If you’ve been on Facebook at all in the last week or two, then you’ve probably seen at least one “Harlem Shake” video. The meme, which has gone viral in recent weeks (with approximately 115,000 videos on YouTube as of this writing), consists of someone (usually wearing a funny helmet) dancing by themselves in a room full of people while Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” plays. Then, at about the half-way point, the song announces “Then do the Harlem shake” and everybody else joins in with their own dance. The entire spectacle lasts 30 seconds, and some of the videos have been rather creative in their sheer dance chaos.

Groups as diverse as Norwegian soldiers and the Georgia Men’s Swim Team have submitted their own videos, and it seems like a good bit of fun — albeit, incredibly random fun — for everybody. Well, almost everybody, that is, except for folks from Harlem.

Last week, a couple of filmmakers went to Harlem and showed random pedestrians some of the “Harlem Shake” videos. Here are some of their reactions:

  • “What the hell is this?”
  • “I mean interesting, I just don’t think it is closely related to the original Harlem Shake.”
  • “This is not what the Harlem Shake is at all.”
  • “That’s humping and that’s not the Harlem Shake.”
  • “They look like they just smoked some dust.”
  • “I feel like they’re trying to disrespect us.”

The real “Harlem Shake” (also known as the “albee”) was a dance move that originally appeared in Harlem in 1981, and then got more mainstream exposure in 2001 thanks to the video for G. Dep’s “Let’s Get It”. If you watch this instructional video, it becomes pretty clear that the meme has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic dance move.

But so what? After all, it’s in the nature of memes to remix and re-appropriate with wild abandon, with little care for what came before. That’s what makes memes memes. All that matters is that it’s funny, entertaining, and provocative. What does it matter if the latest meme to sweep the Internet has nothing whatsoever to do with the original “Harlem Shake”? Perhaps the people in the above video just need to lighten up and enjoy it along with the rest of us.

But the “Harlem Shake” meme serves as a perfect example of how easily we commodify things in our culture, of how quickly we’ll take things and strip them of their original context (social, cultural, or otherwise) so long as the result is entertaining and easily shareable. But there’s a danger in this. Her.meneutics‘ Kate Shellnutt writes:

This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the “Harlem Shake,” we don’t need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don’t need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don’t need to understand this underground genre of music called “trap.” We don’t even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim “Con los terroristas!” (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.

No longer embedded in its cult music context but dragged into our own, the dance loses any of its original significance to become a vehicle for our silliness. “With commodities in general, the more they are associated with their particular origins, the less susceptible they are to abstraction and shallow engagement,” Miller said. “Tradition stabilizes the meaning of cultural objects, preventing them from sliding into weightless postmodern signifiers.”

The result is a shallower, dumbed down approach to cultural artifacts, and the people creating them. We forget that behind most (if not all) memes, there are real human beings who may or may not appreciate their culture being appropriated willy-nilly for our entertainment. (Examples of this include “Gangnam Style” and the Star Wars kid.)

Shellnutt also points out that even something as seemingly disposable as an Internet meme may have much to say about our culture:

Before sharing the latest thing everybody’s tweeting about, Google where it came from and consider how it got from there to everywhere. There may not be life lessons tucked into SNL Digital Shorts or LOLcat photos, but it’s worth asking: What do people love about this? What makes them want to click? What does its popularity say about our society at this time?

Such an analytical process may seem like a bit of a buzzkill, given how easy it is to click on a YouTube video, get a good chuckle for 30 seconds, and move on to the next thing. However, that’s the problem in a nutshell. Making a deliberate decision to be more thoughtful, even about something as apparently trivial as a meme, can help us interact more graciously with the surrounding culture rather than simply hijacking it for 30 seconds’ worth of chuckles.

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