The Harlem Shake is dead, long live the Harlem Shake

ARMY OF ME (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2013 - 12:00am

Gangnam what? Unless you’ve given up the Internet for Lent or are somehow oblivious to online trends, you should’ve already heard of the Harlem Shake. This latest viral video phenomenon has now been viewed “almost 11 million times, spawning some 40,000 (and counting) parodies, which themselves have collectively been viewed almost 175 million times,” reports London’s The Times.

In order to make sense of the nonsense, one must flex the critical faculties and analyze the hydra. First there’s Harlem Shake the song, which caused the massive orgy of unbridled silliness or hidden brilliance, depending on how old you are and where your priorities lie, should you have any. Recorded and released digitally by the American DJ and producer Baauer in May 2012, the formerly obscure jam has hit the top spot of iTunes’ all-genre Top Songs list as a result of the explosion.

Next there’s Harlem Shake the dance, which traces its roots to the New York borough of Harlem circa 1981. Based in turn on traditional Ethiopian moves, the shoulder-popping and arm-jiggling has little to do with the self-replicating meme.

Then there’s Harlem Shake the meme, which went viral on YouTube on Feb. 2. While the surreal circus attributes its meme status to The Sunny Coast Skate, five teens from Queensland, Australia, their video was actually a mere reply. The original “got its start on Jan. 30 when vlogger Filthy Frank included it at the top of a compilation video. Three days later, he isolated the Harlem Shake portion of the video,” says Entertainment Weekly.

The same template

But no matter its true starting point, every subsequent version has followed more or less the same template. Each 30-second or so Harlem Shake video begins with a single person — wearing a helmet, a mask or even a horse head — flopping alone and rather awkwardly to Baauer’s beats as if he or she were a loose live wire. When the bass drops, the video jump-cuts to the once-calm background crowd, costumed or otherwise, who are now convulsing as if Tasered. This goes on for the next 15 seconds, until the song fades, coming and going as quickly as a SnapChat photo.  

“The Harlem Shake is a nearly perfect Internet meme because it almost perfectly erases its origins,” writes The Verge. “Every imitation leads you to another imitation, the lower its fidelity the better.” Nerd note: Over 4,000 Harlem Shake videos are uploaded to YouTube daily, a staggering amount, and there are versions by everyone from the Norwegian Army and the University of Georgia Men’s Swim and Dive team — theirs was, naturally, filmed underwater — to clips featuring snippets of The Exorcist and a brick tossed inside a washing machine.

Quite predictably, celebrities are now in on the trend. Ed Sheeran, Jon Stewart, Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert and the cast of the upcoming movie 21 and Over have joined the assault on our sensibilities. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Baauer explained that he had planned to release a version of the song with rapper and singer Azealia Banks sometime ago. “But when her verse wasn’t up to snuff, he pulled the plug on the collaboration and went ahead with the instrumental version of the song,” according to Pitchfork.  Banks went on and unleashed her own take anyway, “which, for better or for worse, does not abide by the guidelines of the meme.”

‘Con los terroristas’

Early on, I found the Harlem Shake — the meme — ridiculous, bewildering and fun. I especially loved the randomness of the song’s sample of a man shrieking “Con los terroristas!” (Spanish for “with the terrorists”) in what sounded to me like a Colombian costeño accent. There was even a time I considered participating in the lunacy. After all, I do possess basic editing skills, a Mexican wrestler mask and a healthy ration of boredom.

But I knew the Harlem Shake was truly over, that it had finally jumped the proverbial shark, when DJ Schmolli came up with the ultimate derivative a few days ago. “Okay, this combo just had to be done! It’s Gangnam Style versus this new and trendy dance Harlem Shake. This might annoy quite some people (sic) I guess but hey, it’s fun!! So enjoy!” said the Austrian DJ, bootlegger and producer.

Just when I thought the world had seen the last of Psy and his annoyingly catchy gag, along comes another sideshow that has not only peppered the video memescape, but has given the force it was supposed to supplant a little more juice. I’m so sick of the Harlem Shake and I’m ready to be sucked into the next absurd meme.    

If you have found yourself spellbound by the cascading bass drops, bear in mind that it’s perfectly okay to be foolish occasionally. (Congratulations on not being jaded… yet.) If you’ve managed to come this far without watching it, however, I suggest you keep it that way.

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