Does the Harlem Shake Mean We'll Never Escape Viral Dance Memes?

I don't mean to get too weepy here, so soon after Valentine's Day, but I think this is true, and important: You never forget your first viral-video dance meme. I'm sorry, "Harlem Shake" partisans, but it's true. Whether it was "Call Me Maybe," all the way back in 2012, or "Gangnam Style," all the way a few weeks after that, no viral-video dance meme will ever capture your heart the way it did the first time you saw members of $College_Sports_Team do a synchronized, delightfully goofy dance to $Zeitgeist_Capturing_Pop_Song.

At least, that's my guess as to why the "Harlem Shake" backlash has come so fast--and been so thick on the ground--that most people have been introduced to the meme and the anti-meme simultaneously. Physicists are still speculating about the effects of a meme/anti-meme interaction, but in the meantime it's worth talking about the musical ramifications.

"Harlem Shake" has a lot of things going for it, meme-wise. The song, with its weird samples and dubstep-biting drop, is exactly right in a world where America's country-crossover sweetheart's big single has already co-opted all of that.

And for white, tech-obsessed liberal-arts grads (the Iowa Caucus of meme-election) the vaguely street-credible name and the slightly sinister trappings--the not-quite-human voice, the threatening tempo, the weird Bane-masked interloper--lent the enterprise the weird built-in irony that appeals to the same demographic that 10 years ago enjoyed enunciating the word "Gangster" like they were just-kidding-but-seriously cool enough to like Tupac.

So why the instant backlash?

THEORY A: Because that is a very, very fidgety, high-strung demographic. They're still apologizing for how long they thought apologetically saying "gangster" for "gangsta" would make people think they were self-aware, often in self-referential blog posts about it.

The instant they see a backlash, they believe they need to be a part of it. It is their intense desire to be first against the wall when any given revolution comes.

THEORY B: We've reached an important meme-exhaustion tipping point. I don't have nearly enough interns with low self-esteem to confirm this, but I'm relatively sure that we hit a dangerous equilibrium when Marco Rubio drank a conspicuous amount of water after the State of the Union address.

At that instant, exactly half of Twitter was giddy with anticipation about the first @MarcoRubioWater novelty account their friends retweeted, and the other half was preparing to mute the word "Rubio" forever so that they wouldn't have to deal with it.

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But the internet's big enough that no amount of backlash on Gawker or Slate or wherever else backlashers gather is going to staunch the flow of "Harlem Shake" videos. I only have one theory as to why that's true: It's fun to get together with your friends and do stupid dances to fun music, at least once.

Amateur internet-worriers often worry about the way the internet--the way, more generally, so many of our social connections are mediated by electronics--drives people apart, into silos where they only think they're keeping in touch with the people close to them. Professional internet-worriers add, while they're at it, that the asynchronous way we talk to each other online makes our conversations (and ourselves) increasingly rehearsed and unprecedentedly insincere, probably because they haven't read any Jane Austen lately.

The "Harlem Shake" is a rebuke to one side and a YouTube-wide gotcha-moment for the other. The videos are all about groups of people who care about each other, or are at least members of the same club, doing a ridiculous and unselfconscious group dance to affirm that togetherness. But it's also a completely artificial get-together they probably organized on Facebook based on something they saw on BuzzFeed; somebody probably had to buy the mask.

All of which is by way of warning you that six months from now your TechCrunch-reading friends will link you to competing TED talks about the phenomenon, both of which you can probably ignore. In the meantime, 20 minutes of self-examination and a refresher course on dance ethics from Men Without Hats is probably enough time for you to decide whether you should make your own video or not.

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