Never underestimate the power of a creative, compelling idea. Or, for that matter, even a silly idea that spontaneously catches fire, then blazes across continents and burrows straight into the collective global consciousness.
Such is the exceedingly unlikely story of "Harlem Shake," a throbbing, pulsating, hip-hop stab of mostly lyric-free beats that, thanks to a thermonuclear explosion of YouTube dance videos, is suddenly everywhere.
Twenty-three-year-old Harry Bauer Rodrigues—a DJ who goes by the name of Baauer—wrote the song not quite a year ago and released it into the wilds of the Internet. The catchy tune generated some buzz in the industry, enough to land him a contract with Mad Decent imprint Jeffree's. All in all, Baauer told Billboard magazine that he was more than pleased with the slow, steady ascent his musical career was taking.
Then came that detonation.
On Feb. 7, 2013, the Internet seethed and shimmied into a state of "Harlem Shake" critical mass, with several amateur videographers imitating a video for the song created by comedian Filthy Frank. The videos followed a set pattern: A person in a mask or helmet does a hip-thrusting dance amid a group of other people paying the dancer no attention. About 15 seconds into the 3-minute instrumental, a booming voice commands, "And do the Harlem Shake." Suddenly, everyone else in the area begins dancing wildly as well. Another 15 seconds after that, the video abruptly ends.
In less than a month, more than 93,000 videos of various folks doing this dance have landed on YouTube. Estimates of how many times they've been watched (in total, in that same time frame) range from 100 to 200 million.
Incidentally, the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon blew up just as Billboard decided it was time to change methodologies regarding the metrics it relied upon for its mainstream Hot 100 chart. Previously, the chart had tabulated a song's physical and digital sales, radio airplay and online streams. Now, Billboard has added YouTube to the mix, instantly tilting the chart in favor of Internet sensations such as, you got it, "Harlem Shake." Given the new rules and hundreds of millions of views, "Harlem Shake" debuted at No. 1.
Reports Billboard's Kerri Mason, "'Harlem Shake' is more than a meme or a hit; it's a moment of cultural convergence—of hip-hop meeting dance and pop, of consumer technology enabling creativity, of offline socializing leading to online social sharing. It's the newly of-age and independent millennial showing the world how to dance to his beat, in the form of young Baauer."
She also draws a distinction between Baaur and his famous forerunner, PSY. "Unlike PSY," she writes, "Baauer didn't make a splashy video—or any video at all. He didn't even issue a challenge to his fans to do so (a favorite marketing trick of brands from Doritos to Pepsi to Lincoln). There was no prize, no 'get,' for making a 'Harlem Shake' video, apart from the satisfaction of knowing you had the attention of the online community, or the actual experience of the shoot with your friends."
Now, as I mentioned earlier, there's not much to the song itself. Beyond that bombastic line, "Let's do the Harlem Shake," we hear the Spanish lyric "Con los terroristas" ("With the terrorists") several times. In certain countries, Egypt and Tunisia among them, groups of people are appropriating the tune as a tool of governmental protest. But in the rest of the world, the thousands of weirdly addictive "Harlem Shake" videos don't have much substance or meaning. Instead, their structure involves all manner of ridiculousness as folks engage in bizarre interpretations of the dance. Entertainment moguls such as Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon and even the Today show anchors have offered their takes. So have a battalion from the Norwegian Army, and a walrus and two sea lions from San Antonio's SeaWorld.
Mingled amid those more innocent videos, however, are many that aren't so innocent. And I'm not talking about political statements anymore. A quick scan of YouTube reveals no shortage of shakers strutting their suggestive stuff in bikinis or underwear. And the second-most popular search term for the song on YouTube is, as of this review, "Harlem Shake 18+," which (if your YouTube parental control settings allow it) unleashes thousands more videos that are much racier—racy enough to either earn YouTube's adults-only designation or be hastily banished by the Google company's online censors.