“IT’S A POTATO!!!!! IT’S A TAMBOURINE!!!!!!” Memes are everywhere; they are like a benign disease. But did you ever wonder if memes have any power outside the Internet and small social circles. If we asked a guy like Michael Foucault, you would be surprised what you will find if you deep enough. For those who do not know, according to Urban Dictionary, a meme is “an idea, belief, belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as but parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peer, information media, and entertainment media). Look familiar yet? Like television or other forms of media, cultural memes mirrors the themes found in the work of representation, especially when they pertain to race.
Let’s take a look at one of the most visible memes online the Harlem shake, the infamous name that has thrown off so many Google searches. The evolution of this began in New York during the 1980s; then, from the early 90’s to the early 2000’s, the original dance appeared and was mentions in countless hip-hop songs and music videos. The Harlem Shake almost slipped into obscurity in the eyes of the mainstream audience until electronica DJ Baauer released a song with the same name in 2013. The track sampled the song “Miller Time” by the Philly rap group Plastic Little, which reference the dance in the lyrics. However, video blogger “Filthy-Frank” stumbled upon the song and, without any prior knowledge to the Harlem Shake, uploaded a video of people in latex suits dancing to Baauer’s song, giving birth to the actual meme. Less than three days later, parodies of Filthy Franks video were uploaded, but on February fifth YouTube reached an ever growing 300,000 views worldwide, which lead to more parodies flooding the Internet up to this very day.
The backlash of this recent cultural phenomenon symbolizes three concepts of the work of representation: Hegemony, the Regime of Truth, and discursive formation, in terms of borrowing black culture. The famous philosopher Antonio Gramsci explained that certain social groups strive to achieve superiority over other groups in practice and thought, i.e., Anglos vs. African-Americans. Most people who are against the Harlem Shake meme argue that the creators of art are entitled to control over their creation, but, in America, there is an unspoken system of racism that keeps minorities powerless, while the dominant race is shrouded in white privilege, so they are free to take what they want without consequence.
Leading to the next theme, The Regime of Power, which is simply the idea that if a professional says something is true, it will become true due to controllable and non-controllable circumstances. Tracing back to the days of Imperialism and Manifest Destiny, numerous white officials, writers, and explorers put the notion of white supremacy and superiority into the universe, thus causing their subjects to act accordingly and do whatever they can to make their “truth” an undisputed fact, even if it meant creating a system of power differences that put non-whites at a disadvantage, this idea was found in our nation’s original Constitution. Thus, explaining why the whitewash bastardization is justified to void it original meaning.
Despite how the Harlem Shake is the most recent example of cultural appropriation, it is not a new concept, which moves into the third idea discursive formation. Discursive formation refers to whenever discursive events share the same ideas but in different periods of time. For example, African-Americans have been underrepresented in their contributions to American law and pop culture. In the 1940’s and 50’s African-Americans created the genre of Rock-n-Roll music through Rhythm and Blues, but due to whites not being accepting of black artists, they took the art form, stripped it of its black roots, and repackaged it as “white music”.
Other examples would include the visible influences of black culture in white performers, such as Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, and Miley Cyrus. They talk in black slang and take their mannerisms as well as their dancing cues from black performers, yet they sell more records than black artists because they have more crossover appeal to draw in white and non-black audiences. The same logic can also be applied to the Harlem Shake, especially since the meme started out in white communities and grew in the white social scene.
And there you have it meme can be more than a viral video spread through word of mouth and Facebook. But answer me this: which other memes have this same power? Let a comment below.