Con Los Terroristas

Towards a Structuralist Understanding of the Harlem Shake

The first thing you notice is the music. The vocal call out (‘with the terrorists’, the internet translates it as) and the steady beat. What comes next has many variations but in its most refined form, it is well crafted and predictable. For fifteen seconds, you see a tableau in which one figure dances, usually masked, helmeted, or otherwise strangely garbed. It draws your eye. As visual boredom sets in, you look at the surroundings: everyone else in the scene sits or stands around, ignoring the only activity. And then the bass drops, and all of a sudden an explosion of movement has already happened, the tableau has shifted, and while you race to take everything in (the man on the tricycle, the inflatable sex doll being waved about, the girl swinging from the rafters) the video suddenly ends. What has just happened?

The arch-meme is a finely crafted instrument. It presents a base template through which many ideas can be pulled. Most memes, in their early form, are about taking a joke and extending it by replaying it in different contexts or with minor variations on the original. The humor gets drained quickly, until all that is left is the format. The prime example of this is the iterations on the famous British propaganda poster, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. By the time we’ve arrived at ‘Keep Calm and Stay Southern’, we’ve completely hacked away the compelling notion at the core of the original (an understated, almost accidentally perfect encapsulation of one national character in a particular era1) and replaced it with something so totally unrelated that the emblem of the crown which adorns it is a nonsensical interlocutor, a signifier that has been torn from its signified. The format lends nothing at this point, except as a vehicle for being redistributed. Is this what we mean by ‘viral’? Not pandemic-scale dissemination, but rather infesting one idea with wholly alien genetic material and using that idea’s genetic code to manufacture new ones, mutations, until the strain is of a totally different taxonomy.

There are many variations of the Harlem Shake, and you can watch them in rapid succession in the form of twenty-odd minute compilations. Taken as a body of work, what is most surprising is that they’re quite addictive, even though you know exactly what’s coming. Partly, it’s the music. Even though it is only the first thirty seconds of a longer song, it loops surprisingly well. That’s probably because the first thirty seconds tell you all you need to know about the rest of the song. It, too, might as well be on a loop. The other factor, of course, is the level of effort and detail that the creators of these videos go to. The simplest videos are the least interesting, whether its five guys in a frat house living room or, as in one particularly arresting example, one guy alone, with his dog. The most compelling ones are the gymnasiums, the universities, the army units, where that bass drop shatters the thin varnish of a scene of reasonably plausible every day life and turns it into a depiction of collective madness that would make Bosch proud. High production values alone doesn’t always win it. Red Bull’s skydiving iteration, though well put together, suffers from giving itself away in the jump cuts. It’s the static camera that does the most work. Like the room at a standstill before the drop, we’re stuck watching the infective dance as it jumps from Patient A in the motorcycle helmet to the entire school around him. We long to join the fray, to leap up from our computer chairs into this brave new world where it’s okay to dance with a floor lamp and take off (almost) all of your clothes.

It’s also impossible to deny that there is a codified sexual release built into this depiction of madness. Men strip down to their underwear, discarding their uniforms or fashionable outfits. Anonymity prevails through costumes. And of course, the music itself is the music of the club beat. The pelvic thrust is everywhere, and whether or not this can be reduced to a symptom of it being the only way left we have of dancing, its implication cannot be wiped away. Other tropes get dragged in quickly, too. Several versions feature Angry Birds paraphernalia, or Pirates of the Caribbean costumes, or whatever else we have handy. Like a Breugel painting, we’ve shoved all of our metaphors into one picture. And it is a picture, the post-animated-gif version of a photograph.

To be sure, the Harlem Shake probably couldn’t have happened until after the Lady Gaga video meme craze, but it is a finer take on the idea, simply for its better absurdity. But this precedent raises another important point: these sorts of videos, this viral spread, is one limited to a specific cultural context. Where Gaga and dubstep have happened, Poker Face and Harlem shake may follow. The low art of the high empire finds its legs in the internal communication channels, but at the borders it stops suddenly and ends. The bizzaro-world democracy of YouTube is one open only to fellow citizens. Whatever the Internet meme culture tells us about ourselves, it tells us only about ourselves, and only in the minutes and half-minutes that the videos last, and only for the week or so in which we pay attention to them. Once they hit CNN, we’re done, we’ve developed the antibodies, and we wait for a new disease to come and take hold of us. Meanwhile, perhaps, we become a little more impervious to the new and strange ideas that leak in from outside our bubble, faster to dismiss the novelty as another passing phase.


  1. Although it’s important to note that the posters displaying this message were never actually used during the Blitz. Although produced, some higher-ups in the government rightly acknowledged that the fundamental message was more condescending than stiff-upper-lip, and it was only decades later when they were rediscovered in a warehouse that the slogan and its spare midcentury typography reached icon status. [back]