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Harlem Shake, The Life-Ruining Meme

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Egyptian activists and youth perform the "Harlem Shake" in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo on February 28, 2013. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian activists and youth perform the “Harlem Shake” in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo on February 28, 2013. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Scott T. Sterling
Scott T. Sterling Scott is the rock associate producer for Radio.com....
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At its peak, the video meme that exploded around Baauer’s unexpected No. 1 smash “Harlem Shake” turned into a seemingly ubiquitous sensation, with 4,000 of the viral clips being added to YouTube on a daily basis as of early February.

But as the immensely popular meme continued to grow, a bizarre phenomenon began to emerge.

Where “Harlem Shake” videos were once solely about fun and games, a trend towards serious repercussions (like people getting fired for creating “Harlem Shake” videos on the clock) and even politically-charged versions of the popular dance craze have taken hold.

There was an almost immediate backlash to Baauer’s breakout song, primarily from disgruntled viewers upset that the wild flailing seen in a majority of the clips is not the “real” Harlem Shake, which is credited to Harlem dancer “Al B” in the early ‘80s, and was revived in urban music videos by the likes of Diddy more than 20 years later.

After the meme exploded, a video of Harlem residents discrediting Baauer’s appropriation (below) quickly made the rounds, though Diddy, himself a Harlem native, publicly supported the sensation.

“Any time people are dancing, especially in this day and age when everybody’s trying to be so cool, and people are letting loose, letting off some steam, I agree with it,” Diddy told MTV News, though he did admit that people should “get educated on the real Harlem Shake, it’s something that’s an art form.”

Outraged Harlem citizens were soon followed by school administrators, who railed against the trend for safety reasons, like in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where at least three different schools have dealt with “Harlem Shake”-related issues. Sixteen students were suspended at an Eden Prairie, MN, high school for making a rowdy clip that included kids jumping on lunch tables and flipping one over. Six varsity high school players at Minnesota’s Mound Westonka High School were suspended from a playoff game for similar reasons, including dancing on tables.

“It takes moments, milliseconds [for a trend to spread],” Don Johnson, the head of a Minnesota group for middle and high school principals, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “They happen more often and with greater intensity, which makes it hard to combat.”

A student at Forest Hills High School in Queens, NY, was not only suspended but also arrested when a planned “Harlem Shake” video shoot in the school’s lobby turned into a frantic free-for-all that ended in police apprehension (hence the arrest of the 17-year-old organizer, Arnis Mehmetaj).

Students in Pennsylvania and at a Louisiana Christian academy (below) were disciplined for crafting more “graphic” and “vulgar” versions of the video meme.

Colorado College’s ultimate Frisbee team had a much more grandiose plan in mind when they convinced a Frontier Airlines crew to allow the students to film a “Harlem Shake” video mid-flight. Once the resulting clip went viral (it currently boasts more than 4 million views), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was moved to instigate a full-blown investigation to determine if making the video created safety hazards for the passengers (although Frontier Airlines insists that “the seatbelt sign was off and safety measures were followed.”

“I don’t see there being any reason why this should cause any trouble,” explained sophomore Matt Zelin, who filmed the airplane video. “We asked the staff and they said it was safe.”

The backlash hit a group of Australian miners especially hard, as they were fired from six-figure jobs for filming a “Harlem Shake” video in the Agnew Gold Mine. Mine owner Barminco calling the stunt a dangerous breach of “core values of safety, integrity and excellence.”

The Australian miners aren’t the first to lose their jobs over a meme. During the height of PSY’s viral phenomenon “Gangnam Style,” 14 lifeguards in El Monte, CA, were unceremoniously fired from their posts for producing their own spoof video for the song.The city of El Monte released a statement about the firings, stating that the clip displayed “a clear unauthorized use of city resources and property, including the use of city facilities and city-issued uniforms during the making of this unauthorized video.” (The lifeguards were rehired about a month later.)

“Maybe some of this is just a generational divide,” argued Billboard editor Bill Werde to CBS News, “that maybe there’s people on the El Monte City Council who don’t fully appreciate that this is just the way people communicate today.”

It’s a valid argument, as modern society is inundated with the idea that celebrity is just a viral video away. People are quick to risk a lot – including otherwise secure employment – for a chance at some degree of public notoriety. It goes beyond jumping on a bandwagon so it’s worth wondering, was anyone ever fired over the “Macarena”?

In African countries like Tunisia and Egypt, however, the “Harlem Shake” has evolved into a legitimate form of protest, where some are willing to even risk life and limb to be a part of the phenomenon.

As many as 400 men were dancing to the “Harlem Shake” outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s main office in Cairo as a way to call for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to step down, causing those in the building to shut off all lights and close down the building.

Things turned violent in Tunisia when Salafist Muslims disrupted local students making a “Harlem Shake” video during a school dance, resulting in a confrontation between the protesters and students.

“Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing,” one of the Salafist protesters reportedly declared on the scene according to AFP, as students chanted for them to “get out, get out!”

In an increasingly digital and “reality”-based world powered by social networks, the enormous success and worldwide appeal of the “Harlem Shake” moment has evolved into something beyond a mere meme. Brands like Red Bull, Topshop and Beats By Dre all rushed to capitalize on the sensation, to varying degrees of success.

It could be argued that the spirit of the “Harlem Shake” embodies true freedom of expression, from just having fun to high school rebellion to political protest, propelling an obscure but infectious dance track to the top of the charts in the process.

“It’s gotten absolutely insane,” Baauer himself told the Daily Beast. “All I did was make the song so it’s kind of a weird place for me to be at. I birthed it, it was raised by others, and now it’s like my weird, f—– up adopted teenage kid coming back to me.

“But at the base of it, it’s my song and it’s making people want to dance,” the 23-year-old producer surmised. “That’s the best feeling in the world to me.”

If only it were that simple.

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