February 25, 2013
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This link was originally posted on The Sunday Times.
A unit of Norwegian soldiers is among thousands of groups to join in the latest web craze. And big business is marching close behind as the models Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn and Rosie Tapner took their places to head out onto the runway last Sunday at London fashion week, the Topshop make-up artists and stylists backstage were feeling pretty pleased with themselves. With the final touches complete, they thought their work, for now, was done. The respite was to be short-lived, however, because all of a sudden the squeaky, clipped beats of the dance-music track Harlem Shake were filling in the air.
Dunn began to dance solo, grinding up and down with her fist pumping as Delevingne stood in front of her, her expression deadpan. Tapner, on Dunn’s right, was similarly paying little attention to her friend’s moves.
Then, as the song’s heavy bassline kicked in, the trio erupted into a frenzy of arm flails and head flicks. The stylists could only look on in disbelief as the models’ painstakingly crafted hairdos were destroyed in seconds.
The video has since amassed nearly 1m views, but it is just one of several thousand Harlem Shake videos to be uploaded on YouTube this month. The latest viral dance craze, consisting of a plethora of 30-second videos, has been viewed, collectively, 300m times. At the peak of the mania last week about 4,000 videos were being added every day. And it is not just America and Britain contributing to the trend — it is global.
Harlem Shake is, it seems, this year’s answer to Gangnam Style, the dance track by the South Korean pop star Psy that became YouTube’s most viewed video. But what is this Harlem Shake craze and where did it come from?
The finger points to five awkward, pelvic-thrusting teenagers in Australia. Alighting on the dance track that Baauer, a 23-year-old British-born American whose real name is Harry Rodrigues, released in May last year, the quintet were the first to send in a video of themselves dressed in latex suits and dancing to the music. Their video soon inspired dozens of copycats, and while costumes, props, location and the styles of dancing are often different, a blueprint for the Harlem Shake has emerged.
The first 15 seconds feature one person, often wearing a helmet, dancing alone to the intro of Rodrigues’s track, ignored by any other people in the frame. When the bassline comes in, the “go crazy” segment ensues and the video cuts to a chaotic scene typically packed with people dancing wildly in various disguises with an array of props from traffic cones to bicycles.
Unlike Gangnam Style, with its horse-riding dance, the Harlem Shake has no set moves, but the more flailing about, the better. Indeed, it seems that this lack of structure is what has got thousands of people across the world participating, and there is no shortage of creative takes on it.
Some of the most imaginative are a version from Georgia University’s swimming team, filmed at the bottom of a pool, one by some soldiers from the Norwegian army, who happily strip down and perform — some standing on their heads — in the snow, and one set in a snooker venue in Newport, Gwent, where the spectators, players and referee all go berserk for 15 seconds. Go to youtube.com and type “Harlem Shake news anchor version” in the search box for another witty example.
In an interview earlier this month Rodrigues reflected on the craze. “All I did was make the song,” he told the news website The Daily Beast, “so it’s kind of a weird place for me to be at. I birthed it, it was raised by others and now it’s like my weird, adopted teenage kid come back to me.”
There is no denying that the trend has served him well. After his single was released, it garnered only about 1,000 sales a week and did not make the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Once the videos went viral at the start of this month, however, it jumped to 18,000 sales a week. Last week it sold 262,000 downloads and shot to No 1 in the singles chart in America. In the UK last week it reached No 3.
A large chunk of Rodrigues’s profit, however, is likely to be coming from YouTube. As the owner of the royalties to the song, Rodrigues will receive a share of the revenue generated by advertising each time it is played in any of the videos.
Neither Baauer’s record label, Mad Decent, nor YouTube has said how much money has been generated, when asked last week how much he had made, Rodrigues replied online: “$1,000,000,000,000.” Clearly, this is to be taken with a pinch of salt, but if, as digital marketing experts reckon, he is making about $1,000 (£650) from every million views, Rodrigues certainly will not be doing badly.
Past viral hits on YouTube have generated big payoffs for songwriters: PSY netted a reported $870,000 from YouTube ad revenue alone. It is no surprise that, this time round, big companies including Google and Pepsi have been quick off the mark to upload their own Harlem Shake videos, their logos shamelessly visible. Indeed, for brands, these internet viral videos — or memes, as they are known — are lucrative vehicles to be exploited for the free advertising. Digital experts say brands are increasingly quick to jump onto internet meme bandwagons.
“If you’re not doing this as a brand, then there’s a real risk,” says Richard Spalding, chief executive of the viral marketing firm The 7th Chamber. “A lot of brands are trying to figure out how to do it. They’ve done Facebook and have a million ‘likes’ but the next phase is about latching onto trends like Harlem Shake quicker.”
He says the Oreo advert that appeared on Twitter during the Super Bowl was a perfect example. When the power cut out in the stadium just after half-time — America’s most coveted ad break — Oreo seized the opportunity and put a picture of an Oreo biscuit on Twitter with the message, “You can still dunk in the dark.” It was retweeted more than 16,000 times and left some wondering whether the quick tweet had had a greater impact than the half-time commercials that had cost millions to create and air.
Best of all for brands is generating their own memes. “The ultimate dream is to create something that reaches millions of people that you don’t have to pay for, and most brands are getting less risk-averse when it comes to doing this,” Spalding says. “You’ve got to produce content that’s of the moment.”
Some brands, however, are still cautious about embracing the advertising opportunities that social media trends offer.
Levi’s attached tiny cameras to the back pockets of two girls wearing its jeans as they walked around Los Angeles. The company uploaded the videos, which featured a lot of gawking men cranking their necks to get a better view.
The video reportedly received 5m views in three days but Levi’s then pulled it. Though the company has not explained why, there is speculation that it felt as though it had lost control of when and how its content was being viewed.
Memes have a short shelf life, so to exploit them brands must react quickly, says Spalding, who predicts a proliferation of Harlem Shake videos from global companies in the next few weeks. “Everyone will be bored [with] it in a month’s time when something else comes along.”