Shakin’ up the music promo? Bridging realities in the Harlem Shake

Harlem shake

After dissecting a sample of noteworthy music videos as part of my lecture on the music promo, I decided to indulge my student group in some discussion of the then viral YouTube phenomenon The Harlem Shake. This, I thought, would surely challenge my students to think about the mechanisms of the music industry and the power of music video, with the added effect of mollifying my disappointment in the aftermath of my missed Sky News interview.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when it transpired that one student in my class had very recently participated in a Harlem Shake video and was happy to allow our seminar group to view and discuss various aspects of the ‘performance’; we promptly connected the student’s laptop to the projector and eagerly awaited the start of the video (having gained his reassurance that we would not be exposed to embarrassing or inappropriate shots!). Thankfully the video was fairly sensible; it was titled Brook Street Harlem Shake and was accessed via a Facebook page. The picture quality wasn’t great and arguably the camera was a little too far away from the action (to be fair though I was comparing it to YouTube’s top ten Harlem Shake compilations) but nevertheless one could still make out a crowd of around 30 students, standing on a grassy area surrounded by tall student accommodation blocks, and the obligatory dance moves being performed with the aid of props like ironing boards, or an umbrella in the case of the student in question. Apparently, the hardest part of shooting the clip had been coaxing people into getting involved, since it had been a particularly cold day, yet most of the participants had joined in simply because it seemed like ‘a fun thing to do’.

However, whilst the students set about their group discussions of the video, some light-hearted mathematical calculations on my part had produced some intriguing results; if the number of Harlem Shake videos uploaded within the first two weeks of the craze (40,000 between 2nd February and 15th February 2013 according to Wikipedia) is multiplied by an average of ten participants then we must conclude that a staggering 400,000 or so people had taken part in a Harlem Shake video during the same period, and when added to the fact that The Harlem Shake uploads had attracted more than 9 million hits during these fourteen days, I was left pondering why so many people, seeking some form of entertainment to presumably enrich their lives, decided that uploading a 30 second video of themselves dancing to a short, repetitive sound clip in the necessarily curious manner, or watching others do so, provided the best solution?

The original version of the dance craze seemingly emerged from simple intentions as Matt Stanyon, one of the five Queensland teenagers responsible for the initial upload, admitted “(i)t was raining outside and we had nothing better to do” (abc News, 5th March 2013). Prima facie then, The Brook Street Harlem Shake had certainly remained true to the spirit of the original text, but did a similar motive apply to the 400,000 or so people who also participated in a Shake video, and their accompanying 9 million viewers? If so, and irrespective of whether we might think of this as cause for concern or otherwise, it perhaps provides invaluable insights into the psychology of contemporary media consumption, on a multinational scale. Set against an entertainment backdrop which now regularly draws upon reality shows and makes ordinary folk into pop stars (e.g. The XFactor, Britain’s Got Talent), and in an age when almost anyone can upload videos and images of themselves to the internet, audiences perhaps increasingly adept at seeking opportunities which might afford them their own dose of media attention. In this sense The Harlem Shake is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction that “in the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, albeit in this case for 30 seconds; technology has allowed us to compress considerably more into time and space since 1968.

Whilst my considerably more convoluted analysis of The Harlem Shake will wind its way to an academic publisher in due course, for the time being it is suffice to say that I consider The Harlem Shake to be a classic case study in what we might call ‘intertainment’. After initially formulating this phrase as a way of blending the ‘entertainment’ elements of The Harlem Shake with relevant adjectives sharing the same prefix (outlined below), I subsequently discovered that the term has been used in other contexts (run a quick search on Google and you’ll see what I mean). However, it is my assertion that the term could be applied to The Harlem Shake, and other similar examples, by virtue of a new definition which labels a new generation of media texts. So, I apply the hybrid term here on a number of unique grounds; The Harlem Shake was not only characterised by ‘in-house’ construction and production techniques, but was also by its very nature able to reside between and among audiences on an international scale, in the midst of a global entertainment arena (intertropical), accessed by looking in (inspecting), in a way which fosters mutuality between diverse and disparate audiences (interrelations) and encourages reciprocation (interest and joining-in). We might also consider applying the term ‘instantainment’ in acknowledgement of the speed with which audiences engaged with the video.

At a time when the format of music promos seems to have become all too familiar, indeed even those which endeavour to shock us through the inclusion of controversial content (Lady Gaga and Rihanna stirring up arguments about the objectification of women and so on) seem to follow similar lines, the notion of a music promo being fashioned by ordinary members of the public might arguably offer a welcome, if not refreshing, new dimension to the musicians’ stock of creative resources. It is not inconceivable, given the success of The Harlem Shake, that promos which are either deliberately or inadvertently, produced by the public might attract greater attention, and therefore in some cases serve musicians better than professionally produced alternatives.

There has been other evidence to support this idea; Gangnam Style and Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know instantly spring to mind here as two cases which owe much of their popularity to the new phenomenon of video virality. Likewise, if one views The Black Keys’ music video for Lonely Boy, which also went viral within 24 hours, we might conclude that audiences are increasingly equally content to accept recordings of regular citizens (in this case part-time Security Guard Derrick T. Tuggle) as visual accompaniments to a given piece of music as the musicians themselves, who arguably might be better off concentrating on being musicians rather than dancers, comedians or showmen/women; factors which some might argue have threatened the musicality of popular music since the advent of MTV in 1981. We can only speculate as to the implications of such creative openings for the future of music promos, and indeed music marketing and consumption. However, if the passage of time affirms The Harlem Shake as a cornerstone for change, then the opportunities for reinvigorating (or dare I say ‘shaking up’) the format of the music promo have surely been broadened, if not significantly enriched, as audiences can increasingly enjoy greater freedom in their interpretation of the music which accompanies their everyday lives.


Published by Dr Jennifer Skellington

In 2010 I completed my PhD thesis entitled ‘Transforming Music Criticism? An examination of changes in music journalism in the English broadsheet press from 1981 to 1991’, at Oxford Brookes University. My research entailed face to face interviews with fourteen long-standing music journalists representing all music genres from the English quality press, the construction of a database cataloguing and analysing all music-related content from a sample of quality newspapers from the period 1981 to 1991 and the detailed discourse analysis of a sample of live music reviews. My key area of expertise is music criticism and music journalism, particularly relating to popular music (including rock, pop, jazz, world music), however my broader teaching and research specialisms cover a wide range of popular music related topics, particularly those associated with popular music and identity (race, gender, nationality, subcultures) and popular music and film. Since completing my PhD I have held associate lecturing posts at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford University, Solent University, Brunel University, the University of Bristol, Bucks New University, the University of Northampton and the University of Worcester.

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