Harlem Shake Video: How Internet Gentrification Ruined the Dance


Growing up in the early 1990s, I wanted Kevin Johnson’s haircut.

He was the point guard for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and his high and tight fade was, to me, the epitome of cool. Emulating that hairstyle wasn’t really in the cards for me, however. Being a white kid with a curly mop of brown hair atop my head couldn’t match the coarse, black hair of Johnson. So I found other ways to fit in with NBA culture. I bought jerseys. I wore backwards hats. I had a Starter Jacket.

To this day, even as a 27-year-old, and whether I want to admit it or not, I am still influenced by NBA Culture. Luckily for me, the NBA nerd is now cool, so I don’t have to wear a tall tee and can instead look like a hipster walking around town. Not to try to generalize too much from my own experience, but NBA culture, and in turn, hip-hop culture, often influences white culture. In some cases, white culture overdoes it. This act of overdoing it can be referred to as cultural gentrification, where the originators are pushed out of their styles/ways because the magnitude of people copying their way of life makes it not cool anymore.

Internet gentrification is taking the current viral hit and overdoing it as many times as possible. Eventually, it becomes not cool to do it. The Harlem Shake went from viral awesomeness to “please, Facebook friends, no more Harlem Shake videos” in nearly record time. It has reached that point thanks to some swift Internet gentrification. 

It is fitting that I am referring to the “Harlem Shake” as being Internet gentrified considering that parts of Harlem itself has been real-life gentrified throughout the years. It’s also fitting since the gentrified Harlem Shake deviates away from the original.

In a great piece on the history of the Harlem Shake, Tamara Palmer explains how the new Shake “has managed to almost completely supplant a vibrant form of African-American dance that was born and bloomed in Harlem.” She explains that the dance started more than 30 years ago when Al B used to dance during breaks at basketball tournaments at Rucker Park in Harlem. The dance is supposed to be some wild jerking of the arms and legs, kind of like a wrapped up mummy that couldn’t really move the rest of its body.

The countless YouTube videos released in the craze are not really Harlem Shakes. It is a bunch of people attempting to emulate the dance, but they're not quite pulling it off. Sometimes the dancers are literally just humping air. While sometimes charming (puppies!) and entertaining (the Georgia swim team), the videos are losing steam (no thanks to the Today Show).

Internet gentrification of viral videos and memes is inevitable. As with “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style,” the fads lose steam and retire into their YouTube trivia lore. Harlem Shake’s run isn’t quite over yet, but it is definitely on the way out.

Unlike real-world gentrification, the replacement of one culture with another doesn't displace another. What is nice about Internet gentrification is when the fad is pushed out, it's not a big deal that the now annoying videos and memes have nowhere to go. 

Compilation video of the original Harlem Shake: