Is Mitch McConnell allowed to do the Harlem Shake?
Well, not McConnell per se, but a group of his supporters, one of them wearing a McConnell mask, who last week uploaded a video of themselves gyrating to hip-hop music outside of Churchill Downs. It was the least subversive version yet of the YouTube craze — and, therefore, possibly the most subversive version of all.
The Harlem Shake, for the uninitiated few, is less a song than a global phenomenon: a series of short homemade videos, uploaded to YouTube, that hew to a basic template. Masked man dances alone to a 2012 hip-hop/rave mashup by Baauer, a 23-year-old producer. When the drum machine kicks in, the original guy is suddenly joined by a crowd, usually in costume, dancing with abandon.
Often, the dance is sexually charged — the first-recorded example, by some Australian skater types, was heavy on the pelvic thrusts. But as the videos have piled up – last week, the Associated Press reported that as many as 4,000 versions are uploaded to YouTube every day — so have the variations. Someone super-imposed the music onto clips of Snoopy and the Peanuts crew. Someone made a video with “Star Wars” figurines. A bearded father did a G-rated version with his young son.
Now, late in the arc, comes the McConnell video, endorsed by the Senate minority leader, and designed to reflect — or comment on — the patriotic vibe of red-state America. A bunch of the dancers are waving American flags. The costumes include Rosie the Riveter, Abe Lincoln, Uncle Sam, and a guy in a pink tutu.
The political press has been largely underwhelmed: Bloggers declared that McConnell was trying too hard to be cool in the face of a probable 2014 challenge.
“Death of a Meme,” scoffed a typical headline in The Week.
But I was kind of charmed, and so was Kevin Driscoll, a Milford native and University of Southern California PhD candidate who studies the nexus of hip-hop and technology. The McConnell video, Driscoll told me last week, reflects the spirit of the remix — recombining different elements of culture — and proves how far the boundaries of a viral phenomenon can stretch.
“Somehow, the people who are on Mitch McConnell’s staff can see themselves in it,” Driscoll told me. “That video pushes it and opens up space for someone even more unlikely to make a video.”
We brainstormed for possibilities. Driscoll suggested the Westboro Baptist Church.
That prospect is hilarious, and also a little sad, given how far the meme has already strayed from its roots. There is an actual dance called the Harlem Shake, which originated in New York in the 1980s, requires some rhythmic talent, and was popularized by Puff Daddy around 2000. (Some grumble that the dance has been overshadowed by this new craze, Driscoll said. On the other hand, now there’s cultural cachet to knowing those P. Diddy roots.)
The latest Harlem Shake requires no actual skill, rhythmic or technological — just a smartphone, a few friends, and a desire to partake in the Internet’s parade of clever one-upsmanship. There’s also some appeal to taking part in something mildly dangerous: the mask, the collective action, the un-Mitch-McConnell-like groove.
Authority doesn’t love the Harlem Shake, which is why the dance has appeared at Middle Eastern political rallies, why some Australian miners were fired for filming a version at work, and why the FAA is investigating a college Frisbee team that led a Harlem Shake on a Frontier Airlines flight.
So the notion of endorsement from McConnell — the ultimate symbol of white-guy authority — is something of a rebellion in itself. His young staffers aren’t trying to be cool so much as declaring that the Harlem Shake does not automatically make you cool. Which, in certain circles, is itself a dangerous idea.
And that’s what makes McConnell’s version a success. Hyunjin Seo, a University of Kansas professor who studies digital communication and flash mobs, points out that the very goal of the Harlem Shake is to go viral — to come up with a version so creative that it spreads. That’s the McConnell edition, all right: whizzing across the political press, reaching new, unlikely audiences — including a certain senator from Kentucky who now, improbably, knows a YouTube meme. It could be that, last week, Mitch McConnell won the Internet after all.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @weiss.