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The Problem with Christians Doing the 'Harlem Shake'

The Problem with Christians Doing the 'Harlem Shake'


Feb 20 2013
Some advice for the church: Think before you click.

Who knows why such weird, borderline-incomprehensible setups go viral, but here we are, weeks into the age of the "Harlem Shake," watching Christian college students and church members don wacky costumes and dance like crazy. The videos:

Christian organizations have joined companies, sports teams, firefighters, friends, and seemingly the rest of America in the latest YouTube meme, which now numbers more than 12,000 videos and 44 million views. In each version, a 30-second clip of the electronic dance music song "Harlem Shake" plays as a single dancer in a headpiece gets down in front of a group of people, then suddenly, the whole crowd joins him. Hilarity.

As far as anyone can tell, the point is there is no point, so no need to raise questions. It's fun seeing a bunch of Christian folks having a good time and participating in the latest trend, so I hate to be a party pooper and ask—should we think a little deeper before jumping into the latest dance craze?

Even as the meme takes off and gets mainstream exposure on outlets including the Today show, most of us still know nothing about the music, artist, or song behind the "Harlem Shake."

The "Harlem Shake," like most memes, has become a commodity, so easily replicated that we use it for our own ends and move on. We happily hijack the setup, then post our versions on YouTube for views, laughs, and "relevancy." We have no real engagement with the phenomenon outside of copying and clicking.

This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the "Harlem Shake," we don't need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don't need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don't need to understand this underground genre of music called "trap." We don't even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim "Con los terroristas!" (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.

No longer embedded in its cult music context but dragged into our own, the dance loses any of its original significance to become a vehicle for our silliness. "With commodities in general, the more they are associated with their particular origins, the less susceptible they are to abstraction and shallow engagement," Miller said. "Tradition stabilizes the meaning of cultural objects, preventing them from sliding into weightless postmodern signifiers."

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