What just happened to the Harlem Shake?

Colin Horgan on the meme and the washing machine

It was good to see what people in Harlem think of the Harlem Shake meme.

The latter, if you don’t know, is the latest internet craze that’s driven groups of people to film themselves dancing like fools for 30 seconds to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” The song, originally released on an EP in May 2012, went almost entirely unknown until earlier this year when a group of guys from Australia posted a short clip of themselves dancing to it as a response to an earlier, somewhat similar, video online. For whatever reason, the second one caught on, and suddenly YouTube was replete with versions of the “Harlem Shake,” featuring everybody from the staff at Buzzfeed, to concert-goers, to the team at TSN’s SportsCentre.

And this week, two important things happened to it.

The first was the video I just talked about. SchleppFilms went to Harlem and talked to people there about the Harlem Shake. You can guess how that went. What happens in the countless new Harlem Shake videos is not anywhere near what the original Harlem Shake dance really is (or was). Fairly obviously, folks in Harlem didn’t think much of the meme, concluding that either people were “misinformed,” “trying to disrespect us,” or just openly mocking Harlem itself and the people there. Their advice was essentially this: Stop doing the dance the wrong way.

We’ll come back to that.

The second important event was that the meme transcended an important boundary when someone (finally?) posted a clip of a washing machine “doing” the Harlem Shake. The clip features the same music, but shows a washing machine spinning at full speed until, as the beat drops, someone throws what looks to be a brick of cement into the drum, sending the whole thing jostling around and exploding all over the place. As far as things go on the internet, it was essentially perfect, effectively dialing the meme to whatever degree is always necessary for it to tilt from absurdity to eventual complete and total meaninglessness.

Which means there are some predictable next steps for the Harlem Shake meme. It could be featured in a meme combo, maybe with Nyan Cat “doing” the dance (the perfect merger of endlessly duplicated idea grafted onto another forever repeating image). But even if a mashup doesn’t happen, it’s likely the Harlem Shake will follow a Nyan Cat-like trajectory to a specific point where it will still be possible to track its creation, (at least to the point where one video begat another which in turn begat millions more almost instantly) but where the meme will be stripped of irony, humour, or context, leaving it as an empty, message-less image. At that stage it will have a history, but be equally almost entirely a-historical, existing as something that is still something, but also nothing.

This is what happens in the “the simultaneous and the instantaneous” world Marshall McLuhan examined sometime around 1979 — one in which he said we found there were no “familiar boundaries,” and no organized points of view. In that world (read: this one), he said, “there is no sequence. There is no logic.”

Which is not to say memes never have logic initially or are never devised for ridicule. The original “Ermahgerd!” meme, for example, had a logical beginning and initially a relatively specific usage. It was replicated in part because it’s a funny image of a nerdy girl apparently getting weirdly excited about a pile of Goosebumps books. But it, too, reached a saturation point and devolved into absurdity, as its tagline – the catchphrase – was endlessly ascribed to a multitude of images, stripping it of context and leaving its intent open to constant redefinition.

Like memes before it, it will forever exist only as a form of quasi-communication that’s sole purpose is self-proliferation and infinite repetition. It exists to exist; an electric tautology that is by definition illogical.

This is why, though redundant, the idea to ask Harlem residents what they make of the meme was important in that it acted as a confirmation that the Harlem Shake meme never had anything to do with the actual Harlem Shake or Harlem. Instead, it’s just the name ascribed to an illogical happening – one never designed to carry meaning and, for all intents and purposes, one that never will. The idea was never to exploit a niche cultural trademark. That’s entirely too complicated, and assumes a certain sequential process to things. The explanation is much simpler: the point of the meme is only the meme itself.

Now, carry on.

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