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.


Conference paper – June 2015


‘Hot on the press: an examination of increased coverage of female musicians, in pixels and in print, in the English quality news press from 1981 to 1991’.  Consuming/ Culture: Women and girls in print and pixels.  Oxford Brookes University.  5-6 June 2015.

This paper documents a period of significant change in the appearance and content of music coverage within English quality newspapers during the 1980s, with a particular focus upon the increased editorial predilection for prominent images and articles relating to female musicians. Quantitative evidence is provided to highlight the nature of this increased focus upon female musicians, for example by article type, genre, size of image and page position, and direct quotations from interviews conducted by the author with several of the most prolific broadsheet music journalists of the decade are used to illustrate the motives for, and effects of, this new emphasis. The paper shows how images of female musicians not only boosted the extent of popular music criticism in the national press but also shifted classical music advertising strategies away from the status of the composer towards the aesthetic qualities of its performers, with Vanessa Mae providing a case study in this instance. These shifts are set within the context of Thatcherism, new newspaper production technologies, music industry advertising strategies and increased competition from emerging glossy magazines towards the end of the decade. Furthermore, it is argued that images and coverage relating to female musicians became inextricably linked to the marketing strategies of the newspapers themselves, in their bid to attract a wider readership. Finally, the paper addresses the possible legacies inherited from this period with reference to samples of articles and advertisements from contemporary newspaper pages.

Litpop: Writing and Popular Music (Ashgate, 2014). Now in print!


It was a wonderful surprise to unwrap my personal hardcopy of this new Ashgate title which arrived in the post today, of which I am the proud author of chapter 6. Ashgate’s poster for the book is attached, and the publisher’s descriptive summary of the book’s contents are reproduced below (note my underlining). For 50% discount on orders via Ashgate use code 50BDF14N.

“Bringing together exciting new interdisciplinary work from emerging and established scholars in the UK and beyond, Litpop addresses the question: how has writing past and present been influenced by popular music, and vice versa? Contributions explore how various forms of writing have had a crucial role to play in making popular music what it is, and how popular music informs ‘literary’ writing in diverse ways. The collection features musicologists, literary critics, experts in cultural studies, and creative writers.

Contents: Introduction: Writing and popular music: Litpop in/and/as the world, Rachel Carroll and Adam Hansen. Part I Making Litpop: ‘A burlesque of art’: Three Men in a Boat, music hall and the imperial mimicry of the Victorian urban explorer, David Ibitson; ‘You can’t just say ‘words’’: literature and nonsense in the work of Robert Wyatt, Richard Elliott; Perfect pop story: Sarah Records (1987–1995), Elodie Amandine Roy; ‘Fate songs’: musical agency and the literary soundtrack in D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little, Gerard Moorey; ‘We are turning cursive letters into knives’: the synthesis of the written word, sound and action in riot grrrl cultural resistance, Julia Downes. Part II Thinking Litpop: Defining qualities: making a voice for rock and pop music in the English quality news press, Jennifer Skellington; Trauma and degeneration: Joy Division and pop criticism’s imaginative historicism, Paul Crosthwaite; Is ‘natural’ in it?: Gang of Four, Scritti Politti, and Gramsci, David Wilkinson; ‘You should try lying more’: the nomadic impermanence in sound and text in the work of Bill Drummond, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse; Fela Kuti versus craze world: notes on the Nigerian grotesque, Hugh Hodges. Part III Consuming Litpop: ‘[S]he loved him madly’: music, mixtapes and gendered authorship in Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, Rachel Carroll; Audio books: the literary origins of grooves, labels and sleeves, Richard Osborne; ‘Our histories could fill a megastore’: Paul Farley in conversation with Adam Hansen, Paul Farley and Adam Hansen; Coda, Sheila Whiteley. Index.”

“(D)espite its ephemeral nature and what some might perceive as its heightened subservience to the music industry, and regardless of those who would criticize its present day format, rock and pop music criticism within quality newspapers represents a vast and significant body of writing, with its own unique history and language, which continues to play a vital role in maintaining such music within the public consciousness”.

An extract from my chapter in Litpop: Writing and popular music (Ashgate, 2013).

Litpop flyer

Popular music adding value through community choirs

Swindon advertiser photo

Earlier this year I spoke at a conference on ‘The Value of Popular Music’, and on hearing the news that the recent fundraising concert performed by Langford-based community choir The Cotswold Voices had raised over a thousand pounds towards the cost of a new piano for a local primary school, I was reminded that sometimes the value of popular music might be more obscure than we first think. Upon receiving a cheque from the choir Headteacher Mr Goodwin, of St Christopher’s School Langford, commented “I was speechless when they informed me this week that the evening had raised £1230. We are truly blessed to have such fantastic support from our local community” (School Newsletter 24th Oct 2014).

The fundraiser concert, complete with food, wine and a sumptuously lit venue, comprised a varied two-part programme of popular songs, both old and new, with a sprinkling of pieces from popular shows and musicals. Highlights included Viva la Vida (Coldplay), Pompeii (Bastille), Like a Prayer (Madonna), With or Without You (U2), Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel), Defying Gravity (Wicked) and medleys of Abba and BeeGees favourites. The songs were all expertly arranged into original four and five-part harmonies by talented choir leader Joe Moore and sung with verve by this dynamic choir, comprising singers of all ages from Langford and the surrounding areas. Goodwin, who attended the concert, described the event as “a truly memorable evening full of energy and fantastic singing” (School Newsletter, 24th Oct 2014).

The social and health benefits of singing in a community choir have been well-documented, indeed a friend only recently handed a magazine article to me which claimed that choir members can experience health benefits ranging from increased oxygenation in the blood, stress reduction, an end to snoring, increased lung capacity and wrinkle prevention (The Lady, May 2009). Whilst I can’t vouch for such medical claims, it’s clear that the benefits of community choirs extend beyond those reserved for the participant singers.

The Cotswold Voices have a strong record of raising funds for local charities; in a joint concert with Welsh Male Choir Cor Y Gyrlais earlier this year they raised £1900, and their renditions of popular Christmas songs performed in Swindon Town Centre last year raised over £100 in donations from passers-by in under an hour. Their next concert takes place at Blunsdon House Hotel, on Sunday 23rd November at 7pm. Tickets cost £5 and will raise funds for the Thamesdown Hydrotherapy Pool and NSPCC – charities which both received substantial cheques after the choir’s fundraising concert at the same venue in 2013. The Cotswold Voices also perform at weddings and birthday parties and participate in a wide variety of local entertainment events in the local area, demonstrating perhaps that popular music’s value can indeed extend well beyond the immediate concerns of the music industries and can be appropriated and adapted to add value of a less commercial nature to the communities it inhabits.

For further information about Cotswold Voices please visit their website at, or to find a choir closer to you visit British Choirs on the Net at

Photo courtesy of the Swindon Advertiser

Popular Music Research Group – Open Lecture at Oxford Brookes University


Dr Jennifer Skellington on Bob Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue (1974): A Disturbance of Narrative Order?

1pm, Tuesday 18th March, Oxford Brookes University, Richard Hamilton Building.

This is the first session in this year’s exciting series of open lectures to be provided by members of the Oxford Brookes Popular Music Research Unit.

In this lecture Jennifer will not only draw attention to the many subtleties in Dylan’s lyrics and vocal emphasis but will question whether or not the track can be heard as biographical.  Jennifer will then consider Michael Gray’s claim that a “disturbance of narrative order…is the particularly modernist feature of Tangled up in Blue” (Gray, Song and Dance Man III, 1999).

Singing with The Cotswold Voices in Swindon Town Centre, December 2013

They say that variety is the spice of life and this would certainly count as variety in mine.  After setting up our pre-allocated pitch in the doorway to BHS our esteemed choir leader led us through our 1-hour set of well-rehearsed songs and medleys, with the informal nature of the setting certainly helping us to relax into a fine performance.  Whilst many people simply walked past the thirty or so people heartily singing away less than two metres away others paused for a while to sing along, stare, clap and even dance in some instances.  We were a little crammed in, and I’m certain that standing out in the street would have attracted a greater audience, but that didn’t stop us raising over £100 for local charities in our 1-hour time slot and that can’t be a bad thing.

It did however leave me pondering over the nature of public listening though, especially in relation to those lone shoppers who simply walked on past with heads bent down and eyes averted.  Perhaps some listeners have become so accustomed to precision produced music, like that which we encounter through our plethora of available media channels, that live music at such close proximity (not to mention eye contact with its performers) has become a slightly uncomfortable if not undesirable experience.  Whilst acknowledging the role of personal taste and the pressures of Christmas shopping, I was left wondering whether some listeners might also have become so accustomed to listening to music whilst they shop that differences in style or quality have become increasingly irrelevant, or perhaps the art of passive listening has become so deeply ingrained within our culture that audiences have developed reduced levels of interest in the source of music.   Either way, the diversity of audience reactions to our efforts reminded me of Aaron Copeland’s words of wisdom that “Composers tend to assume that everyone loves music.  Surprisingly enough, everyone doesn’t” (The New York Times Magazine, 1964).

Regardless of our constantly shifting audience and somewhat unconventional venue, it was heart-warming to see so many other musicians, choirs or otherwise, filling the busy streets of Swindon with their melange of musical styles; their efforts not only raised much-needed funds for a range of local charities but they each contributed to the unique soundtrack of local music making which accompanied the Christmas shopping experience of those who chose to hear it, whether in passing or otherwise.  Thank you to all those who did stop to listen and to those whose kind donations made it all worthwhile, and three cheers for local amateur musicians who continue to come together to keep local music making alive and accessible, no matter how unusual the venue or response of their listeners.

‘Speaking of Value?’ Forthcoming Conference Paper Abstract


I am delighted to announce that I have another conference paper scheduled for next year, this time to be presented at the ‘Pop-Life:  The Value of Popular Music in the Twenty First Century’ conference to be held at The University of Northampton, 6th and 7th June 2014.

 This paper will examine the language by which notions of value are attributed to popular music within the English quality news press of the twenty first century.  Drawing upon extensive critical discourse analysis of a sample of music writing, taken from quality national newspapers across the period 2000 to 2012, the paper examines the role of the national press in shaping and circulating that terminology which provides the basis for commonly used measurements of popular music’s real or imaginary value and use in people’s everyday lives.

By examining reviews of recorded and live popular music, and by taking into account both the objective observations and subjective commentary of their critic authors, the paper unpicks the nature of various derivations of value; for example, value to audiences (whether on an intimate level in relation to individual listeners or to the shared experience of fan collectives), value to the maintenance of a music industry and associated media (as reciprocal and self-fuelling entities) or value to the preservation of artistic tradition (though genre lineages and reference to the musical canon).

Hesmondhalgh has recently argued that music’s value is inherently linked to notions of “commonality, community and solidarity” (2013: 84) and it is with reference to these concepts, and his associated model for considering forms of “public and publicness” (2013: 86) that the discourse analysis results are discussed.  Ultimately, the paper will consider the extent to which music writing, and particularly that which enjoys a privileged position within the English quality news press, might both reinforce existing ideas, and forge new frameworks, in relation to the value of popular music in its many forms.

Conference Paper in Honour of Simon Frith


Good news!  My paper proposal for the forthcoming conference ‘Studying Music: an International Conference in Honour of Prof. Simon Frith’, to be held at the University of Edinburgh 10th-12th April 2014, has been accepted.  The paper,  provisionally titled ‘Raising stars from the underpass: an examination of Simon Frith’s music journalism in the English quality press from 1982 to 1990’ will examine Frith’s navigation of the complex relationship between sociology and criticism as evidenced through his journalistic output in the English quality press of the 1980s.  A detailed critical discourse analysis of a carefully selected sample of Frith’s music writing published in the Sunday Times and The Observer, from his inaugural rock column in the former titled Stars from the underpass (1982) until the end of the 1980s, will also shed light upon the means by which Frith sought to meet the needs of general readers without compromising his academically inflected and sociologically informed critical voice.

I hope to see you there.

Lechlade Music Festival, May 2013

Admittedly, I only took the family along to this event on the basis of its close proximity to home, although I noted afterwards that it was quite rightly nominated for the 2013 Best Small Festival and Best Family Festival awards, but sadly didn’t win.  The kids loved the Pirate Party Brigade, a lively group of scallywags from Jersey who described their music as ‘ska-gypsy-punk’, and whose confetti canon secured the interest of their younger viewers.  The Military Wives Choir scored points for sentimentality and whilst the Cadbury Sisters seemed uncomfortable on stage at first, and a little too quiet throughout, I was sufficiently compelled to purchase their CD immediately after their set and have spent many hours listening to it since.

Whilst I probably wouldn’t have recommend travelling from outside the UK to attend this music festival (unless you have children who love face paints and glitter tattoos in abundance and want to combine it with some sightseeing in the Cotswolds), it certainly made a very pleasant introduction to festival culture for families with younger children, and the variety of acts meant that there was something to suit most popular tastes. Its line-up was never going to challenge the bigger festivals, although I’ve still not forgiven myself for missing Top Loader’s appearance at the Lechlade Music Festival a couple of years ago, but it was certainly worth a day out, especially for those sufficiently open minded to try out some lesser known acts.

If however, you are the type of festival goer who craves a more spiritual experience, or you attend such gatherings for politically motivated reasons, then this probably isn’t the one for you.  The confetti cannons were undoubtedly great for the kids, but they were also a sad reminder that, thanks in no small part to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, it is now almost impossible to rekindle the counter-cultural spirit of early 1970s music festivals; even if we squint at the fluttering confetti we know that it can never be the same as witnessing the Rolling Stones release several hundred white butterflies on stage in Hyde Park in July 1969.  Ironically, it was the 1979 Fourth People’s Free Music Festival at Watchfield, no more than a handful of miles down the road, which perhaps signalled the demise of the original spirit of UK music festivals, with it’s enforced external controls and behavioural expectations kept in check by a planned police presence.

The Lechlade Music Festival certainly makes for a quality, relaxed, family friendly weekend, but some might find themselves left wanting something more, lamenting the bygone era of music festivals which facilitated a sense of escape from normal life (note the countless fast food and retail outlets dotted around modern-day festival sites), a return to ‘the garden’ (thwarted by fences, designated areas, ID wristbands etc.) or the freedom to explore countercultural ideas (now little more than apolitical family entertainment).  Like other festivals which I have attended recently, I came away feeling that it was rather like having attended a birthday party without ever knowing the identity of the birthday boy or girl; everyone had danced, made merry and spent lots of money in the process of celebrating, but somehow the meaning and purpose of it all had become a little obscure.