CHRISTMAS SONGS have a way of living forever, particularly if they manage to work their way into our collective holiday sentimentality. This can be both a blessing and a curse; Advent hymns seem all the more sacred for being centuries old, even if they do on occasion have Victorian conceptions of the Holy Infant. (Here we fear we must side with history and nostalgia over the killjoy theological exactitude of Bishop Nick Baines.) The eternal life of holiday music is a little more dubious when we are talking about the festooned plazas of commerce many of us frequent in December, where one is all but certain to be serenaded by strains of dated pop music parading as Christmas cheer.
As Christmas shop pop goes, there is the large class of singles exemplified by Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—upbeat, catchy, only tangentially related to Christmas, and featuring unholy layers of music boxes and sleigh bells. As ghosts of Christmas past, they are faded but still quite friendly. But then, from a dungeon much deeper and darker comes NewSong’s unconscionable “The Christmas Shoes.”
It first surfaced as a bonus track on the veteran Christian group’s 2000 album Sheltering Tree. The moment it hit Christian radio, the world froze. It blazed off the Christian charts and onto mainstream radio, from whence it spring-boarded to every department store and radio station in the country. By the next year, NewSong had recorded an entire album to capitalize on its popularity, and by the next, CBS had turned it into a TV movie. Numerous covers ensued, most notably one by the Chipmunks.
But this is not about credibility; “The Christmas Shoes” was a dreadful song long before the Christmas commerce machine ever heard a note of it. There is so much the matter with it that one scarcely knows where to begin. You could start with its elementary rhyme scheme (“It was almost Christmas time and there I stood in another line”) and complete lack of meter (half the lines have twice as many words as will naturally fit.) Its instrumentation is packaged holiday glitter: music-box chimes, gently brushed cymbals, and elevator-ready classical guitar. Structurally and texturally, it is like one of those people who watches to see if you’re crying during the saddest scene of a film. When we just can’t handle the emotional weight anymore, a child takes over the vocals, and, sure enough, hundreds more follow.
But by far the worst part of this song is the story it tells: a one-dimensional Dickensian yarn in which every detail is sentimentalized to vomitous excess. A filthy, ragged angel-boy drops in on the commercial bustle and plunks down handfuls of coins to buy shoes for his sick mother in case she “meets Jesus tonight.” The singer, who begins the story “not really in the Christmas mood,” eventually buys the shoes and thanks God for sending a reminder of “what Christmas is all about.” The boy’s biography is sensational to absurdity (“Daddy says there’s not much time”), and still the only things we learn about him happen to be exactly the details we need to feel glad we’re white, have cash in our pockets, and are still able to manufacture saccharine emotions in late December. The only thing worse than poverty porn is backing it with boychoirs and sleigh bells.
Rumor has it that “The Christmas Shoes” began life as an email forward before NewSong spent four years shaping it an even more miserable piece of narrative crap. That’s not hard to believe. Let there be no mistake: a song this bad can easily ruin the last Christmas of the 2000s. You know people used to call phone stations and request songs they liked? This is serious enough for waves of calls to disc jockeys, mall managers and corporate executives. It’s time to let them know that “The Christmas Shoes” has been un-requested forever.
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