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"Christmas Shoes" and Other War Crimes
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For someone who loves music as much as I do, it's somewhat embarrassing to admit that I'm still the last guy on my block without an iPod. It's true — I'm that relic from the past, the Luddite who still has that ancient CD crate in his car, the guy who nearly causes 10-car pile-ups by constantly changing discs while he's maneuvering through traffic. I know that an iPod would reduce the amount of clutter in my car, and I know it would simplify my life in many ways; still, I'm resistant to the whole idea. To my way of thinking, an iPod is too easy — I'd miss the adventure of hunting and seeking, of never being sure that I'm gonna get to hear what I want to hear. I'm still fatally attracted to chance, to the unexpected, and having all my music at my fingertips is just too predictable.
Plus, I love the radio, and often I'll switch from CD's and search the dial instead, stopping on whatever song sparks a momentary interest. This isn't hip satellite radio, remember, but boring old Fort Wayne commercial radio, complete with brain-dead DJs, locally produced commercials, hilariously cheap prizes for contests, and weather reports every five minutes. For some reason I find that the attendant noise from local radio stations can be soothing while I'm driving, and I've discovered that it's kind of nice to let someone else pick the music once in a while, even if they rarely play something I like.
During the month of December, though, all of that goes out the window, as many of Fort Wayne's top 40 and oldies stations go exclusively "Christmas" for the holiday season. The station's playlists, never large to begin with, shrink considerably as the seasonal format kicks in, and it's not surprising to discover that by the first week of December you've already heard that damned "Feliz Navidad" song fifty times or so. The stations always start right after Thanksgiving, and they go twenty-four hours a day, so it's obvious that even a casual listener is going to get burned out on holiday music well before the presents get unwrapped.
As annoying as this repetition can be, though, I must admit that my car radio is locked on the Christmas stations as soon as the season approaches. I'm no holiday sentimentalist, yet I find that I'm irresistibly drawn to the prospect of hearing the one Christmas song that I can't get enough of, the one that has absolutely floored me since I first heard it a decade ago. Whenever it comes on I stop whatever I'm doing and focus completely on the song, giving it every bit of my concentration. It is a song of monumental achievement, one that demands respect from any that happen upon it. The song is "Christmas Shoes," and it is one of the most ghastly and morbidly fascinating artifacts in the history of pop culture.
I know that I'm prone to hyperbole, still I know what I'm right when I say that "Christmas Shoes" is not just the worst Christmas song of all time--which it certainly is--but also the single worst recorded song in the history of the medium. Further, I'd like to argue that "Christmas Shoes" might be the single worst song in theory as well: i.e., even in the most perverted imaginings of current and future songwriters, it is highly unlikely that anyone could conceive of a worse song.
If you haven't heard the song — and really, shame on you if you haven't, you owe it to yourself — I'll try to give you the essentials. First off, the song is told in story form, about two characters who meet on Christmas Eve in a store. In a nutshell: there's a brat kid in line who wants to buy shoes for his dying mom but doesn't have enough money, he begs the fat yuppie in line behind him for money, the fat yuppie gives him five bucks, the kid buys the Wal-Mart shoes, goes home, gives them to his mom, who dies, thereby teaching the fat yuppie the "true meaning of Christmas." Got it? Sounds insane, doesn't it? I still don't quite get how Mom buying it proves the meaning of Christmas, but there you are.
Anyway, please know that a simple description of the narrative doesn't accurately reflect how truly horrible the song sounds — the lead singer is one of those Michael Bolton types, who has to over-emote every syllable, and the whole song is swamped in syrupy string arrangements and over familiar piano solos. But what really sends the song into the highest stratosphere of awful happens at the very end, when the "boy" sings the final chorus. I have no idea what the producer was thinking here, but instead of using a recognizably human voice for the kid, he used what sounds like a chorus of alien babies who buzz the lyrics in an entirely creepy and inhuman way. The first time I heard those voices I nearly jumped out of my skin. I have Nick Cave's Murder Ballads on CD, and I swear, the sounds of a whimpering woman about to be killed in the song "Kindness of Strangers" is not nearly as disturbing.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that — what I consider the worst song imaginable is phenomenally successful and beloved by tons of fans. "Christmas Shoes" has become a mini-industry for its creators — there's a novel, a play (!), and a highly-rated TV movie starring Rob Lowe. (Rob Lowe!) Since Thanksgiving I've heard the song a dozen times already, and every time I'm utterly transfixed by how horrible it is. I know it's a testament to my own perverse nature that I never turn the song off, and with the help of Fort Wayne radio, I won't have to.
It'll always be on.