Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Corporate America and the Harlem Shake: Perfect Together

When we’re not doing more serious work like documenting geographic and gender biases in media, or helping provide information to domestic workers about their rights, we at the Center for Civic Media like to talk memes. The other morning, over breakfast, we were considering what makes a dance video parodies a highly participatory and cross-cultural type of meme, i.e., one where many people from different backgrounds and nations choose to remix it.

I was particularly interested in memes that people customize with a sense of place. Gangnam Style is the obvious near-current example. PSY’s original video, now watched over a billion times on YouTube, is both a man doing a silly dance and the portrait of a neighborhood. Many of the best remixes mimic the moves of PSY’s dance and transpose the geography, from the University of Oregon to the city of Chicago to the streets of Accra, where PSY’s dance merges with Ghana’s current dance addiction, Azonto.

Of course, not all localizations adapt Gangnam Style to real geographies. Oppan Klingon Style is a work of art, best appreciated by turning captions on. And Kim Jong Style by The Key of Awesome! creates an amusing if mostly imagined North Korean version of the hit song.

Nathan Matias observed that this trend towards localization of videos includes parodies of “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, pointing to a brilliant Welsh version, Newport State of Mind. (See also Newark, Minnesota, New Hampshire and countless others.) I’m looking for more of these local remix memes, especially those that involved remixes on different continents, so please feel free to pitch in on the comment thread if you’ve got any inspirations.

Anyway, our conversation turned to The Harlem Shake, which had just emerged as a new meme. (Now, a week later, there’s a compelling case to be made that it is already played out.) Beginning as a simple dorm-room video, the Harlem Shake couldn’t be much simpler: one person, usually wearing a helmet, grooves to Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake”. His companions do nothing, until the bass line comes in, at which point a whole room full of people join in the dance in the most colorful ways possible.

There’s lots to say about the Harlem Shake, including questioning its humble origins – the meme originators, The Sunny Coast Skate, are prolific video creators documenting their skateboarding exploits, not just the college slackers they portray in their videos. There’s an excellent essay about the ways in which The Harlem Shake co-opts “trap music“, a drug-savvy Dirty South style that mixes hiphop and dance culture. It’s worth noting that The Harlem Shake is a real dance, popular in NYC for decades, with roots in an Ethiopian dance called Eskista. It’s worth noting that Baauer’s song was released on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and that Diplo is legendary and notorious for sampling/pillaging other musical cultures and remixing them into audience-friendly new contexts.

But what I wanted to talk about is the way that the Harlem Shake meme seems perfectly designed for the workplace. Some of the very best remixes, like the Norwegian Army’s, and San Antonio’s Sea World’s, involve people at their place of work, going about their activities until the bass drops. (While I love the Norwegian version for its sheer creativity, I gotta give pride of place to San Antonio purely on the basis of the sea lion on the right – that mammal can dance!)

Why the workplace? The essential joke of the Harlem Shake is a song so catchy that it compels a whole room of people to freak out. There’s no place like the workplace to show the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary behavior, right? If firefighters can turn into costumed superheroes, surely turning your internet marketing firm into a dance party will be a laugh riot! A surprising number of the top Harlem Shake videos tracked by YouTube appear to have been filmed by the group of people who work together in an office, perhaps because it’s not hard to take two hours and film a reasonably compelling clip, or perhaps because this is a way for different companies to signal that they’re the sort of cool place where employees can take some time off to make a viral video.

(Of course, writing a blogpost about a flash in the pan internet meme is a way of signaling that you run the sort of research center where people who study the Harlem Shake would be welcomed…)

I’d resisted writing about the Harlem Shake until Chris Peterson posted a remarkable link to Awesome, the MIT mailing list where people share things that are, well, awesome. The specific link Chris posted pokes fun at a favorite Center for Civic Media alumnus – I’ll post a version featuring my boss, Joi Ito. HSMaker will turn any almost any website into a dance party, including ours at Center for Civic Media. I find it charming and ironic that it was introduced to me as a way to remix that most corporate of identities, the LinkedIn page.

Writing in Forbes, Anthony Kosner sees the Harlem Shake as proof positive that we’re moving into Present Shock, a new reality projected by Douglas Rushkoff where time moves so fast that we can’t see beyond the current moment. I think it might just be evidence that viral video creators are figuring out how to make their content accessible and spreadable to the point where anyone can take part, even without leaving their desks.

Do the Harlem Shake! Now back to work!

2 Responses to “Corporate America and the Harlem Shake: Perfect Together”

  1. Tim says:

    Great post Ethan, thanks.

    And of course another piece of the puzzle: Psy, Mad Decent and etc are probably making some serious money from Youtube’s Content ID program: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/branding/1539260/harlem-shake-the-making-and-monetizing-of-the-latest-youtube

  2. Rishabh says:

    A couple of years back there was a song called why this kolaveeri di, which went crazily viral atleast among the indian diaspora. So every region in india along with the desis abroad made their own version. I remember seeing atleast a hundred different versions.

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