SXSW 2013 was a deeply weird moment for Baauer. He was still an exciting New York producer with a number of highly-bloggable hits, but “Harlem Shake” was becoming an international moment.All of a sudden the guy responsible for the biggest cross-cultural meme of 2013 was spinning at all the random pop-up shows he had booked months before. I saw him play the Scoot Inn, which is little more than a PA and a patch of dirt in east Austin. A number of people who look like they don’t normally go to SXSW shows filed in, and Baauer worked through his usual set of doofy trap and brain-dead rap. “Harlem Shake” was teased, but it never arrived, as if he was using the set to make a joke about his new found fame.
See also: PHOTOS: Baauer & Just Blaze do the Harlem Shake at Webster Hall
No big deal, right? Everyone still had a good time, and Baauer is certainly not required to play the song every night. But then there’s this interview he did last week with Pitchfork, wherein the young producer had this to say: “At this point, I’m trying to go from playing the original, to just playing a remix, to maybe putting in one little clip–sort of weening off of “Harlem Shake” until I can eventually not play it at all. That would be the perfect thing.”
Look, DJing is a complex art with plenty of intricacies and subtleties, but when Baauer says he doesn’t want to play “Harlem Shake” anymore, what he’s essentially saying is he doesn’t want to double-click on the song that people want him to double-click on. Why? Because it’s too popular? Because the zeitgeist is over? Because he doesn’t want to marginalize himself? I guess you could understand some of those reasons, but at the end of the day when an artist announces that they’re sick of their most popular song (after less than a year!) it can’t help but feel a little selfish. There are boys and girls spending money to enjoy a 90-minute Baauer set–is it really asking too much for 30 seconds of those 90 minutes to be spent on the hit? It’s not like “Harlem Shake” is a massive tonal shift from the TNGHT and Flosstradamus he spins anyway, why get self-righteous about a legitimately good song?
I wouldn’t even be that upset, but last November I was at a show where he had absolutely no qualms about dropping “Harlem Shake” 20-minutes in. He had no qualms about playing it at Webster Hall back in February just as the song’s meme-status was quickly approaching its apex. But apparently things have changed so drastically since that, for Baauer, the song isn’t fun anymore. Maybe he thinks we’re all laughing at him, but that perception that has a lot more to do with him than it does with the actual overarching culture. “Overall the song got big for no reason of mine, but I was still connected to it 100 percent,” he says towards the top of the Pitchfork interview. I think Baauer underestimates himself a little bit, he’s basically implying that the reason the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon happened was through the general randomness of the Internet, and while that’s partly true, it totally discounts the fact that several million people in the world felt genuinely connected to the song. “Harlem Shake” would not exist without the wonderfully idiosyncratic infectiousness of “Harlem Shake.” It’s understandable that seeing your song get blasted on Fallon or emblazoned on Hot Topic shirts might leave you a little miffed, but I seriously doubt anyone is getting down to that beat ironically.
Baauer is a talented DJ and producer. He’s working with Just Blaze, he’s got a pedigree of good songs, and we’ll probably be reading his name for a long time. I imagine right now he’s worrying about being considered a human-meme for the rest of his career. It’s easy to sympathize with those anxieties, but he also should learn that he shouldn’t run away from any success. The Flaming Lips close every set with “Do You Realize??,” Devo still play “Whip It,” The Shins still play “New Slang.” It’s the mark of mature artists to not
let any outlying ubiquity phase them. When Baauer says he’s trying to eliminate “Harlem
Shake,” he just looks unnecessarily self-conscious.