Melissa Harris Perry Gets it Wrong: On The Harlem Shake, The Harlem Shake, Homophones, Homonyms and Homographs

Last summer, Rush Limbaugh made the highly specious and idiotic claim that Bane the movie villain was strategically being used to slander Mitt Romney. At the heart of his “argument” was the homophonic relationship between Bain [Capital] and Bane. Using their phonetic similarity, Limbaugh was able to embark on one of his characteristically stupid and malicious tirades.

This year, though no malice is involved, we have something similar going on with the Harlem Shake meme and the Harlem Shake Dance. The former comes from a song by the musician Baauer called “Harlem Shake.” Though it was released in the summer of 2012, it sporadically became popular because of a random Youtube video posted in February. In the song, Baauer includes the non sequitur phrase “do the Harlem Shake.” If you have listened to any songs in that genre, you know that non sequitur phrases abound, so for anyone even marginally familiar with EDM, this phrase and the song title mean nothing.

As indicated by the controversy about the alleged “disrespectful” reappropriation of the Harlem Shake, for some people, the phrase and the song title mean everything.

The truth is that they don’t.

The novelty of this Harlem Shake controversy is that the Harlem Shake dance and Harlem Shake meme are both homophonic, homographic and homonymous: they sound the same, they have the same pronunciation and they are spelled the same all while having different meanings.

So in some sense, it makes sense that people see some overlap between the two. After all, the title of Baauer’s song and its non sequitur lyrics actually do come from the Harlem Shake dance!

But! There is no relationship between these phenomena beyond the superficial. Black culture is not being disrespected. The Harlem Shake is not being “stolen.” Neither is the real Harlem Shake being “done improperly” or “offbeat:” it isn’t being done at all. These videos are just another strange happening in the odd world of Youtube. To believe anything else is to circuitously  search for a red herring that you yourself invented!


If anything, the truly interesting part of the story is that there is a mass of people, including academics, who are unable to do even the smallest amount of internet research and not come up with uninformed, inane and slyly conservative opinions. Now that is malicious.


2 thoughts on “Melissa Harris Perry Gets it Wrong: On The Harlem Shake, The Harlem Shake, Homophones, Homonyms and Homographs

  1. Serious: this is the exact same argument that conservative pundits use when we talk about race. “There isn’t a race problem! You invented it!”

  2. I see the symmetry, but symmetry isn’t equivalence, especially since I’m not using the argument to silence anyone.

    I acknowledge that it’s easy to make a connection between the dance and the meme, but then I say that the autonomy that the controversy has developed is self-fulfilling. That’s very different from saying that it is self-fulling from the get-go.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s