The Harlem Shake Is Viral – But Do You Know What It Is?

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harlem shakeGangnam Style is old news. We need a new viral YouTube sensation. Now, only two months into 2013, we have a potential heir to Psy’s throne. The Harlem Shake.

The sensation began just a few weeks ago. In that short time YouTube users have posted thousands of remakes which, in total, have attracted over 175 million views. People are doing the Harlem Shake in dorm rooms, offices, pools and even army bases. Just one problem – everyone is doing it wrong.

The Real Harlem Shake

You could be forgiven for thinking the Harlem Shake is a new thing. Search YouTube for that keyword and you’ll find only a handful of videos that are more than two weeks old, and those videos relate to the song at the core of the viral sensation. Yet the roots of the dance are far deeper.

As you might have guessed, the dance originated in Harlem. What you might not have guessed is that it’s over thirty years old. According to Wikipedia and several other online sources, people began bustin’ out the move in 1981. There was no YouTube back then – or MTV, for that matter – but there is a six year old video on YouTube that compiles a few music videos that have featured the Harlem Shake over the years.

Ah, but even this isn’t the complete origin. The Harlem Shake is based on an Ethiopian shoulder dance known as the Eskista. Watch this Ethiopian Idle contestant show us how it’s done.

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Or, for a somewhat different rendition, watch this dance from Toronto’s E.A.S.T multicultural show in 2006.

The focus on upper body movement is obvious in both the Eskista and the Harlem Shake help the dancers stand out from (and in) the crowd. Want to do it yourself? Give it a shot.

The Harlem Shake Song

R&B artist Baauer unwittingly opened the gates to the virus when he released Harlem Shake in May of 2012. The single initially received some attention from its inclusion on BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix and was acclaimed by numerous publications. The song even hit the top charts in several countries.

Since the sensation hit the web, Baauer has turned up in numerous interviews, most of which seek to find out the origins of his song. In short, there aren’t any. Baauer simply decided he wants to mix synth pulse with R&B and then started to throw in weird noises at appropriate times for maximum flash. The song’s name is only a reference to a sample Baauer borrowed from rap group Plastic Little.

And there you have it. A song with crazy bass and no lyrics that features a lion’s roar. Now all that’s needed is someone weird enough to turn it into a music video. That person is Filthy Frank.

Filthy Franks Takes Harlem Shake Viral

On January 30th, 2013 a YouTube channel by the name of DizastaMusic published Filthy Compilation #6. As the number implies, this was nothing new. The channel hosts a low-budget sketch comedy show that’s best described as a blend of Jackass, Robot Chicken and The Kids In The Hall. Compilation #6 began with a skit that – well, just watch it.

Warning: While the video above is fine, most of Filthy Frank’s sketches are very not safe for work.

Just three days later a channel called TheSunnyCoastSkate posted a less weird but equally hilarious remake that made one small change. Instead of starting with a group of people dancing, the video began with one person dancing in a motorcycle helmet while everyone else ignored him. Then, when the bass drops, the room breaks out into the Harlem Shake. Or everyone has a seizure. It’s hard to say.

And that was it. Every Harlem Shake video worth its salt has copied this formula. A lone dancer in a helmet, the bass drops, and – freakout!

But Where’s The Harlem Shake?

In its transformation from Ethiopian traditional dance to Harlem club move to cultural reference and finally viral video, the dancing itself has been lost. Some of the folks in the two original videos could arguably be attempting to do a poor rendition of the original dance – which, in the case of Filthy Frank, was probably the point – but since then the dance itself has vanished. In most videos people are just convulsing.

Does it matter? Maybe.

The residents of Harlem take their dancing seriously. It’s part of the area’s cultural heritage. And as several individuals in the video point out, this viral sensation will be (and already has been) used by companies to make money – little of which will trickle back to Harlem itself.

Indeed, the viral nature of videos like this may be due to money as much as anything else. According to Billboard the record label Mad Decent, which distributes Baauer’s single, didn’t let loose the leash of the Harlem Shake sensation out of goodwill. They’re monetizing Harlem Shake videos behind the scenes. I do think they deserve some stake of the use of their song – but this secret suggests that viral sensations aren’t always as organic as they appear.

harlem shake

The viral sensation’s popularity has also pushed the original Harlem Shake, and most information about its origins, aside. Finding pre-viral Harlem Shake videos on YouTube now requires some creative keywords and filters, and most search results on Google itself focus on the videos, not the thirty years of dancing that came prior.

What do you think? Are viral videos just harmless fun, or do they have un-intended (or intended) consequences that are worth thought? Sound off in the comments!

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