Liam Kyle Sullivan is an actor and comedian whose YouTube channel boasts over 300,000 subscribed users and over 150 million views. He portrays a number of different characters in his videos but perhaps his most notable performance is as the moody and materialistic teenaged Kelly.
When Kelly’s music video “Shoes” first started making its way around the internet in 2007, my friends and I enjoyed it on a purely superficial level. It’s highly ridiculous, from the embarrassingly catchy electronic beat, to Sullivan’s exaggerated interpretation of a vapid teenage girl. Six years later – during which Liam Kyle Sullivan has continued to make videos – I never thought I’d be listening to this song again, much less listening for subtext.
Today, I’ll be arguing that “Shoes” actually functions as fairly well-crafted satire of an out-of-control, capitalistic society. The song and accompanying music video critique the conspicuous consumption and consumerism among Kelly and her peers.
At the beginning of the video a short skit depicts Kelly and her twin-brother celebrating their birthday with their parents. While her twin brother, Chris, receives gifts of a computer and car, Kelly gets an over-sized purple dinosaur. Kelly does not get what she wants, and this is a problem. The dramatic blow-out that follows, complete with name-calling and slut-shaming, sets us up for Kelly’s performance
With music, Kelly makes it explicitly clear that what she had wanted, was shoes. A giant stuffed dinosaur does little for Kelly’s self-worth: not only does it have no functional use, but it carries no monetary value, and shoving the monstrosity into a corner on her bed does little to improve her social standing. Kelly’s wardrobe, however – carefully selected with an ever watchful eye for trends – confers her much more status using the sign exchange value of the items she buys.
Kelly’s case of conspicuous consumption is especially overt due to her strained position in her family. Kelly is not only struggling to be seen as “just as good as” the numerous wealthy – she is struggling to compete with her brother who actually has his worth affirmed by his parent’s obnoxiously expensive gifts. At the height of the video, Kelly covets a pair of high-end heels priced at $300. “Let’s get ’em!” she declares, tantalized by all the promises she sees represented in the pair of shoes.
Instead of seeing a $300 pair of shoes and understanding the plight of the factory worker, Kelly continues to want to identify with those wealthier than her. The promise of the American dream distracts Kelly from questioning how the capitalistic society she lives in supports her obsessive need to shop, competition with her sibling, and her own insecurities.
Though we often feel encouraged to laugh at Kelly’s gross displays of consumerism, the music video makes it clear that she is ultimately ridiculous. When Kelly is denied opportunities to dress herself in the finest money has to offer, she and her cohort become violent and the screen is filled with the fiery red heat of her rage. The video becomes surreal and seemingly devoid of meaning, not unlike Kelly’s life when she is unable to realize or denounce the forces that trap her in an inescapable cycle of consumption.
Kelly’s antics reveal to us the damning effects of capitalism, and just how futile ideologies like the American dream are. Ultimately, “Shoes” proves itself to be an effective tool of the Marxist critic and leaves us with one additional lesson: If you have the energy to take on a mall cop, for God’s sake, do it for the right cause.