By the time this article is published, the meme of the Harlem Shake will almost certainly have passed through oversaturation into the realm of backlash — a stage as essential to the life cycle of a pop culture phenomenon in the internet age as the larval is for the butterfly. However, the question still remains to be asked: can we draw any political insight from this infinite string of insipid videos? Or is it just another expression of the decadence of our television-addled society, another way to distract ourselves from the much more serious business of fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity?
First, a little background. The full story, as always, can be found at Know Your Meme, but in summary, the meme started with a YouTube video made by a vlogger named Filthy Frank featuring four people in costumes dancing to the eponymous song by trap artist Baauer. Fascinatingly, the video only vaguely follows the rigid form of the memetic videos it spawned: all four characters dance in costume from the very beginning; there is no cut at the drop; and the slow-motion segment is entirely absent.
The fact that these features only appeared with the response videos that soon followed, where the meme’s form was solidified, reinforces the central thesis of the kind of cultural criticism undertaken here: that products of pop culture follow the same trajectory as those of high culture, with the important difference of being more democratic. In the basic trajectory of a myriad of influences converging in an ill-defined form crystallized with subsequent iterations — which paradoxically allow for an even greater degree of creativity — we are telling the story of every meme, as it was originally defined by Richard Dawkins, from hip-hop to the sonata; from the sitcom to the novel.
And here we see the first stirrings of the political in the Harlem Shake epidemic: its profoundly democratic character. At both poles of creation and consumption, these videos were in their very essence mass art. Anyone with internet access could enjoy them, and anyone with a webcam or smartphone could make one. This was a deeply open community — like 4chan, but without the self-hatred and semi-ironic bigotry.
But community is essential to this meme in a much deeper way; each video depicts a given community coming together for some good old-fashioned silliness. A Harlem Shake video of one is not a Harlem Shake video at all. The joy of this meme is its communal nature — itself an attack on the individualism undergirding all of American life. This communality in itself is only as revolutionary as, say, the joy of the football fan in attending a game. But as Peter Frase recognizes when he finds the radical potential in sports fandom, any escape route from the nihilism of the cult of the individual is at the same time the path to an emancipatory politics.
Let’s examine this particular joy a little more deeply. The Harlem Shake clearly drinks deeply from the ancient wine of Dionysius — the post-drop milieu of these videos cannot be described as anything other than orgiastic. Again, the ancient Bacchic rites were necessarily communal, as Bataille has explored thoroughly, but the Harlem Shake meme adds another layer of critique to this tradition by incorporating absurdism into its very constitution. The pleasure of watching these videos is the sheer silliness that takes over in Act II. And as we have known since Weber and the Surrealists, undermining rationalism’s death grip on our society is itself a radical act.
And finally, we find ourselves in a position to properly assess the revolutionary potential of this meme. Each of these videos depicts quotidian life in advanced capitalist societies at its most soul-crushing (the office, the army, the empty hedonism of dorm rooms) — only to be interrupted by a fierce, communal, democratic, absurdist joy. This is, of course, precisely the promise of radical politics: escaping the dead end of life as Nietzschean last men by a complete overhaul of how we relate to each other and ourselves. If depicting this possibility isn’t a revolutionary act, I don’t know what is.
After writing this piece, I discovered that a number of very smart people have written articles on the racial politics of the Harlem Shake meme. The charges of the appropriation of black culture are well-taken; as Drew Millard wrote for Vice,
But whenever I look at an Internet full of (mostly) white people doing a bastardized version of a dance that has the same name as another dance (and lest we forget, is named after fucking Harlem), and they’re doing that dance to Trap, a style of EDM that took the name (and some sonic signifiers) of an already-existent style of hip-hop that had a very specific set of sociopolitical implications, and people aren’t finding it at least a little problematic, it makes me feels like I’m taking crazy pills.
I fully agree with Millard that this meme cannot be discussed without addressing race and cultural appropriation.
But I’m less sure about the argument these articles have made that the meme has somehow damaged the value of the original dance. Millard again: “‘The Harlem Shake’ as a meme ruined ‘Harlem Shake’ as a song and it’s threatening to eradicate the actual Harlem Shake from popular memory, or at least make it hard to find on YouTube.” I’m sure Millard understands the significance of his last clause — if the worst we can say the meme did to the original dance is that it takes two more seconds to find it on YouTube, then I think we can safely say that this was the most benign case of cultural appropriation ever seen.
I agree more with Tamara Palmer at The Root, who lambasts the meme, but admits, “If this wave starts to wind down, the original Harlem Shake may be able to be reestablished in its proper light, and the originality displayed in so-called shake cyphers can get its due.” Internet memes are by their very nature transitory, unable to outlast rich cultural traditions of dance and music. The simple fact of the matter is that bad dancers dancing badly have never stopped good dancers from dancing well. When Palmer worries that “the damage may already be irreversible, as [the term “Harlem Shake”] has been all but stripped of its cultural context and meaning,” she has bought into a wrong-headed notion of artistic purity — cultural products are instead complex palimpsests, preserving what has come before even as new layers of meaning and associations are laid on top of that original material.
Ultimately, I have to agree with Millard when he writes, “I know it’s fun for the people doing it, and uploading a video of you and your friends wiggling around to the same song as other groups of friends makes everybody feel a little less alone in this desolate, unloving universe.” We cannot and should not ignore the fact that this meme appropriates black culture in deeply problematic ways — but we should be equally cognizant of the huge political potential of communal expressions of joy.