Over the weekend, South Dakota’s governor Kristi Noem was stirred to make a rousing and funereal statement about the health of these United States of America. “We are in a fight for the soul of our nation,” she tweeted. “We have to win.” The combatant standing in her way? Not a pandemic that’s killed over half a million Americans, or the recent spate of gun violence rocking the nation. For Noem, the fight is on foot. A pair of shoes from Lil Nas X have put sneakers at the center of the culture wars—a place that, as the sneaker industry continues to boom, they seem to wind up in every few years.
To catch up: Lil Nas X released a new song and video called “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on Friday. In the video, things between Satan and Lil Nas X get hot and the singer gives the devil a lap dance. To go along with the visuals, Lil Nas X worked with MSCHF, an art collective with a history of producing born-to-go-viral shoes, to make a pair of Satanic sneaks. The sneakers are a warped version of the Nike Air Max 97, with a gold pentagram hooked to the laces and red ink injected into the shoe’s air bubble—along with, notably, a single drop of (alleged) human blood. (Nike quickly explained that it was not involved with this shoe in any capacity.) Lil Nas X and MSCHF are releasing 666 pairs at a price of $1,018 a pair. The cost is a reference to the Bible passage Luke 10:18: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” A MSCHF spokesperson told CNN the blood comes directly from the group’s members.
From one angle, the shoes are merely merch made to accompany the release of Lil Nas X’s new song and video—but from another, they are also precision-engineered to go viral, irking the conservative class. After weeks of yelling about Dr. Seuss and Cardi B’s “WAP” (again), right-wing commentators positioned theseas the latest horseman of the apocalypse. “We are promoting Satan shoes to wear on our feet,“ conservative commentator Candace Owens wrote on Twitter. “We’ve got Cardi B named as woman of the year.” Noem, the governor, seemed stuck on the shoes being marketed as “exclusive” to kids across the country “Do you know what’s more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul,” she wrote.
The conservative Twitterati weren’t the only ones piling on the shoes, either. Former NBA player Nick Young tweeted “My kids will never play Old Town road again” and said he wasn’t sure if he could still wear Nike shoes. (He later apologized for this tweet, and jokingly said he was hacked.) And Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive first pick in the upcoming NFL draft, tweeted in reference to the shoes: “Line has to be drawn somewhere. Smh.”
Human blood sneakers are new, but people getting mad online about shoes is not. Somehow, it always feels like a pair of sneakers is putting panic into those on both sides of the aisle. The sneaker was at peak politicization in the year following Donald Trump’s election. When New Balance signaled its support for the new president, Twitter users posted videos of themselves burning shoes from the brand. Under Armour’s executives endorsed Trump, prompting star endorser Steph Curry to consider jumping ship. (He stayed.) The right has managed to get mad about this before, too. After Nike released its campaign with Colin Kaepernick, folks on the right piled all their sneakers together in a leathery bonfire. Certain conservative-leaning editorial boards even claimed that the Swoosh’s decision to pull a pair of shoes with the Betsy Ross flag in the summer of 2019 would be enough to swing the election. (It wasn’t.)
Why do we think sneakers are powerful enough to mark our political leanings, endanger our eternal souls,, and shake our presidential races? Because sneakers have never been bigger. We know that the industry is massive—and still growing business—but there’s no greater argument for footwear’s cultural resonance than these controversies. We care deeply about our sneakers—meaning we’re ultra-attuned to what they say and mean.
In 2017, when I reported on the year of the politicized sneaker, Russell Winer, a professor of marketing at NYU, brought up the concept of “brand hijacking,” which happens “when a brand, through no active marketing of their own, happens to be picked up by a particular group.” He noted that shoes, which nearly always display a brand logo prominently, are particularly immune to this phenomenon. That’s an especially flammable proposition given the way sneaker companies operate. Nike is a $37 billion business that sells hyped Virgil Abloh sneakers—but it makes most of its money from mall-walkers reupping on deeply bland Tanjuns and Monarchs. There are few other apparel companies that mean so much to both Lil Nas X and Trevor Lawrence, to Colin Kaepernick and Kristi Noem.
Once upon a time, wearing a certain pair of sneakers evinced merely revealed your favorite athlete, or hobby. Now, your choice footwear can represent a whole spectrum of fandoms, political leanings, and religious choices. Even Lil Nas X thinks at least some people should have something better to do than argue about sneakers. “Ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes,” he wrote in response to Noem. “Do ur job!”