Leigh Tauss is a junior studying English and creative writing. This piece was originally posted on her blog, Mere Trickery.
Everywhere you click these days it seems you’re bombarded by a flock of white kids seizure-dancing to a siren. And this week, the insidious Internet sensation, the “Harlem Shake,” graced Fairfield University with its toxic presence. All in good fun, rest assured, students gathered to film the 30 second video that within one week has accrued seven thousand YouTube hits. So now that we’ve had our fun and laughed about it, let’s talk for a second to break down exactly what was so funny.
The videos are all the same, like a meme. They are thirty seconds long, feature the same song, and the same thing happens every time. It begins with one lone dancer, awkwardly humping the air, and halfway through anywhere from dozens to hundreds of others join him in a dance that resembles mental disability.
If everything is offensive, nothing is offensive, right?
What first struck me as suspicious was the glaring absence of any black people in the videos. This is a trend is specific to white upper-middle class college kids. But where did it come from? And what relationship does it have to the original Harlem Shake?
The viral phenomenon finds its origins with the electronic musician Bauuer, or Harry Rodrigues. Rodrigues, originally from London, actually spent some of his high school years down the block in Westport, Conn., at Staples High School. As you might have guessed he’s a rich white guy. Sorry if I just blew your gangster cred. Come at me, Bauuer.
The song “Harlem Shake” was released in May 2012 but only recently gained prominence due to the Internet meme.
Now the actual Harlem Shake has a long and storied history. Harlem has a history of being an artistic hub since the Harlem Renaissance. The dance was invented in 1981 and was originally called the Albee, named for its inventor, Al B. Classically it has consisted of wild jerking of the arms and upper body. While that might not sound like much, any YouTube video more than a month old demonstrates what I’m talking about. It actually looks pretty cool.
Hayes Brown, a blogger from Think Progress, had this to say: “There are certainly times when the leaking of black culture into the mainstream produces a synergy that in some ways exceeds the previous product. The introduction of jazz, rock and roll, and rap into the mainstream by white artists eventually helped promote black artists and propel them into the public consciousness in a way that may not have been possible otherwise, resulting in a better product that was able to reach more people.
“That clearly is not what’s happening here, though. […] Instead, the dilution promoted by this meme does nothing to advance the music, the dance, or the culture of the original.”
We have taken a real dance, with a history tied to a specific culture and group of people
– with a history of subjugation, segregation and plain old’ prejudice subjected on them by none other than the dominant class (and I know we don’t like to talk about it but there’s a caste system in this country good as any shaped like a pyramid and at the top sits a white man and at the bottom black women) –
and adapted it into the dance of mindless idiots. Granted, it has never taken itself too seriously and always has been a “drunk dance” – but at least the original version had moves! They didn’t just jump around like toddlers.
Defenders may mew: “But we aren’t really trying to do the Harlem Shake! We’re not making fun of the original! It’s just for fun!”
The Harlem Shake-meme, we are supposed to believe, exists in complete ignorance to the original Harlem Shake dance. Ignorance, as we all know, is the number one ingredient of racism.
Calling whatever dance we think that is the Harlem Shake has a specific racial connotation that references a neighborhood and dance that already exists. This is the viral gentrification in its purest form. Once again, the hegemony of mass culture has taken a form of art and entertainment from a minority group and reclaimed it, diluting it down into its least intelligible and most marketable form. Regardless of how disconnected we want to feel from that truth while laughing our little behinds off, it’s there.
Rarely does something pass through so many hands without being destroyed; unless of course it’s money. No doubt some corporate entity will get the hint and we’ll be seeing this meme in our commercials by baseball season.
But by then it won’t be nearly as funny.
Happy Black History Month.