The Harlem Shake Is Dead; Long Live the Harlem Shake

The YouTube dance craze draws criticism for what some see as culture appropriation—just as the song hits No. 1 on the charts

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Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Baauer performs during the Snowglobe Music Festival at Lake Tahoe Community College on Dec, 29, 2012 in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Harlem Shake,” the techno track created by a DJ-producer named Baauer—and made famous by an avalanche of dance videos—has had a heck of a ride this month. It’s a ride that, in terms of coolness and criticism, may well be over. Still, those who say the craze has peaked may have to wait a bit longer before the song fades from conversation.

It’s been three weeks since the meme originated — the Daily Beast traces it back to a Feb. 2 fan-made YouTube upload, with hundreds of copycat videos soon following (all featuring the song, flailing dance moves and use of jump-cuts) — but on the Internet, three weeks is a long time.

(WATCHSeaWorld Animals Perform the Harlem Shake)

On the other hand, it’s only been a day since Billboard announced that Baauer had made the “historic” move to the top of the Hot 100 chart—historic because the venerable pop-music chart only just began to include U.S. YouTube streams in its formulae. As the statement about the move made clear, those streams also include “unofficial” videos that use official audio, a major boon to a viral craze like “Harlem Shake”:

Billboard is now incorporating all official videos on YouTube captured by Nielsen’s streaming measurement, including Vevo on YouTube, and user-generated clips that utilize authorized audio into the Hot 100 and the Hot 100 formula-based genre charts – Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, R&B Songs, Rap Songs, Hot Latin Songs, Hot Rock Songs and Dance/Electronic Songs – to further reflect the divergent platforms for music consumption in today’s world.

With 103 million views at the time of that statement, “Harlem Shake” was able to debut at No. 1 on the newly formulated chart—though Billboard points out that it would only have broken into the top 15 without the help of YouTube. With the meme gaining real music legitimacy from Billboard, the song—if not the video-making frenzy—shows no signs of vanishing as quickly as it appeared.

(MOREHow Your Harlem Shake Videos Make Money for the Original Artist)

But there are forces beyond time working to affect the arc of the “Shake” fad. This week, another, very different “Shake” video began making the rounds, one which features Harlem residents reacting to the dance craze. (The video, below, contains harsh language.) At the core of their criticism is the fact that a dance called the “Harlem Shake” has been around for decades — and that the new song and dance have absolutely nothing to do with the original one (which they demonstrate).

“They’re basically taking what we do and making a joke of it,” says one of the locals in the video—and another notes that it’s just a way for corporate people to make money off of a cultural phenomenon that originated in Harlem.

It wouldn’t be the first time, says Burton Peretti, author of Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music and The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America. “Clearly, this is a pattern of appropriation of African-American dance and music,” he says.

Peretti notes that having YouTube as the platform for appropriation provides an interesting layer of complexity that wasn’t possible in the past, whether the appropriation in question was respectful emulation (as with many jazz performers), or of selective borrowing for monetary gain (a common charge leveled against performers like Elvis Presley, who brought R&B to many mainstream audiences).

Until recently, it wasn’t possible to see the evolution of appropriated content collected in one place. YouTube changed all that, providing a place where “reaction” videos share space with meme videos and with videos like G. Dep’s 2001 “Let’s Get It,” a clip credited with bringing the dance broad popularity. (You can also watch examples of the Ethiopian Eskista, which Peretti says is often credited as the original inspiration for the Harlem Shake. A 2003 interview on InsideHoops.com, a basketball site, instead gives credit to a local figure who says he invented the move in 1981.)

Another layer added by YouTube is provided by commenters, many who respond to this reaction video with a big “so what”—a response that Peretti says indicates an interesting trend, even as it fails to acknowledge what the people in the video are actually saying about appropriation. If all culture can be shared all around the world, what does it mean to appropriate something?

“The people in the video are insisting that there is still a Harlem culture within the geographic boundaries, that it’s a lived experience,” he says. “Clearly they’re right that it’s not the original, but the [commenters] responding to the video have a very different reading of culture. It’s a controversy we’ll keep having, about ownership of culture, which is very hard in the YouTube era.”