Why The Harlem Shake Must Dance Alone

Poor Psy. His meteoric Gangnam Style rise to superstardom is ancient history. Where was he from again?

Pop culture, which has the attention span of a squirrel on amphetamines, is all about the Harlem Shake right now. You know, that YouTube sensation that combines electronic music from Baauer with clips of people gyrating in costumes. It’s addictive and has spawned countless imitators and millions of YouTube views.

PR professionals have a Pavlovian response to anything popular. Understanding the public is what we do. So when a video goes viral unexpectedly we ask ourselves why and berate ourselves from not being able to see it coming. And, of course, we wonder how we can replicate and leverage this level of notoriety for clients. How can we get the goose of YouTube to lay golden eggs at our command?

Here’s the simple answer: we can’t. Part of the viral experience is the feeling we get by being struck from something unusual, unexpected and novel. Being blindsided is part of the euphoria. The surprise is fun. It can’t be contrived. Otherwise Psy would have made Gangnam Style in English and the Harlem Shake would have been called the Brooklyn Boogie. The origins of anything viral must be organic, not market driven.

And of course, anything viral is inherently ephemeral. It’s here. And it’s gone. What kills a viral hit isn’t being starved of attention but being drowned by attention. And now the Harlem Shake is up to its neck in copycat videos, including this one by Red Bull, which takes it to another level–the corporate level–where organic ideas go to die.