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“Harlem Shake”, not to be confused with the hip hop dance style, is the title of a 2012 heavy bass instrumental track produced by Baauer. In February 2013, the song spawned a series of dance videos that begin with a masked individual dancing alone in a group before suddenly cutting to a wild dance party featuring the entire group. Despite what the name suggests, the videos present a wide range of hip hop dances, including the Bernie, Twerking as well as improvisations.
“Harlem Shake” by Baauer, the stage name of American music producer Harry Rodrigues, was uploaded to YouTube on August 23rd, 2012. The lyric “do the Harlem Shake” is a sample from the 2001 track “Miller Time” by Philadelphia party rap crew, Plastic Little. The lyric was taken from an incident in member Jayson Musson’s life where he got into a fight and finished by getting up and doing the dance. Bauuer’s song was met with positive reception from electronica & trap music blogs, as well as other artists including Diplo, Brodinski, and Flosstradamus. On January 30th, 2013, video blogger Filthy_Frank uploaded an episode that opens with four people dressed in latex suits dancing to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” (shown below, right).
The Harlem Shake is a style of dance that involves pivoting the shoulder out while popping the other shoulder out at the same time. Introduced in 1981 by a Harlem, New York City resident named “Al Bm,” the dance was initially referred to as “albee” after his name, but later became known as the Harlem Shake as its prominence grew beyond the neighborhood. The popularity of the dance reached its peak around 2001, when it was featured or referenced in songs by several New York-based hip hop artists such as Jadakiss, Cam’ron and P. Diddy.
The dance itself is defined by Urban Dictionary as ‘An eccentric upper body dance move that involves the shaking of the upper torso and shoulders.’ On February 2nd, 2013, several parodies of DizastaMusic’s video were uploaded by YouTubers TheSunnyCoastSkate and PHL_On_NAN, the latter of which would go viral on February 5th, amassing 300,000 views within 24 hours and prompting further parodies from other YouTubers shortly after.
On February 7th, YouTuber hiimrawn uploaded a version titled “Harlem Shake v3 (office edition)” (shown below) featuring the staff of online video production company Maker Studios. The video instantly went viral, amassing more than 7.4 million views in the first week, as well as inspiring a notable subset of contributions from well-known Internet companies, including BuzzFeed, CollegeHumor, Vimeo and Facebook among many others.
The majority of early Harlem Shake videos adhered to the title format denoting its numeric version (ex: “The Harlem Shake v2”), but the practice soon became redundant and phased out as the volume of uploads continued to grow on YouTube.
Throughout the second week of February 2013, more than 4,000 “Harlem Shake” videos were uploaded to YouTube each day, according to YouTube’s official trend report. By February 13th, approximately 12,000 “Harlem Shake” videos had been posted, gaining more than 44 million views.
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YouTube Trends Report
On February 13th, YouTube Trends released a brief analytics report titled “The Harlem Shake Has Exploded” via its official blog. Two days later. Billboard broke down additional statistics behind the song, noting that it had sold enough copies to reach #9 on the Digital Dance Songs chart of the Nielsen SoundScan and #13 and the Dance/Electronic chart. On February 14th, it reached an all-time high on iTunes, reaching #3 on their overall sales chart in the US.
Norwegian YouTube Series
In March 2012, YouTube videos (shown below, left) featuring a group of naked men gyrating on or around landmarks in Norway began circulating online. The videos, which were created by OnkleSaft as a way to entice tourists to visit the city of Trondheim, begin with a peaceful view of a landmark site before suddenly jumping to another scene from the same vantage point where the entire group is shown dancing wildly to Dubstep music. Throughout the month, the videos were featured on Queerty, Out.com, DailyMotion,AOL.com. and the BBC Three program Russell Howard’s Good News. Shortly after the breakout of Harlem Shake in 2013, one of the montage videos on YouTube (shown below) was renamed to include “Origin of Harlem Shake” in the title.
On February 18th, 2013, TechCrunch published an article in an attempt to explain the meme’s appeal by breaking down the basic formula of its setup. In the article, the writer Josh Constine attributed the immense popularity of the phenomenon to its concise length at 30 seconds and a formulaic set-up that is easily replicable with enough variables to entice the viewers into creating their own iterations.
To break it down, the Harlem Shake meme is:
[14T x (A1 + V1)] => Δ => [14T x (A2 + V2)] => [2T x (A3+V3)] OR
[14 seconds of (build-up music) played as (one person passively dances while others linger around them motionless)] then an instant video cut to [14 seconds of (bombastic dance music) played as (many people dance aggressively)] then [2 seconds of (a slurring sound) and (slow-motion video of the aggressive dancing)]
Constine also described the Harlem Shake as a prime example of a “symbiotic meme,” a term that he had coined in his 2008 thesis[20[ to describe the mutually beneficial relationship between the prototype of a meme and its breakout iteration in terms of mass exposure and viewership.
On March 28th, 2013, Belkin’s general manager Kevin Ashton wrote a lengthy article titled “You didn’t make the Harlem Shake go viral--corporations did” for Quartz, in which he identified several Internet companies and social media professionals as the major beneficiaries of the meme’s record-breaking success. After examining various Twitter data sets mined during the onset of the meme in early February, Ashton concluded in the article that, in contrary to the widespread interpretation of Harlem Shake as yet another accidental triumph for the Internet’s hive mind, its online popularity may be attributed to active participation from a number of corporate subsidiaries engaged in YouTube partnerships, namely Maker Studios and the InterActiveCorp (IAC) affiliated Vimeo and College Humor.
In the Middle East
On February 23rd, 2013, a group of pharmaceutical students were arrested on charges of public indecency while attempting to create their own Harlem Shake video in the streets of Cairo, Egypt. Five days later, a group of 400 people gathered in Cairo to stage a flash mob-style Harlem Shake (shown below, left) in front of the main office of the Islamic Brotherhood. Organized by the newly-founded Satiric Revolutionary Struggle, the dance was intended to protest against President Mohammed Morsi and his ruling party. In response, members of the Islamic Brotherhood uploaded their own Harlem Shake video (shown below, right) wearing print out masks featuring members the National Salvation Front, the group’s primary opponents.
The Harlem Shake has also been used for a student protest in Tunisia after the country’s Minister of Education Abdeltif Abid launched an investigation into a “Harlem Shake” video that was filmed at a Tunisian high school on February 23rd. Abid called the video “an insult to the educational message.” On March 1st, hundreds of students assembled outside of the education ministry building in the rain to create a Harlem Shake protest video (shown below). In the following days, the protests in Egypt and Tunisia were soon picked up by the Western news media outlets, including the Washington Post, The Daily Dot, Yahoo! News UK and Mashable.
Numerous individuals and groups who participated in the meme have had to face some unforeseen consequences including legal troubles and disciplinary actions. According to the National Coalition against Censorship, approximately 100 students across the United States have been suspended for participating in the meme. Some of the more notable incidents include:
- In February, a New York high school ice hockey team was forced to forfeit a first-round playoff game after they uploaded a video of themselves doing the Harlem Shake while scantily clothed in a locker room.
- In February, two Israeli soldiers were given prison sentences and one officer was relieved of his command after they posted a video of soldiers doing the dance around a cannon.
- In March, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration launched an investigation after passengers on a domestic flight were seen performing the dance at 30,000 ft in a video uploaded to YouTube.
- In March, 15 Australian miners were fired from their jobs for breaching safety rules after uploading a video of themselves doing the dance underground.
- In March, five Russians were arrested by the police after they uploaded a video of themselves doing the dance on a World War II-era army tank at a war memorial site.
- In March, a Welsh religious education teacher was suspended from his post after a Harlem Shake video allegedly showing him dancing with a lifesize cardboard figure of Pope Benedict XVI was posted online.
- In March, an Oxford University graduate student and librarian was terminated for allowing a group of students to perform the Harlem Shake in a library building. The students who participated in the meme were also fined by the Dean.
Huffington Post – Harlem Shake Dance VIDEOS Are Hella Viral, But Why?
DailyMotion – Norwegian YouTube Series Features Nude Humping Men
TIME Newsfeed – WATCH: Egyptian Students Arrested over ‘Harlem Shake’ Video
Washington Post – The ‘Harlem Shake’ becomes a protest in Egypt and Tunisia
The Daily Dot – “Harlem Shake” protests spring up in the Middle East
New York Daily News – Harlem Shake fad: Grassroots craze or corporate contrivance?
MSN Money – "Harlem Shake was One Big Google Commercial":money.msn.com/now/post.aspx?post=f60d7312-f99d-4ab8-ba55-a9723ad8f69e