In our constant exposure to the ephemeral stream of pop culture trends, it can be all too easy to overlook a true masterpiece of nuanced, artistic social-commentary. Recently one such fad has emerged which, though widely misinterpreted, is a bold statement about self-expression and conformity; I’m referring, of course, to the Harlem Shake.
It’s become an instant viral phenomenon: every school, every TV show, every social group has created either an homage to or a parody of this bizarre video. People think it’s nothing more than an amusing and zany (or in some cases annoyingly overdone) whim born from social media. People could not be more mistaken. I hope to prove, through a thorough dissection of the videos’ structure and content, that there is a much more sophisticated and surprising subtext.
The videos start with one person (who is traditionally wearing a helmet or mask) dancing mechanically in a room full of people who are concentrating on other things. This is a picture of the individual attempt to attract attention and advertise personal beliefs: the solo dancer is striving to draw attention to his or her antics but to no avail. This person’s face is covered to symbolize timidity in appearing before a crowd, but also to ensure that the viewer can relate to this person. Nameless and faceless, this brave person could be any of us.
The scene then shifts, abruptly and dramatically. Everybody in the room who had previously been motionless and unengaged is now thrashing and dancing, sometimes costumed or in various stages of undress. Yet no one is moving in the same pattern, and rarely do the people interact with each other.
This is the most important moment in the entire video, as it makes the strongest statement about individual expression in a wider social context. Often, witnessing someone convey an opinion will galvanize the masses into similar expression. Here, though there's only one song playing, everyone dances differently to it. This implies an initially optimistic attitude towards expression, highlighting the exciting capacity humanity has for unique interpretation. Unfortunately, this generally results in chaos wherein everyone tries to be heard but no one is understood.
The physical appearances of the dancers are important. The physical exposure symbolizes how naked one can feel when revealing one’s innermost thoughts to a group of people. Moreover, the crazed, animalistic actions of the dancers reflect how people can inadvertently create caricatures of themselves in their attempt to communicate their passion. The costumes are also indicative of this: they accentuate the unfortunate reality that people often disguise their true selves in the attempt to reveal them. Throughout this, the dancing is a constant medium of expression: it is not senseless writhing, but a desperate plea for recognition.
After a few seconds of dancing an echoing, disembodied voice cuts through the music with a foreboding command: “Do the Harlem Shake.” This is a use of deus ex machina to reach a tragic conclusion. The crowd of people striving to express themselves through a frenzy of thrashing bodies with no foreseeable end is stifled abruptly by an anonymous, ominous order to reassert uniformity. The screen cuts to black—the dancers are gone—no one understood, or will understand, and the farcical travesty of life goes on.
Every new incarnation of this viral sensation brings a new twist and subtext to the essential message the video: hopelessness and desperation for communication. These videos are so popular because people are instinctively, viscerally attracted to this portrayal of the human struggle. Yet while everyone is automatically drawn to the videos, no one takes the time to realize on a conscious level what exactly the Harlem Shake is about. This misinterpretation is a final, heartbreaking testament to the truth of the videos’ implication that straightforward communication and genuine understanding is ultimately impossible.