Jason Hickel
Jason Hickel

The Harlem Shake and Western illusion of freedom

Co-authored with Arsalan Khan

When five teenagers in Queensland, Australia, uploaded a video of themselves dancing to a short excerpt of Baauer’s song Harlem Shake it immediately went viral, garnering some 400 million views and spawning well over 100 000 copycat versions.

Critiques of the fad thus far have pointed out that it looks nothing at all like the real Harlem Shake, and that — as Harlem residents have been quick to assert — it appropriates black working-class style without due acknowledgment, leaving no room for the original. These are important points, but there’s yet more to explore about the Harlem Shake craze. As by far the most popular meme of the year so far, it begs for analysis: Why is it so infectious? What does it tap into in our collective consciousness that makes it work so well?

Of course, one might reasonably ask why anyone should care about the meaning of such a flimsy, fleeting fad like the Harlem Shake, which in a matter of weeks will be eclipsed by yet another viral meme. What is there really to say about such a bizarre collective ritual? It’s just a bunch of young people having fun, one might say — leave it alone and enjoy its entertainment value.

But there’s more to it than that. We suggest that the Harlem Shake videos have become so popular because they dramatise aspirations for freedom that lie at the very centre of Western culture. But the particular notion of freedom at play here is one that has been thoroughly co-opted by consumer capitalism in a manner that undermines the possibility for emancipatory politics.

To get at this, let’s begin by considering the general formula of the meme itself. Each video offers 30 seconds of footage divided evenly into two parts. First we’re presented with a mundane setting, generally formal or regimented, with a single non-conformist doing a random dance to which no one pays any attention. By far the most popular is the one with the Norwegian soldiers, which has well over 50 million views. It presents us with CCTV-like footage of uniformed cadets in rigid lines, their bodies stiffened to attention. Other popular versions include office workers — again, sometimes in uniform — sitting behind rows of desks and staring like zombies into their computer screens.

Then the bass drops, the music shifts, and the scene cuts to total mayhem: everyone wears unique costumes, generally with masks, often scantily clad, and each person engages in their own completely idiosyncratic dance. The costumes and dances are usually absurd: one might wear a sleeping bag while squirming on the ground, bash against a wall while wearing a Viking costume, or stand in the corner with a dinosaur mask doing pelvis thrusts. It all seems totally random; indeed, the more random the better.

A theory of freedom
These videos are so compelling because they stage a simple and elegant contrast between the rigidity and monotony of everyday life and work, and an indomitable spirit that aims to escape, to transcend, to overcome stifling social norms. In doing so, the meme taps into a long tradition of classical liberal thought, resonances of which can be found in thinkers as diverse as Voltaire, Emerson and Nietzsche. This tradition holds that liberation — the emancipation of the individual — requires separating the self from social norms, resisting mass conformity and questioning the rules imposed by arbitrary authorities.

This Western conception of freedom assumes a fundamental tension between the individual and society: the former is considered to be authentic (and prior) while the latter is considered to be artifice (and imposed). There is nothing natural or universal about this idea. Ethnographers have pointed out that people in other cultures assume no such tension between the individual and society. Furthermore, on an analytical level it makes no sense, for individuals cannot exist outside of social norms. As Clifford Geertz has so famously put it, “there is no such thing as human nature independent of culture”; people without culture would be “unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognisable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases”.

In an increasing number of the Harlem Shake videos, this individual-versus-society motif gets played out as a story of repressed libidinal energy. Polite, formal decorum in the first half turns suddenly into nakedness and overt sexual expression, suggesting that wild, chaotic desire always lies just below the surface of stable everyday life. This plays up the Freudian version of individual freedom that is so popular in Western thought: the id, the source of authentic desire, always strives to rupture the artificial boundaries set for it by the ego (the rational, realistic self) and the super-ego (the moralising force of church and parents).

The meme also has hints of a kind of anti-capitalist, or at least anti-bureaucratic, logic. It recalls Max Weber’s famous assertion that capitalism is like an “iron cage”, typified by that distinctly modern institution: bureaucracy. Weber writes: “The bureaucratic organisation, with its specialisation of trained skills, its delineation of competencies, its rules and hierarchical relations of obedience … [is] in the process of erecting a cage of bondage which persons — lacking all powers of resistance — will perhaps one day be forced to inhabit.”

This sentiment is expressed most poignantly in the videos that show nameless workers performing mundane tasks in a drab, boring environment. The image here is one of pure alienation and the dehumanising force of modern labour, which is then transcended through the indomitable spirit of the individual. This explains why the video of Norwegian soldiers has become so popular: it sets up arbitrary authority, rigid rules and mass conformity for attack, and explodes against them with a veritable orgy of craziness.

Resistance without politics
Now, what’s interesting about the Harlem Shake videos is that the programme of resistance and freedom that they espouse has no substantive political referent. The meme taps into a deep and pervasive urge for a more egalitarian and equitable political-economic system but then offers absurdist fantasy as the best solution. Resistance is focused solely on non-conformist individual self-expression, to the point where pelvis-thrusting octopuses and light sabre-wielding Yoshis become icons of liberation. Wild desire and absurdist behaviour come to substitute for political activism, suggesting a rather grim outlook on the possibility of emancipatory politics in our age.

The concept of resistance that these videos perform is not really resistance at all. In fact, it participates in wider discourses about libidinal desire and individualism that are central to our contemporary capitalist moment (as we argue here). A quick survey of billboards, television commercials and magazine ads would be enough to reveal that libidinal desire and individualism have become stock-in-trade for corporate marketers. Companies make a great deal of money by setting up the idea of conformist alienation and then selling products that promise to help consumers express their real, authentic selves.

Rebellion, in this sense, is no longer a threat to the establishment; rather, since at least the 1970s onward, it has become a commodity that is openly bought and sold on the market. The cultural critic Thomas Frank has aptly referred to this process of co-optation as “the conquest of cool”.

Along these lines, we can see the form of resistance that the Harlem Shake meme dramatises as deeply complicit with the logic of consumer capitalism. It is a form of resistance that operates as capitalism’s own recuperative frame: its logic (namely, the imperative to desire against all constraints and to give full rein to individual self-expression) offers an avenue for rebellion that loops back to support the goals of capital accumulation.

This meme has such global appeal because it embodies the great promise of capitalism. It juxtaposes two extremes: the extreme of mindless, monotonous work with the extreme of libidinal freedom. This is the great promise that capitalism extends to youth around the world: if you spend your days and nights doing the menial, repetitive tasks that corporations depend upon, then your reward will be an orgy of unlimited freedom in the form of consumptive power.

Absurdism and class privilege
But there’s yet another element of the Harlem Shake that is worth drawing out, namely, the absurdism that it promotes. Absurdism has gained widespread social currency over the past decade, particularly among upper middle-class youth and college students. In addition to the Harlem Shake videos, consider the recent “planking” craze, where individuals place their bodies in a rigidly horizontal pose in random public spaces, take pictures, and then post them on Facebook. Facebook is increasingly littered with absurdist photographs along these lines.

One might read this fascination with absurdism as an expression of political nihilism or even escapism: young people who have worked hard in pursuit of success realise that the old certainties that their parents enjoyed are no longer guaranteed. Given the realities of climate change, financial crisis, economic decline and the capture of the political system by corporate elites, students graduating from college may not be able to find stable careers, command secure salaries, save money, buy houses, start families and participate meaningfully in the democratic process. Absurdist behaviour reflects these anxieties. It says “the world is riddled with chaotic uncertainties; there’s not much hope, so we might as well have some fun”.

There is some value to this perspective. After all, anxieties about one’s place in a rapidly changing economic landscape run deep. But the people who deploy absurdist symbols — primarily middle and upper middle-class youth — are not the ones who are really being screwed by the system. In light of this, a more accurate reading might be that absurdism becomes a means with which to signal privilege, a way of saying “I am so certain of success that I don’t need to take myself too seriously”. Working or lower-class youth aspiring to middle-class status are much less likely to violate norms of decorum in the face of authority; they know what’s at stake and they have too much to lose. They literally cannot afford to be absurd.

Absurdism communicates a certain willingness to play with symbols that suggests a familiar ease with the world, with meaning and with authority. This is the domain of elite class privilege and particularly of white male privilege. We can go further still: absurdism not only reflects acquired status, it also enables access to that status. Mastering absurdism signals one’s ability to speak a certain class language; it flags participation in a distinctly white-collar world of college educated youth.

If this is true, then we can circle back to add another element to the common critique that we raised in the beginning. In the process of appropriating black working-class symbols, the Harlem Shake meme transforms them through absurdism to be totally inaccessible to working-class people and then — in a twist of cruel irony — uses them as markers of privilege. This further underscores our point that the meme not only peddles an apolitical concept of resistance, it does so in a manner that bolsters the very system that it seeks to overthrow.

This should not be surprising to us, for, as Marx argued so eloquently in the Grundrisse, capital cannot abide limits to profitability; it always converts them to its favour. This is particularly true when it comes to political resistance, which can so easily be neutralised or appropriated. The take-home point here is that we have to guard against this tendency with vigilance, to ensure that our deepest urges for social change — our cries against alienation and domination — don’t get plundered of their true potential.

This post originally appeared in the New Left Project.

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    • Lin

      I was reminded by this subject of ‘train surfing’ – something that chilled me to the bone when I first saw it. This was a grim reversal of privileged activities (surfing, stunts from movies) by working class – in most cases really desperate – people. It seemed to me like a cry for help and a protest against the system. Also absurd but definitely not to be repeated or to be turned into profit-making.

    • http://ewokessay.com Ewok

      Thank you for this most excellent piece.

      I teach English to a group of Private School 9th Grade boys, good fellas all of them, young in their attitudes and without any real personal politics as yet, at least not in the obvious sense. They just want to chill out and not work, to play games on their tech toys and, most recently, they spent two weeks pestering me until I relented and let them perform their own version of the Harlem Shake. First they had to teach me what it was. I was struck by all that you have highlighted in your piece, the immediate absurdity of the meme, the “break free” mentality. I was even more amazed at how seriously these kids took the filming of it. Everyone wanted to be in charge, to make sure that it was done just right, that it followed the exact specifications or parameters set by the meme itself. In something so random and, again. absurd, these fellas had perceived and bought into a set of unwritten rules and regulations that had to be followed if they were going to be allowed to participate.

      It seems like our culture of consumerism and capital acquisition has become so sophisticated that, like most technology these days, it runs itself. Kids are creating their own rules and parameters for finding their own freedom and expressing themselves. Without being told how they are managing to herd themselves. That is some seriously advanced sheep mentality.

    • The Creator

      Lordie mama, an intelligent, well-informed piece here! Bless whoever allowed it to slip in, and may this accident occur frequently!

    • Max

      The following article discusses the mechanics of it:


      To take this loop further: what if Freedom is absurd, the absurd a farce & the Harlem Shake a tasteless slap in the face for those who still dream of Freedom. What if capitalism is never a personal choice but imbedded in a collectively brutal culture making process that is our human civilisation. Now the only Freedom left is the condemned but universally practised self-hastening of Death: a particularly counter-intuitive & de-conditioned choice when so enslaved by the imperative to live, to survive. In this case the only hope of honouring the dream of Freedom (& all morals find root in our reflective dreams) without killing oneself is to live by the motto: I shall not prosper!

    • J

      Good piece…..has helped me understand culture in the last decade a bit more..Id like to see a piece written on lady gaga, or that gangnam style. Lame, absurd and vile….for what reason…maybe thats the point…get people to not think…just act like animals…and that makes you apparently feel free……..Ive really tried to understand lady gaga ( another reference taken/stolen from black american culture) but i am just not attracted to pointless absurdity…don’t like feeling sick and confused after watching the music videos, thats what horror movies are for. Also what happened to real RnB and pop music?? They’re all singing dance/techno music now! Perhaps another way capitalism has bought off culture.