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Pop’s YouTube Economy

"Harlem Shake," "Thrift Shop," and the way we make hits now

Tell me if this sounds familiar: There’s a music video that your cousins and long-lost high school classmates have been posting on Facebook. You’ve moved past the video four or five times, but it keeps reappearing at the top of your feed. Finally, you cave and click. You love it. You don’t love it. You think it’s merely OK. You’re pretty sure you’ll never think again about it one way or the other.

Only you have to think about it, because the semi-strangers you’ve friended won’t shut up about it. You don’t get why people keep sharing the video, but you decide to keep that opinion to yourself. You’re not a dick, after all. Then you hear about this video (and other videos like it) away from the computer; now you know it must be something of a big deal. A group of your coworkers conspire to make their own video, and they want to recruit you. Again, you’re not a dick, so you agree to participate.

Over time — by which I mean a day or two — you start to like the song a little. It makes people happy, right? You still haven’t thought about it that much, but shooting the video was more enjoyable than you expected. It even got some page hits! By now your Facebook feed is flooded with these videos. The charm is wearing off. A backlash is brewing. Somebody posts a link to a story from a music website about how this song you liked a little yesterday but now hate a little today is terrible (not just artistically but socially) and that you’re kind of a bad person for ever thinking it was halfway decent. Finally, you have some context — you don’t normally follow pop music that closely — and understand that this silly little video featuring a silly little song is actually ruining the culture. You decide it’s time to find new coworkers.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, it will soon. This is the new paradigm for how we engage with the most popular songs of our time.

In mid-February, Billboard started counting YouTube views among the data used to determine the rankings on the magazine’s song charts (along with downloads, radio airplay, and spins on streaming services like Spotify and Rdio). This was probably an overdue decision; even the people at Billboard seem to feel they were behind the curve. “The notion that a song has to sell in order to be a hit feels a little two or three years ago to me,” Billboard editorial director Bill Werde told the New York Times. “The music business today — much to its credit — has started to learn that there are lots of different ways a song can be a hit, and lots of different ways that the business can benefit from it being a hit.”

Lately, YouTube seems like the only way songs become truly massive anymore. The zeitgeist-iest hits of the last year — Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” and Billboard‘s current no. 1 pop song, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” — either started out as viral smashes or were given serious boosts by YouTube exposure. In some cases (most notably Gotye’s stunning clip for “Somebody” and Psy’s much-copied horse-dancing in “Gangnam Style”) it was the artist who supplied a visual element that sold the song to millions of listeners; most of the time, however, it was listeners marketing to fellow listeners via their own parody and copycat versions. (There were enough Internet-generated “Call Me Maybe” knockoffs in 2012 for it to rank as its own musical subgenre.) Now, as Werde suggests, it’s not really about “selling” at all; being big on YouTube is an end — perhaps the end — in itself.

Billboard pondered using YouTube views for two years before finally taking the plunge last month. The change was prompted by the meteoric success of “Harlem Shake,” which at this point should probably be declared the most successful (and most important) YouTube-related pop song ever. On the off chance this phenomenon hasn’t already been explained to death, a quick primer: “Harlem Shake” is a mostly instrumental dance-pop tune vaguely rooted in dubstep; for the uninitiated, it’s similar to the music you immediately reproduce in your head whenever someone uses the term “crank binge.” Last month, a 19-year-old college student known as Filthy Frank posted a video on YouTube of himself and his friends “going crazy” to “Harlem Shake,” as Filthy recently told Fader. After three days, imitators started appearing on the site — there were videos made by people in offices, people underwater, people working as soldiers in Norway, people hosting popular morning TV shows, and many, many others. Once the craze really took off, more than 4,000 “Harlem Shake” videos were going up on YouTube every day, according to the Times, accumulating well more than 100 million views in the U.S. alone.1

Along with being inexplicably popular, the “Harlem Shake” videos have also been controversial, and not just among curmudgeonly music-thinker types. Pulitzer Prize finalist Robert Samuels of the Washington Post voiced the most common complaint against the fad — it reappropriates the name of an actual dance with a storied history rooted in our nation’s most iconic predominantly black neighborhood. The people in the “Harlem Shake” videos aren’t doing the real Harlem Shake; essentially, they’re dry-humping empty space like a pack of hyperactive poodles lost in a sea of fetching pant legs.2 “I’m nowhere as peeved as some who live in Harlem,” Samuels writes, “who view the dance as the latest thing to be mangled and robbed from the country’s cultural black mecca.” He’s referring to this video of Harlem residents reacting — some with good-natured befuddlement, others with pronounced “not again” dismay — to a compilation of “Harlem Shake” videos. “The Harlem Shake meme should not die until groups of committed dancers reclaim it from the jowls of foolish oblivion,” Samuels concludes.

Charges of gentrification — and calls for embattled traditions to be rescued from persecutory jowls — have also been leveled at our nation’s no. 2 song (after it was displaced from no. 1 by “Harlem Shake”), Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop.” While not on the same level of faddishness as “Harlem Shake,” “Thrift Shop” owes much of its popularity to its music video, where a blandly handsome and dubiously fly white-guy rapper struts around a dingy discount store in a fur coat like a freshman laffing it up at his first ’70s-themed dorm party. (The official video currently has more than 138 million views.)

“A party track for privileged dweebs” is how music critic Brandon Soderberg recently described “Thrift Shop” in Spin. Soderberg objected to the video’s jokey depiction of middle-class people slumming it (“He is, in the hierarchy of people poring over cheap-ass clothes in the Goodwill, only slightly above jerks who go there for Halloween outfits”) and accused “Thrift Shop” of simultaneously satirizing and exploiting hip-hop tropes for a non-hip-hop audience (“the implicit message of this rap song is that ‘Thrift Shop’ is not like all that other gauche hip-hop about ballin’ and champagne-poppin’, blah blah blah”).

“‘Thrift Shop’ has been embraced by plenty of people who should know better,” Soderberg argues. Samuels echoes this “people should know better” sentiment in relation to “Harlem Shake.” But what exactly does “know better” mean here? Samuels and Soderberg make important points, but they’re more concerned about enjoying something the “right” way, rather than exploring the actual way these songs are appreciated.

Here’s a better question (or more interesting to me, anyway): What does YouTube tell us about why and how people like the songs they like?

YouTube is the Walmart of digital media — a one-stop shop for the general-interest, budget-minded consumer. If you’re looking for music, you don’t have to download anything or pay a subscription fee, and you can hear practically anything you want most of the time. The numbers suggest that the millions upon millions of music fans who don’t bother with Spotify or even iTunes are more than happy sticking with the website they also visit to look at pugs chasing laser pointers or old episodes of Small Wonder.

YouTube caters to a wide spectrum of listeners, many of whom might not normally engage with the latest pop hit. The tension over the reception of “Harlem Shake” and “Thrift Shop” relates to the presumed intent and sensibilities of these very people. The idea is that outsiders are approaching a culture that is foreign to them; they, in fact, do not know better. These people are (to borrow Soderberg’s term) “dweebs,” both privileged and not.

Here is a truth about pop music that’s hardly ever acknowledged: We’re all dweebs at least some of the time. That’s sort of the point; pop is a line in the sand, a way for an audience to define itself against what it is not. Different individuals are excluded by different forms of pop — I’m guessing Harlem residents would probably shake their heads over the rituals of line dancing in Luckenbach, Texas — but the net result is a very large group of individuals who feel they are on the outside looking in on what’s supposed to be “mass” entertainment.

That’s the gist of the joke in these videos: Juxtaposing ordinary “reality” with pop’s outlandish, party-hearty artifice is about feeling left out. The common thread in “Thrift Shop” and every “Harlem Shake” clip is average-looking people underlining their inability to look cool in a “cool” context. Looking at it from one perspective, you could say these videos misappropriate treasured institutions of black American culture. From another perspective, you could say it is self-aware people mocking the mundane trappings of their own boring little worlds. Before you decide which perspective is more valid, consider that YouTube — above and beyond its status as a music channel — has more commonly been used as an avenue for (1) self-expression, and (2) comedy. It’s used for looking inward, not outward. This is the lens through which people are approaching and sometimes commenting on these songs — they are interfacing with their own pop alienation in a humorous way.

None of this excuses the legitimate concerns over the “Harlem Shake” meme obliterating the actual Harlem Shake, nor does it mean that “Thrift Shop” isn’t the most irritating song on the charts at the moment. But looking at the big picture, I think we’re entering a fascinating period in which YouTube has added a metatextual layer to musical popularity. I’m not just talking a future full of goofy, meme-friendly novelty hits (though that does appear to be where we’re headed); I wonder if we’re entering a brave new world where each new big song is really about how regular people perceive the bigness of that song against the smallness of their own lives.

Think back to the grand dame of YouTube hits, Rebecca Black. Yes, we laughed at the surreal awfulness of “Friday.” But some of us were also laughing at ourselves. Rebecca Black was us — dorky, plain, pitch-deficient us. Put any of us in Rebecca Black’s place, and the results would’ve been just as awesomely bad. What made the “Friday” video so funny is that it showed how expansive the gap is between the stars and the masses staring up from the ground.

“Friday” already seems like a throwback to a more innocent time. Back then, memes were only memes. If “Friday” came out today, Rebecca Black would have a no. 1 record.

Filed Under: Harlem Shake, Internet, Music, Revolution, Tag, TV, Youtube

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden