Con Los Terroristas. Translation: With the terrorists. This line has become the battle cry of 2013, and our muscles have conditioned themselves to contract in preparation to "do the Harlem shake"—whatever that might mean now.
Baauer's song "Harlem Shake," hailed by YouTube commenters as the new "Gangnam Style," has a lot in common with PSY's K-Pop, meme-core magnum opus, with the exception of one major difference: "Harlem Shake" is actually a good song. In fact, it's a perfect song. Clocking in at 3:18, there is not a single moment within the entire song that could be enhanced in
some way to make it more effective. The transformation of "Gangnam Style" into a meme came at a price, for the song will never exist as an artifact of sound separate from context (not that this has been such a terrible sacrifice). On the other hand, with the memeification of "Harlem Shake," we have lost one of the greatest songs in recent history.
I, like many people, first heard "Harlem Shake" slipped seamlessly into the middle of Rustie's exceptional BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix 1. This blood-pumping mix relentlessly exhibits banger after banger by artists who make music in the same vein as Baauer. But even amongst intense and bass-heavy songs by artists like TNGHT, Hudson Mohawke, and even Rustie
himself, "Harlem Shake" manages to stands out as the most arousing and stimulating of the bunch. Anyone who hears it falls immediately victim to his or her primal instincts, and is forced to react violently. There is something about the structure, the vocal samples, and, of course, the perfect drop that is, as Chazz Michael Michaels would say, "provocative, it gets people going!"-- miraculously even more so than Yezzy and Hova's "N*ggas in Paris." Rumor has it that God
played it for the Neanderthals to inspire them to hunt, and consequentially we owe our convenient position on the food chain to Baauer, the patron (or, patrón) saint of bangers.
"Harlem Shake" owes its success as a song to its crafty amalgamation of the trendiest sounds in modern music. With the classic American dubstep "drop"; the clumsy Dutch-house synth lines; and the Lex-Luger/Young-Chop-style trap beat that, rather than conjures up images of crack dealers in foreclosed homes in southern "trap" neighborhoods, instead evokes images of eight-year-olds dealing Yu-Gi-Oh cards from the ball pits of McDonalds, it's a track that the world of electronic music needed. After receiving modest attention in the indie and dance music scenes thanks to a co-sign from Pitchfork that labeled it "Best New Track," the song found its way to the top of the musical totem pole that is the iTunes top 10 tracks, all thanks to the song's transformation into the Internet's latest meme.
The way in which something becomes "popular" in the modern Internet age is a curious case that appeals to our lowered attention spans and the digital culture of disposability. Every few months a new trend rises just as quickly as it falls. Whether it be planking, coning, or even Gangnam-styling, the memeification of culture, although mind-numbing, seems to be relatively harmless—that is until it took "Harlem Shake" into its iron grip. Surely those teenage boys did not realize what they had done when they had uploaded the YouTube video of themselves dancing, humping, and just plain acting silly at the drop of "Harlem Shake," but I knew. As soon as I saw the video posted on the wall of a Facebook friend, I knew that my precious "Harlem Shake"—the one that I blasted in my room when I was feeling particularly violent or that I strategically turned on at parties to prove that my musical tastes do not consist exclusively of sad white men with guitars—would never be the same again.
Soon every college campus was making a meme video of "Harlem Shake," along with every kid with a webcam, underwater camera, or even laundry machine, and the first 30 seconds of the track became the most popular song in America. However, it is not the song itself which has become popular; rather it was the meme and what is being associated with it: the novelty of the track, the gimmick. Although the brilliance of the song has much to do with the reason why it has been graced with such a meme status, its brilliance is ignored in the context of its popularly. The common listener will never completely hear "Harlem Shake" just as a song, as a sonic masterpiece separate from its visuals. Most likely, the common listener will never even hear the song in its entirety, past the 30-second clip used in the meme videos. Objective proof of this has already surfaced in the form of video views on YouTube, with the view-count of any given meme video significantly surpassing that of the video (or lack thereof) of the original track itself. Never will "Harlem Shake" have the respect that it deserves as a piece of music. When people hear an exceptional pop song that predates meme culture, be it "Hey Ya" by OutKast or "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen, they say, "Wow! What a great song." Years from now, however, when someone throws on "Harlem Shake," people will respond with laughter or by saying, "Remember all of those silly videos of naked guys humping stuffed animals?" Baauer's song "Harlem Shake" is irreversibly connected to its gimmick and will always be discussed
within the context of how it grew to be popular through its memeification. I personally think that "Harlem Shake" is better than that, but the only space in which it will ever be appreciated as the work of art that it is is that half-inch gap between my headphones and ears.
Kevin O’Brien is a New Jersey native who is studying film production at Emerson College. He
is a Pitchfork Historian, accomplished musician, and aspiring Internet celebrity. Girls love him,
boys want to be him, you’re just jealous because he’s famous. @kevinobrien_