Decoding the Harlem Shake phenomenon

If you’re suddenly accosted by a short video that has nothing but grown men and women flailing their upper bodies to electronic music, don’t be alarmed. It’s only the latest viral dance meme called the Harlem Shake.

Kiss five minute long elaborate videos goodbye, Harlem Shake makes sure that videos don’t exceed 30 seconds, making it in the truest sense a viral video. And what’s more, everyone from Google employees to Facebook ones are doing it.

The videos typically feature a man in a helmet or an ultra large headgear who starts off the Harlem Shake "flash mob". The infected large-headed fellow jiggles his upper body while others watch on showing no interest. Halfway through the 30 second video, everyone else suddenly join the first guy to do the Harlem Shake by moving their bodies in ridiculous angles as the bass drops in the track clipping.


Like all good dance memes that go viral (think Gangnam Style), music is an essential part of Harlem Shake too. The videos feature a clipping of electronic artist Baauer’s Harlem Shake. It also happens to be the name of a decades old hip-hop style that originated, where else, but in Harlem, New York City. The viral videos essentially whip together the Harlem Shake track and its namesake form of hip-hop, taking it to a whole different viral level.

Unlike most memes, Harlem Shake doesn’t really have a clear origin. Once you dig in deep enough, you’ll realise that the track contains the lyrics "do the Harlem Shake", a sample from 2001 track "Miller Time" by Philadelphia party rap crew, Plastic Little. The lyric was taken from an incident where band member Jayson Musson got into a fight and ended it by getting up, wiping the blood off and doing the Harlem Shake. Seems illogical, doesn’t it? But that’s the beauty of viral memes around the interwebz!

YouTube revealed in a blog post titled "The Harlem Shake has Exploded" that the viral meme had spread to crazy levels in a matter of days. Versions of the video are being uploaded to the tune of 4,000 videos a day and YouTube believes that this number is only going to rise as the popularity rises. Not just uploads, the number of views as of February 14 was 175 million, mostly because people are trying to understand what this video is all about, we believe.

The number of Harlem Shake Videos are too damn high! (Image Credits: YouTube)

The number of Harlem Shake Videos are too damn high! (Image credit: YouTube)


But can this really dethrone the current dance viral king Gangnam Style? We doubt it. One major reason for this is the slight disconnect between origins and spin-offs. Gangnam Style became the first video ever to garner a billion views on YouTube leaving the likes of Justin Bieber’s Baby and Jennifer Lopez’s On the Floor behind. When it came to aping – everything from dance moves to clothing and mannerisms – Psy’s iconic act was there for the world to see, but considering Harlem Shake’s obscure (read: Hipster) origins, the meme might go viral but will be a short lived one in all probability.


You can watch some of the most viral videos we put together for the year that went by here.

Published Date: Feb 19, 2013 02:32 pm | Updated Date: Feb 19, 2013 02:32 pm