” in every video, recreating the same scene or elements is not only unlikely, but highly undesirable.

The fervent reproduction of the videos, however, has created a rift between the Harlem community and the ambitious movie-makers. To some, the videos represent a bastardization of the classic hip-hop move, a ballsy and disrespectful act aimed at stripping Harlem of its history. Actor and filmmaker Chris McGuire went so far as to film Harlem residents watching recent Harlem Shake videos. The responses were luke warm, at best (and I mean, at the very best).

Advocates for the video craze, however, see opportunity for cultural and generational bridging, rather than alienation. With “Harlem Shake” acting as the mother of all buzz words, historical context can meld with modern spirit.

The only real issue? One has nothing to do with the other. Seriously.

Baauer, the master mind behind the 2012 track, agrees. In a recent interview, he noted the song’s title has nothing to do with the original dance, but was something he heard that simply stuck. While I didn’t make it down to get my weird on that day, I was proud of what my friends had accomplished. I’ve watched the video over and over, feeling the same satisfied smile creep across my face each time.

This meme moment isn’t about disrespecting a culture, this is about reinventing a generation 30seconds at a time. As absurd as the scene may look, the videos represent the rejection of standard. Freedom is hidden amongst horse-head masks and neon green spandex.

Rather than feel frustrated and drained as I usually do when I subject myself to the computer for too long, I could feel the buzz of hope and joy and utter disregard through the screen. There’s some kind of magic in that.

Now, do the Harlem Shake.

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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