Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why "The Christmas Shoes" don't fit

Many of you likely remember that back in Ye Olde MySpace circa 2005, there was a bulletin feature. The bulletins were very much like Facebook statuses, but with one difference: you had to click on a hyperlink, in the form of a title, to read them. This sometimes tricked you into reading annoying chain mail. It was clickbait of the mid 2000s.

One of the varieties of chain mail was a saccharine, poorly written story meant to elicit strong feelings. There were multiple ones, but they usually followed this formula. I’m inventing this one, but they all sounded like:

Once a boy n his girlfriend were sitting @ a park. The gurl asked, “Do u like me???”

The boy said no.
The girl asked, “Do you want me?”
The boy said no.
The girl asked, “Do u want to be with me now??”
The boy said no.

The gurl ran off crying and on her way home she was hit by a car an died!!! Later, her bf stood @ her grave with tears in his eyes and said, “I said I didn’t like u because I meant that I LOVE you. I said I didn’t want u becuz I meant that I NEED you. And I said I don’t want 2 b with you now, because I want to b with u FOREVER. But now it’s too late.”

Friends, never be afraid to tell people how you feel!!! Repost if u cried.”

This was generally followed by a string of hearts and sad face emoticons.

In its defense, this was probably written by a twelve-year-old. And it was probably most often reposted by twelve-year-olds. But, to me, the song “Christmas Shoes” meets the same level of emotional depth. This becomes especially apparent as it’s played nonstop on the radio and in shopping centers throughout the holiday season.
If you like it, I don’t look down on you for it. This is not a diatribe against you. But please allow me to explain my aversion.

Some of you may be thinking, “It’s about the true meaning of Christmas, which is giving to people! It’s about an impoverished boy with a terminally ill mother. How could that not move you?”

And that’s the problem. The implication, if not the direct response, from so many of the fans I’ve known is that you are fundamentally heartless if you’re unmoved by the narrative. That if you dislike the song, you must hate Christmas! And poor people! And children with terminally ill mothers! And Jesus! And shoes!

The reactions of the audience may not be the fault of the songwriters, but I believe the creators use aggressive tactics to shake out a response. This is how.

Manipulation within fiction is not inherently bad. When you choose to engage with fiction—whether through novels, illustrations, or songs that tell stories—you are, on a certain level, consenting to be emotionally manipulated. This does not mean deceived and lied to. This doesn’t mean being harmed. Rather, it means being purposefully made to feel things. But in that process, you want a nudge and not a shove.

The most skilled storytellers are ones who don’t let you know you’re being manipulated. You want to feel like you’re listening to a song, not being played as the instrument. The best puppeteers don’t let you see the strings. You want to feel, but to believe you have arrived at those reactions yourself. It feels patronizing to be made into a marionette, thrust clumsily around the stage by your own heartstrings.

What the songwriters and singers have done with “Christmas Shoes” is hit you over the head with a sentimental mallet. They start off the song with that little twinkly instrument that sounds like someone waving a fairy wand, to insinuate something magical will happen. They describe the boy as looking as visibly forlorn as possible, and then comes the gut punch: His mother’s dying and he just wants to buy her a pair of pretty shoes so she can look beautiful if she “meets Jesus tonight.” And he can’t afford the shoes, so the charitable narrator buys them for him at the end. It culminates with a sad sounding child singing the chorus, in case a Southern-accented vocalist evoking images of ‘Murica’s heartland isn’t enough. This is along the same vein as Hallmark cards and Nicholas Sparks novels. My husband described it as “a musical Thomas Kinkade painting.”

Aside from the maudlin quality, and the blunt force coercion, it looks on the surface like a critique of consumer culture. Everyone is going out and spending money, but this boy teaches the narrator the true meaning of Christmas by being so generous that it changes his outlook on life. This little child has nothing, but he’s breaking the bank to buy nice shoes for his mother so she can feel beautiful before she dies. At face value it looks like it flies in the face of materialism. But upon closer examination, it actually promotes it. This is why.

First, it pushes the idea that in order to be considered adequately poor to receive help, you must look as shabby as possible. The boy has torn clothes and his body is filthy. He is visibly helpless. This reeks of a “trauma porn” narrative, where writers exploit others’ pain in order to peddle inspiration.

The child does not want his mother to look as deprived as himself. He doesn’t want her to be denied lovely material things just because she’s poor. This is fair and it makes sense. But the plot line of this song plays into the very same moral it purports to defy: the idea of buying gifts you cannot afford to prove your love to others. That’s why this boy is so noble and selfless, because that’s what he’s trying to do. Also, since he’s a child, you wonder where he got the cash. He’s probably trying to buy his parent a present with her own limited money—not that he would likely have other options. That’s why the kindly adult who meets him in line decides to intervene and cover the cost himself.

The second factor that rings an alarm is not simply that she wants to feel beautiful, but that she wants to look pretty for Jesus in case she imminently dies. The song was originally written and performed by a Christian band, but it contradicts Christian values to imply that you need to be aesthetically pleasing to Jesus. That he is impressed with appearances and may turn you away if you don’t look fancy. This idea can be used to coerce people into buying things they can’t afford. If you want an example of how this manifests in real life, look at all the money people feel pressured to spend on expensive church clothes. I don't see this entirely as the fault of one song; the song is a symptom.

I understand this can all be seen as overanalyzing, and that sometimes a pair of shoes is just a pair of shoes. But songwriters, musicians, and producers place a great deal of thought and analysis into what they create. Nothing included in the final product is an accident.

I’m not immune to enjoying cheesy music. My playlists include an Avril Lavigne song and a massive Goo Goo Dolls catalog. But I do maintain that there’s a difference between emotional manipulation and emotional pressure, and “Christmas Shoes” stamps audiences under its soles with the latter.