The popular YouTube meme that is the Harlem Shake is a cultural abomination. It possessess no cultural meaning, it lacks creativity in its reproduction, and it fails to fulfill the basic purposes of art.
The production of a Harlem Shake video has all the qualities of a mass-produced consumer product, relying on a simple formula and requiring only the most basic of film-making skills. All you need are a cast, one camera angle, two scenes and a specific song.
A Harlem Shake video contains no autonomous value. There is no deeper meaning, political antithesis or criticism inherent in this product, it only appeals to idiotic notions of “lolrandom” Internet humor. We can compare this, for example, with PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, which also contains elements that are simple and easy to mimic. The dance moves are shorthand for, “We share a like for this product”. These cultural signals are easily transmitted and understood.
The Harlem Shake’s popularity indicates a deeper sickness in our system of mass culture, a sickness that is pockmarked by cheap laughs, a lack of originality and the herd mentality of culture consumers. It represents a style of culture that is predictable. When we see another Harlem Shake video, we know exactly how it will play out and end. What we’re interested in is the twist, the small deviation from the standard that the manufacturer of the video places in their art.
Of course, this phenomenon is not recent or unique. 4chan Internet memes possess the same qualities of mass culture, and before that, we can view Hollywood Spaghetti Westerns, soap operas and dime novels as all doing their bit to homogenise culture.
This is not at all to suggest that the original Harlem Shake is devoid of merit, but there should be greater general criticism of the phenomenon that exists in mass culture that favours this form of bacterial cultural reproduction.
Great cultural works throughout history appealed to ideas like patriotism, alienation, revolution or victory. The copy of a copy of a copy that is the Harlem Shake genre appeals to nothing like these ideas. Instead, it’s a cheap laugh that placates us, a cultural opiate that costs little to produce and only seconds to consume.
Death to the Harlem Shake genre, and death to those who serve up this cultural gruel. There’s an old retort to unfunny morons who endlessly parrot phrases that were once funny – “If you keep saying it, it won’t make it funnier.”