Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, bonus edition. So, “Harlem Shake”.
Do I really have to review “Harlem Shake”? I know I gave “Thrift Shop” backhanded comments up and down last week for sounding like a novelty hit, but this is a novelty hit. It’s currently at number one on the Hot 100, but that’s more to do with how Billboard quantifies songs than straight up popularity.
Last year, the big wigs at Billboard and Nielsen realized that plenty of people just use YouTube as a jukebox, and that counting “streaming activity” (read: pulling up the lyrics video of “Shirt and Tie” to play while skimming the internet, or at an incredibly low budget party without a DJ) was a good idea. This policy got enacted this past week, meaning that streaming a song online counts just as much as buying a single, or hearing it on the radio for the Billboard charts. Well, “current” songs–ones that were just released, or just getting attention (“Harlem Shake”, for example, was released in May of 2012). Make of it what you will; I think it’ll be interesting to see how the new policy plays out.
Anyway, getting back to “Harlem Shake”. I know I just called it a novelty hit, but really, it’s closer to a meme than anything. The videos featuring the song are usually 30 seconds, and are so user-dependent that just about anybody can do one. The sheer number of them, and the attention the high profile ones get is what kicked “Harlem Shake” to number one.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about “Harlem Shake” as a meme. So, how is it as a song?
It’s a trap song. Like, the sub-genre it’s part of is called trap; an off-shoot of Southern rap (See: Three Six Mafia, TI, Rick Ross, Waka Flocka) that’s big on quick hi-hats, sharp snares, and deeper bass. It’s a sub-genre that was dormant for a few years before it started getting swept up into EDM by DJs like Baaeur, who have started including it with a little bit of dubstep and drops into their music.
As for “Harlem Shake” itself, the song gets off to a quick start: a sampled vocal kicks the song off before it launches into a synth and percussion build-up. The dueling synths hype each other up; one’s simply looped as the main hook while the other speeds up for the “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE” drop.
And the drop is pretty damn sweet. The main, hyperactive synth stays present, but the trap beat–deft hi-hat hits, skittering snare, and killer bass are awesome together, as is the motherfucking tiger roar sample. I don’t know where it ranks in the grand scheme of trap music, but at least to an outsider like me, it’s pretty enjoyable.
The only problem is that I just described the first thirty seconds of a three minute song that spends the next two and a half minutes doing jackshit. I get that the songs is at least part EDM, and that part of the point of dance music is the repetition, but “Harlem Shake” is a super front-loaded song. It seems to wear itself out a little over halfway through, and does another build/drop, but it’s not as fulfilling as the first. The only changes after that are a few beat shifts or occasional synth omissions. It’s alright as far as music goes, but genuinely underwhelming and kind of dissatisfying after a great opening half minute.
Even discounting the meme schtick, “Harlem Shake” still feels like a novelty. The initial idea’s there, but there’s no building or expanding on it like there is in other electronic music. Again, the idea itself is pretty awesome, but without any support, it only works once, and the next two and a half minutes are a fun, if pretty mindless loop. To its credit, the song does a fantastic job pulling you in right off the bat, and is able to keep a pretty good groove going over its 3:17 runtime (admittedly short for a dance track). I like it, I just wish it did more.
So, uh, that’s about it for the song. Oh, while I was looking up information related to the song, I found out that the Harlem shake–dating back to 1981–is not actually in the song or the meme”Harlem Shake”; Baaeur only picked the name as a shoutout. For the curious, there are a couple of YouTube tutorials, and you can see it in a music video here (the vid’s from 2001). Looks kinda fun.