In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Baauer- “Harlem Shake”
HIT #1: March 2, 2013
STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks
How many of you realized that the “Harlem Shake” was an actual song?
For many of us who remember 2013, “Harlem Shake” exists less as a song but more as a goofy meme. Someone starts dancing along to a repeating voice and synths to a group of unsuspecting people. Halfway through, we hear a voice demanding us to do the titular dance and we then cut to a whole group of people going crazy shaking their bodies and losing their minds to this shit.
There is an actual dance called the Harlem Shake that dates back to the early ‘80s but it has nothing to do with the meme or the song. Instead, the guy who created “Harlem Shake,” the song, was an aspiring producer who recorded the song in his bedroom where it did nothing upon initial release until an online comedian used the song to soundtrack his meme which then spread like wildfire across the Internet. From there on, you couldn’t go a day in 2013 without seeing one of these 30-second videos.
Memes and Internet challenges had existed since the dawn of YouTube and social media influencing pop culture but rarely made an impact on the pop charts. “Harlem Shake” would have likely gone down that same path had it not gotten big at the exact moment when Billboard made a crucial change in its methodology that allowed for this three minute nothing annoyance of a song to debut at #1 and stay there for a month interrupting the six week reign of “Thrift Shop.”
Harry Bauer Rodrigues was born in Philadelphia but moved around a lot as a kid due to his father’s work living in Germany, England, and Connecticut. (Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” was the #1 song on the Hot 100 the week Baauer was born.) At 13, Baauer began taking an interest in music and started producing his own beats. He studied audio technology at Manhattan’s City College and afterward moved to Brooklyn and began making beats in his bedroom studio.
It was during one of those bedroom sessions where Baauer had an idea to create a “goofy, fun track” inspired by hip-hop and Dutch house music with various high pitched sounds. He posted it to his Soundcloud page in early 2012 where it began to make its way through the DJ community. Scottish DJ Rustie included “Harlem Shake” in his performance on the BBC Radio 1 show Essential Mix. Fellow DJ Diplo heard the song and liked it enough that he agreed to release it for free in May on his record label Mad Decent and its imprint Jeffree’s. (Diplo’s highest-charting single, the 2015 Skrillex and Justin Bieber collaboration “Where Are U Now,” peaked at #8. It’s a 6.)
Despite this major push, “Harlem Shake” didn’t set the world on fire as its subsequent success would suggest. A planned music video for the song was scrapped by Mad Decent who weren’t pleased with what was planned instead posting an official audio video for the song on YouTube. The song gradually gathered listeners leading to Mad Decent re-releasing “Harlem Shake” as a single in January 2013 just in time for a major boost that would get it over the top. In February, the Japanese YouTube comedian known as Filthy Frank posted his own 30-second dance meme to “Harlem Shake” where it immediately went viral leading to thousands of imitators and millions of collective Youtube views.
It was during this explosion in popularity when Billboard made its big decision to incorporate Youtube video data into how it factors into the Hot 100 alongside sales and radio. This was a long-overdue decision as viral hits began to heavily impact the charts but because Billboard didn’t track their online activity, many couldn’t get as high on the charts as they probably should have with the big example being Psy’s 2012 smash “Gangnam Style.” Even though the song was a big cultural phenomenon, much of its popularity was through its music video on YouTube and didn’t have enough radio and sales to make up for it where it wound up peaking at #2 behind Maroon 5’s “One More Night.” (It’s an 8.)
Speaking at the time to the AV Club, Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s then director of charts, stated the change coinciding with “Harlem Shake’s” popularity was merely a coincidence as it had been planned for a long while,
“We’ve been talking to them for quite some time. It’s been nearly two years since we’ve had open discussions on a serious level. There were various obstacles to overcome along the way. Part of it was making sure the data they’re sending us is sent in a timely manner. It’s a large volume of data, and we want to make sure it’s accurate, and we weren’t going a period of two weeks without getting new data. It just happened that we did it now. “Harlem Shake” is a pretty big song out there that sort of shines a light on what kind of effect it can have on the chart.”
Whatever the reason, “Harlem Shake” was certainly in the right place at the right time to benefit from this inclusion of online activity. When it debuted at #1, it didn’t just become a success but had the best performing week on the Hot 100 out of any #1 hit in the 2010s. When you were clicking on those “Harlem Shake” meme videos, you were contributing to its chart success as the videos contained the official audio for the song. That’s all the song had riding on since it got very little airplay. It didn’t even appear on Billboard’s airplay chart, a rarity for a #1 single.
Technically, “Harlem Shake” is considered an instrumental making it the first instrumental song to hit #1 since Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” 28 years earlier in 1985. But you’ll notice two major voices which were sampled from two different songs. The opening line “con los terroristas,” Spanish for “with the terrorists,” comes from “Maldades,” a 2006 reggaeton song from Hector Delgado which Baauer had found online. The deep voice saying “Do the Harlem shake” is sampled from Plastic Little’s 2001 hip-hop track “Miller Time.” Baauer discovered “Miller Time” after a friend of his played the song and liked it enough giving him the title. Like many EDM DJs, all Baauer did with these voices was pitch shift them making them sound much different than their original versions.
Baauer didn’t clear the samples before its release so the artists behind the songs, Delgado and Plastic Little member Jayson Musson, filed a lawsuit of copyright infringement against Mad Decent when the song got big. Diplo maintained he and the label didn’t realize that the song contained sampling but once it got out he quickly settled with both camps supposedly giving everyone their appropriate royalties. But Baauer said he hasn’t gotten any money from the song saying this to Pitchfork,
“I’m meeting with my lawyer … so I’m gonna find that out. I think it’s mostly because of all the legal shit. I didn’t clear the samples because I was in my fucking bedroom on Grand Street. I wasn’t going to think to call up [Delgado], I didn’t even know who it was who did that [sample]; I knew the Jayson Musson [sample]. So I found myself in that fucking pickle. Legal letters and shit. Ugh. Lawyers. So exposure-wise it was fantastic, but everything else…”
Honestly, all this backstory is much more interesting than the song itself. If anything, we should be grateful for the meme because it at least gives “Harlem Shake” a reason for existing. After those first 30 seconds, there isn’t much else to the song. Baauer just loops those 30 seconds for the entire three-minute runtime and it gets annoying and boring at the same time. The speaker destroying bass drop, the burping sound effects, and the annoying synth tone does not make for a pleasant listening experience. But there’s nothing interesting about the song that warrants repeat listens. There’s no tempo changes or different melodies that switches things up to keep you engaged. It’s literally just three minutes of the same monotonous build up and drop.
YouTube music critic Sean Fay Wolfe was right in a recent video when he called “Harlem Shake” one of the worthless hit songs of the 2010s. But at the same time, I can’t say I have a whole lot of hatred toward the song. From its backstory, “Harlem Shake” was clearly never meant to be as big as it did. It was the work of a young producer fucking around in his bedroom that people decided to use as a soundtrack to a silly meme no more no less.
Another reason for why I can’t muster up a lot of hatred for “Harlem Shake” is simpler in its lack of a lasting cultural legacy. “Harlem Shake” may have been a big deal in its time but it hasn’t exactly transcended it. When’s the last time you heard “Harlem Shake” on the radio or intentionally sought it out. Hell, I didn’t even realize it was an actual song till fairly recently. It seems like most people didn’t realize that at the time seeing it less as a song that happened to soundtrack a meme but more as an actual meme.
The widespread attention “Harlem Shake” got allowed the song to go double platinum but silly 30-second memes wasn’t able to sustain Baauer’s success for long. From a charting perspective, he is a definitive one-hit-wonder as none of his other releases have charted since “Harlem Shake.” It took until 2016 for him to release his first album Aa and released his second album Planet’s Mad just this past July. In interviews since the song’s popularity, Baauer seems to disavow his own hit calling it “corny and annoying as fuck” to Rolling Stone. It seems like he’s fine with where he is now. Can’t feel too bad for him.
Maybe it’s better not to think of “Harlem Shake” as a song but as a silly fad that had its 15 minutes of fame before everyone quickly moved on. After I post this and after you read this review, we can safely go through our lives again without hearing “Harlem Shake” that is until 10 years from now when 2010s nostalgia sets in and people begin to romanticize “Harlem Shake” and other stupid trends that typically happens with nostalgia. I won’t be one of those people.
BONUS BEATS: For a song that became a huge online sensation, I could flood this Bonus Beats with nothing but various clips of people doing the meme but to save space here are a few compilation videos of “Harlem Shake:”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2016 rom-com How To Be Single where Dakota Johnson counts bottles of alcohol before having sex all set to “Harlem Shake:”