On the unfortunate history and effects of “Harlem Shake Syndrome (H.S.S.)”

For my next editorial, I’d like to discuss a certain trend in Music that has been plaguing the Billboard charts for several years now. I’ve referred to it in my reviews in the past, having dubbed it “H.S.S.”, or “Harlem Shake Syndrome”, after the first clear example of it.

It started because Billboard decided to start counting Youtube views as part of their chart formulation. Their actual goal in doing this was to measure the number of times legitimate music videos were viewed, but they seem to have been unable, for some reason, to create a distinction in their data between official music videos and the random insanity that populates Youtube and other popular video sites. Thus, when something that never would have made the charts otherwise becomes a hit based solely on Youtube views (or views from any other publicly open video website), it constitutes H.S.S..

Now, Youtube viral ‘hits’ were a thing well before H.S.S. entered the picture, but they weren’t really ‘hits’ in the Billboard chart sense…they didn’t actually chart, they were just popular memes that happened to be in the form of a song. The first thing to really take off in this dubious market was the unintentionally hilarious “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse, but the definitive example is probably “Friday” by Rebecca Black. The latter song did technically chart, but only marginally (if I recall correctly, it only got to 86 on the Hot 100), and that only happened because someone made the song available on Itunes in an attempt to further cash in on this disaster. As for “Gangnam Style”, while it was a huge hit drawn from a viral video, it wasn’t an example of H.S.S., because the Youtube views themselves did not contribute directly to its success on the charts. It won its chart success the old-fashioned way…because people were actually buying the single and listening to it on the radio, showing that they actually liked the song itself even apart from the video (I don’t blame them…it really is an excellent song).

The first real example of the phenomenon, and the one I chose as its namesake, was “The Harlem Shake”, a song by Trap musician Baauer that became briefly popular due to an internet meme. The song itself was not really bad music by the standards of its genre niche, but it clearly had no place on the Pop charts, and the meme that launched it is now only remembered for its role in launching this phenomenon.

The second example of H.S.S., Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”, introduced another variation on the formula. This song probably would have been a hit in any case (after all, her last single peaked at Number Two without the help of a viral video), but it seems unlikely that it would have shot straight up to Number One or stayed there as long as it did were it not paired with a video in which Miley Cyrus appeared naked. I can’t say I see the appeal myself, but a surprising number of people apparently really wanted to see that, and that, combined with the newly-begun counting of Youtube views, made the song a vastly bigger success than it could plausibly have been otherwise.

A few more Youtube novelty tracks, such as “The Fox” and “Chinese Food” (a blatant attempt by the creators of “Friday” to cash in on the new rules), charted in the remainder of 2013, but ironically, pointing and laughing at these garish disasters stopped being fun once every point and every laugh contributed to launching them onto the actual Billboard charts. Indeed, the H.S.S. phenomenon killed the Youtube trend of viral camp sensations for years almost single-handedly, at least as far as music was concerned.

However, the phenomenon re-emerged in late 2014 in a new form connected to another then-fashionable video website, Vine. Due to its similarity in subject matter and style to the party rap of the mid-2000s, some people have dubbed the variant of Hip-Hop that emerged from this phenomenon ‘Nu-Crunk’, but the term most associated with it is ‘Vine Rap’, because it was almost entirely dependent on Vine for its popularity and its place on the Billboard charts. Prominent examples of this genre include Rae Sremmurd, Silento, Bobby Schmurda, O.T. Genasis, TWayne, and ILoveMemphis. You’ll notice that nearly all of the people I just named are one-hit wonders, and it’s worth noting that the few ‘Nu-Crunk’ acts that had any degree of legitimacy or staying power, such as Fetty Wap and Young Thug, were usually the ones that had little to no dependence on Vine. It’s also worth noting that, apart from a few holdover dregs from the Bro-Country genre, the Vine Rap trend was responsible for virtually all the bad songs on the charts in 2015, an otherwise glorious year for music.

Fortunately for everyone, Vine and its associated career-launching proved to be a flash in the pan, but the specter of H.S.S. continues to haunt us to this day. Over the course of the last few years, Youtube novelty memes slowly start to creep back onto the charts. The most prominent example of this was when Rae Sremmurd, the only Vine Rap act to survive the demise of Vine itself, once again benefited from the charts’ fuzzy data-gathering process, this time with “Black Beatles”, which became the unofficial theme song of an internet meme that I gather was called ‘the mannequin challenge’. This was enough to keep it at Number One on the charts for more than a month.

H.S.S. proper has become somewhat rarer in the last year or so, although its near cousin, the neo-payola of rigged streaming promotion, has become an even more destructive force on the charts. Still, with actual music streaming services accounting for most of the charts’ source data, this phenomenon seemed to be fading: those platforms don’t tend to create memes the way the video streaming platforms did, and H.S.S. is by definition dependent on meme culture.

But if you needed proof that H.S.S. hadn’t died out forever, we’ve certainly gotten it in the past few months—the current Number One song in the country, “Old Town Road”, owes its success almost entirely to this phenomenon. The song, an embarrassing collaboration between C-list rapper Lil Nas X and superannuated Country music embarrassment Billy Ray Cyrus, amounts to little more than an inane fragment, and the only thing anyone seems to like about it is its accompanying viral video…a video that has apparently been sufficient to keep it at the top of the charts for over a month in the face of some far more legit competition, including not one but two smash hit singles by Taylor Swift.

But here’s the thing–these ‘hits’ aren’t real. I mean, the songs themselves are of course very real, but their perceived success is an illusion created by the criteria on which the Billboard charts are based. After all, the Billboard charts are supposed to reflect the reality of which songs are popular, not create it. And since no-one seems to have trouble dismissing the year-end charts from the 1990s as a ridiculous fiction created by Billboard’s faulty standards, this situation should not be treated any differently just because it’s happening in the present tense. These songs are not actually among the biggest Pop music hits in the Country, and the fact that Billboard says they are does nothing change that.

Yes, some of these songs were, in some sense, among the biggest Pop culture phenomena in the United States during their brief popularity, but the ‘success’ they achieved is not the kind of success the Billboard charts are supposed to measure. If Billboard really wanted to measure all use of music in any context, “Happy Birthday To You” would be permanently entrenched at Number One.

Given that the last time Billboard failed to adjust to changing standards and technical progress, it resulted in a decade-long period of near-irrelevance, I can’t blame them too much for erring on the opposite side this time, but the result was essentially the same. If H.S.S. is an unintended side effect of Billboard’s attempts to measure legitimate views of music videos, they were unnecessary sloppy about it. If they truly thought viral internet success was something the Pop charts should take into account, they’re just idiots contributing to the dumbing-down of our culture, a process with which, for reasons I shouldn’t have to tell you, we do not need any more help at the moment.

The Vine Rap examples are particularly indefensible, since Vine videos were by definition only ten seconds long. No sane person could argue that a song can be legitimately ‘played’ or ‘streamed’ in any real sense on a ten-second video, and the site should never have been considered a valid source of input for the charts in the first place.

And for the record, I am aware that a fair number of these songs…even the current Number One hit…do have contributions to their charting status coming from other sources and would be hits to some extent even without H.S.S.. But while I am aware that “Old Town Road” would probably be in the Top Ten by now regardless of the direct contributions of its viral status (I’m not so sure about the indirect contributions that status makes to its publicity, but that might have happened even without the chart glitches), it almost certainly would not have reigned at Number One for over a month, or indeed still be there now, without that factor.

The bigger and longer-lasting H.S.S. hits can safely be assumed to have achieved a significantly lower position in the Pop hierarchy than the one at which they actually charted, and the minor or extremely brief ones can probably be safely disregarded altogether. And given that, for the past several years, we’ve been in a situation not too different from the aforementioned one in the Nineties, mentally correcting for the Billboard charts’ errors seems to be much more than wishful thinking at this point, and is probably necessary to come to an accurate understanding of the phenomena those charts are supposed to be measuring.

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