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How the Harlem Shake went from viral sideshow to global phenomenon

How the Harlem Shake went from viral sideshow to global phenomenon


The self-replicating, bad-dancing meme tries to hide its own origins, but it's a pretty good story

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Baauer Harlem Shake - Multiple
Baauer Harlem Shake - Multiple

The Harlem Shake is a nearly perfect internet meme because it almost perfectly erases its origins. If every imitation of "Gangnam Style" inevitably leads you back to the deceptively subtle, near-perfect original, the Harlem Shake does the opposite. Every imitation leads you to another imitation, the lower its fidelity the better.

The videos themselves are quite literally viral. A YouTube search for "Harlem Shake" turns up 60,000, with 45,000 uploaded within the last week. One person starts out with symptoms — dancing, a horse head, etc. — and within moments, someone else is infected. A few minutes after that, everyone who saw the video has the same idea, and the meme spreads further, a domino effect of cascading bass drops. Like the punchline of a joke, the archetypes propping up a folktale, or even its decades-old namesake dance, the Harlem Shake circulates without an author, needing no authority but its own deliberately stupid sense of fun.

the Harlem Shake circulates without an author, needing no authority but its own deliberately stupid sense of fun

Of course, this is a lie. Nothing moves without a mover, there are no children without parents, and no chickens without eggs. Likewise, there is no breakthrough meme that doesn't get its escape velocity from something that's making it go. One of these prime movers will almost inevitably try to gather up and claim responsibility for the forces it's dispersed. And so it is here: a nine-month old, three-minute song called "Harlem Shake," by a nearly-unknown artist named Baauer, whose freshly-scattered thirty-second fragments of awkward dancing have peppered the video memescape since video blogger / comedian Filthy Frank established the template in a 34-second February 2nd video called "Do the Harlem Shake" that's already gathered 10 million YouTube views.

It's Filthy Frank and his dancing cohorts whom everyone's been imitating, from Twin Peaks actor Kyle MacLachlan to employees at Google and Facebook. But Filthy Frank's video (itself culled from an earlier Frank jam) carefully attributes the copyright to "Baauer or whoever is in charge" and serves up links to buy Baauer's "Harlem Shake" track on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc. On February 14th, "Harlem Shake" first broke through to number one on iTunes' best seller list. At the time of this writing, the iTunes charts put "Harlem Shake" at number one overall, in the US, Australia, Belgium, Canada, and Luxembourg, and in the top five in most of the rest of Europe. iTunes sales numbers for singles aren't giant — probably 12,000 downloads last week, with probably a bit more than that this week, but that's not bad. It's also crossing over from digital: "Harlem Shake" debuted at number 3 on the BBC's radio charts on February 17th. In an interview with Billboard, a representative of Baauer's label, Diplo's Mad Decent records, describes the song as "the biggest thing we've released on Mad Decent as a label, and it's happened within six days." Baauer also sold out a February 15th show at New York's Webster Hall, based almost entirely on the song's popularity. This is real, filtering-upwards success.

Even all those YouTube views, scattered across the dozens or hundreds of fan-made videos, add up. Baauer and Mad Decent have generally been happy to let a hundred flowers bloom, permitting over 4,000 videos to use an excerpt of the song but quietly adding each of them to YouTube's Content ID database, asserting copyright over the fan videos and claiming a healthy chunk of the ad revenue for each of them. All this happens more or less automatically through Mad Decent's partner INDmusic, described by Billboard as "like a Vevo for indies." There's no pressing need to herd fans to a Facebook page or rig the YouTube search to drive "Harlem Shake" queries to an "original": all of the videos can make the artist and his label a little bit of money. Hence the proliferation of the "Harlem Shake."

"If you're mad at someone for being excited and inspired by your art then you're doing it wrong."

After all, these Harlem Shake videos are just the last link in a chain of gently borrowed content. Before Filthy Frank, it was just a song, and not a terribly lucrative one. Before that, it was just a sample, a young Jayson Musson saying, "do the Harlem Shake" on 2001's "Miller Time," a track an even-younger Baauer probably mixed as a Philly-area DJ. Before that, the Shake was just a dance of uncertain provenance, something anyone could reference. But each step meant borrowing from something that already existed. Nobody involved was ever terribly keen on asking for permission. Why would they be? For the most part, neither the borrowers or the lenders even noticed what was happening.

But that open spirit has a limit, and embracing most of the song's copies doesn't mean it's a free-for-all. When hip-hop artist and Harlem native Azealia Banks tried to upload her own remix of the track, Baauer had SoundCloud take it down. When she asked why, his response was simple enough: "It's not your song."

Banks, as well-known for her internet feuds as she is for remaking other people's beats into their definitive version, accused Baauer and producer Diplo of "coccblocking" [sic] her track, and wanting to replace her vocals with Juicy J's. "You don't belong in hip hop," she told Baauer on Twitter, followed by a string of profanities aimed at Baauer, Diplo, and blogger Perez Hilton, who jumped into the crossfire. "Art is supposed to be inspiring," Banks writes. "If you're mad at someone for being excited and inspired by your art then you're doing it wrong."

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Baauer tells his side of Banks' story:

She had a version that we were going to release because I’m a big fan of hers. We knew she likes to beef with producers. So she laid something on ‘Harlem Shake’ and it was so/so. Didn’t love it. And that was a little while ago, and since all this video stuff happened, our plans all changed. Because of that, we decided to just release the song on it’s own [sic] with no vocal version. So we told her, ‘Please don’t release your version.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m going to put it online anyway.’ And we said, ‘Please don’t. We’d really like it if you didn’t.’ And she did.Azealia isn't a random YouTube fan; she's an industry player, doing business every bit as much as Baauer is. After all, just a year ago, Diplo was accused of ripping off Master-D's song "Mad Drumz" and claiming sole producer credit… on a new Azealia Banks track, "Fuck Up the Fun." This, apparently, is how music and remix culture works now.

"I didn’t know how to properly 'end' a fight, so I just smiled at him and did the Harlem shake, blood gushing from glass cuts on my face."

Still, none of the fights, none of the claims and counter-claims, seem to weigh down the Harlem Shake one bit. It's a little like Musson's story of how he came to put the now-famous line in a song:

The lyric came about as a result of getting into a fist fight over graffiti back in 2001, the same year that “Miller Time” was made. A friend of mine told me this kid was crossing me out, so logically I began crossing him out…

[One night] I hear someone call me by my graffiti name so I turn to see who it is, only to be greeted by a 40 bottle to the face. Despite sneaking his opponent with a bottle, this kid got his ass beat (he was really bad at fighting). After several minutes, I got pretty bored with throwing punches so I grabbed him by his collar and tried to put his head through the passenger side window of a parked car. It didn’t go through luckily, but it created a lull in the fight where the two of us just stared at each other covered in blood.

This was my first fight and I didn’t know how to properly “end” a fight, so I just smiled at him and did the Harlem shake, blood gushing from glass cuts on my face. The other kid, I guess not wanting to fight anymore, or maybe not wanting to fight someone who just danced at him, got on his skateboard and took off without his shoes. That’s why “Miller Time” ends with the line, And if you bring a 40 bottle to battle me / I’ll just punch you in the face / then do the Harlem Shake.

Both things, the fighting and the dancing, the big money behind the big silliness, coexist in shared absurdity. As long as it's Baauer's song, he'll decide who can remix, and who else can appear on it. There's real money and real control at stake here. This means the Shake gets to be open culture and it gets to be big business. But for most people the business, like the original song, just like the original dance, just fades away. Just find your friends. Just pump your hips. Just flop your arms around. You don't need to know a thing about the Harlem Shake to do the Harlem Shake.

Russell Brandom contributed to this report.