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Sociology & The Harlem Shake Meme

I tried to ignore. I hoped it’d go away. But oh, no… it wouldn’t. So fine I’ll do it. Here is how that annoying yet omnipresent internet meme The Harlem Shake is sociological. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses The Harlem Shake Internet meme to discuss cultural appropriation and how we make meaning of culture.

If you’ve turned on the Internet the last few weeks, then I bet you’ve seen one of the many incarnations of “The Harlem Shake” video. In these formulaic 30 second videos a single masked person dances while the people around him/her go about doing some inane activity like typing on a key board. Then the bass drops and the video cuts to people bafoonishly waving their arms around in a collective pandaemonium and then as quickly as it started the video slowmo’s and a loud “RAWR” plays as the video fades to black. I mean it’s just plain hilarious…

Or at least it was the first time I saw the shtick. But in the weeks since, hundreds of copycat videos have emerged. Here’s just a tiny fraction

I know what you’re thinking. 1. This is SO last week! (I know, believe me) and 2. Why are you talking about this on a sociology blog? To answer your first point: I know right! And to answer your second: “The Harlem Shake” is completely sociological. While I could use the meme to illustrate hundreds of sociological concepts, today I want to talk about cultural appropriation and the active consumption of media.

Cultural Appropriation

The idea of cultural appropriation is rather simple; when someone takes/uses/adopts an element of another culture they are not a part of, this is called cultural appropriation. However, the tricky part is knowing how your cultural appropriation will be received by the members of the culture you are borrowing from. It get’s even more tricky when we consider social dominance; is the group that’s doing the taking the dominant culture or not? Likewise is the group that is having it’s culture appropriated the dominant or non-dominant culture? Sometimes incorporating another’s culture into your own can be seen as being inclusive and/or a way of honoring the original culture. Other times however, cultural appropriation can be seen as trivializing, commoditizing, or dishonoring the culture of a group you don’t belong to. This is especially tricky when you consider how some cultural items become “mainstream” culture (i.e. they become adopted so widely by people who were not of the original culture that the connection to the original culture becomes weakened to the point of near irrelevance).

What I’m trying to say is, cultural appropriation is along a continuum with always-offensive on one end and rarely-offensive on the other. For instance, if you came over for dinner and I served Pizza Hut, you probably wouldn’t be offended that I am not Italian. However, many were highly offended when a Victoria’s Secret model walked the cat walk in lingerie and a Native American headdress. Okay, with this in mind now let’s “Do The Harlem Shake”.

Actually that’s the nut of the cultural appropriation issue. The people in the Harlem Shake videos aren’t doing “The Harlem Shake”. The original Harlem Shake dance was created in… wait for it… Harlem over many years, but perhaps first achieved national prominence in the early 2000s. The original Harlem Shake is an impossibly fast rhythmic shoulder shimmy. The Harlem Shake Internet meme is people clowning around and dancing without rhythm. I wonder how the people of Harlem feel about the Harlem Shake meme (NOTE: The S-word is used numerous times in this video):

The people of Harlem are none too happy that this bafoonish dance meme is donning their name sake. To the people of Harlem and many many many social critics/media personalities this is clear cut cultural appropriation.

Say’s Who? How We Make Meaning Out of Media

Perplexed, confused, and dumbfounded. Those are the words that would describe how my students reacted when I explained to them how the Harlem Shake Meme was an example of cultural appropriation. Every student who spoke agreed, “this isn’t about Harlem or the original Harlem Shake”. To prove their point one of my students used their information phone to find this article where Baauer himself says that he simply chose the audio clip of his friend saying “do the Harlem Shake” because he thought it fit well with the music. “See Professor Palmer, it could have been any set of words, but it just happened to be ‘Do The Harlem Shake’.” The entire class, with a smug sense of satisfaction shook their heads confidently in unison. My students were on to something sociological.

Social scientists, especially the discipline of communication studies, have long argued that when we consume a piece of culture or media we do not blindly accept the messages it is trying to convey. Instead, we interpret the media, draw conclusions about the messages it is trying to convey, and then take away from it a meaning that we created for ourselves. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that it’s entirely possible and likely even that neither Baauer nor the people who made all those videos understood what they were doing to be any way connected to either Harlem or the original dance.

But culture comes from somewhere. So it can both be true that Baauer and all of the people who made videos may have had absolutely no idea they were culturally appropriating an important piece of culture and yet they were. I’ll leave you with an amazing example of the original Harlem Shake (You’re welcome):

The Real Real Real Harlem Shake

Dig Deeper:

  1. What do you think? How is the Harlem Shake meme an example of cultural appropriation and how should that affect what we think of all the videos?
  2. Think of other examples where people consume a type of media and create a meaning from it that the original creators may have never intended.
  3. Think of some other examples of cultural appropriation not discussed in the article. Explain why they are a good example?
  4. What role do you think social dominance plays in cultural appropriation? In your answer be sure to give examples of the dominant culture takes from the non-dominant culture (e.g. the Victoria’s Secret Headdress debacle) and the other way around.