The Blood Shoes Will Steal Your Immortal Sole
1:39 PM EDT on March 29, 2021
This story is about the infamous and very worrying blood shoes. The blood shoes! These are, as you might have guessed, shoes that allegedly have blood in them—just a drop. They came out today, just a little while ago. There are 666 pairs, numbered. They cost $1,018. You might have heard of them already because a portion of the population spent the weekend righteously melting down about them on various platforms. Let’s see how we got here.
Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road” on Dec. 3, 2018, the day after he recorded it. You definitely have heard this. Built around a beat that Lil Nas X bought for $30 from Dutch producer YoungKio, the song topped the Billboard chart for a record 19 weeks. Wikipedia says the song came out “during the rise of the ‘Yeehaw Agenda’ meme, a movement appropriating cowboy fashion and culture.” It first got popular on TikTok.
At less than three goofy minutes in length, the song is a both a novelty song and a legitimate banger. (I’m humming it now; despite the short run time, I do not know all of the words.) A few months after its release, a more polished remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus helped bring the song to the masses; Lil Nas X said he wanted Cyrus on the track because he’d watched Hannah Montana as a kid. The beat YoungKio made sampled a track from Nine Inch Nails’ ambient Ghosts I-IV. Yes, two teenagers made a song with three dudes in their fifties—one of whom had not released a single since “Achy Breaky Heart 25,” a song that does not have a Wikipedia page—and it became a pop classic. Music is neat that way.
The song was good enough that Lil Nas X seemed likelier to become an actual star than a one-hit wonder, and that has mostly turned out. His followup songs were well received. He has won enough awards that they have their own Wikipedia page. Lil Nas X is already enough of a star that a tweet asking Joe Jonas to remix his new song (“Imma let u on panini”) was covered by USA Today. He can produce catchy tunes, and he also has that je ne sais quoi of a pop star.
Lil Nas X released a new song on Friday. The video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” climaxes with a scantily clad Lil Nas X giving Satan a lap dance. The lap dance is hilariously chaste—the video for Madonna’s 1989 song “Like A Prayer” is more explicit and much more sacrilegious. (You may disagree, but Lil Nas X is only dry-humping Satan. Madonna definitely goes way further in her relationship with that video's Black Jesus.) “Montero” is just a tad over the top, but it’s not just visuals and controversy. Lil Nas X came out as gay in 2019; Variety’s Adam B. Vary says the explicit video and song is a breakthrough for queer artists: “I don’t think it’s possible for me, a 41-year-old gay man, to overstate just how monumental it was to see a 21-year-old gay man express his sexuality on exactly the same terms—and at the same level of fame, success and media attention—his straight counterparts have enjoyed for decades.”
I mean those Madonna comparisons as a compliment: Lil Nas X is approaching both peak-Madonna levels of pop stardom, and peak-Madonna levels of square-shocking outrage generation, at only 21. I don’t know if Lil Nas X’s accompanying promotional stunt for “Montero” is as important as the video, but I am impressed by it nonetheless. We are back to the blood shoes now.
The shoes are a collaboration between Lil Nas X and MSCHF, a Brooklyn-based company that I assume is pronounced “Mischief.” (I am looking up a lot of things for this article, but even I have my limits.) The mischievous little devil in charge of this company is named Gabriel Whaley. He and MSCHF are in the business of what I’d call “streetwear art capitalism”—occasionally releasing stunt-worthy products or services that comment on the world of art and commerce and sometimes sell for a ridiculous amount of money. I think that’s part of the art, too, or at least that’s what I would tell myself if I were selling $1,018 sneakers.
Every two weeks, MSHCF releases a new piece. Each winks at fashion: MSCHF sold Birkenstocks made from Birkin bags. It bought a bunch of domain names for the 2024 presidential election and sold shares—with a payout coming if the company can eventually sell, say, DONALDTRUMPJR4AMERICA.COM to Donald Trump's sniffly son. Their first release was a laptop filled with viruses that MSCHF says sold for $1.35 million. And the company previously released Jesus Shoes, bootleg Nike Air Max 97 sneakers with the air bubble filled with about a fourth of a cup of “holy water” allegedly from the River Jordan. The Jesus Shoes retailed for $1,425 and have mildly appreciated on sneaker resell sites. The company is often sort of a rich-person version of a Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt seller. It releases products that intentionally rip off and jam different brands together (the newsletter Blackbird Spyplane calls this the “COPYRIGHT-INFRINGERS WHO ‘FREAK IT’” space). It’s crooked, but there’s a line from a stoned Rick and Morty standing in front of a NASA logo to the blood sneakers.
How much you like the work depends on whether you find MSCHF clever or annoying, and that's a fine line. As you might have guessed from my annual roundup of bootleg shirts, I’m kind of a fan. “We’re not here to make the world a better place,” Whaley told Business Insider last year. “We’re making light of how much everything sucks.” See? Even the owner’s quotes toe that clever/annoying line.
The “blood shoes” are officially the Satan Shoes, a companion piece to their earlier MSCHF x Jesus Christ release. They are also Air Max 97 knockoffs. MSCHF says each of the 666 pairs of the thousand-dollar sneakers contain one drop of employee blood—if I can offer notes, at that price it should be Lil Nas X’s blood—along with a quarter-cup of red ink. (“Uhhhhhh yeah hahah not medical professionals we did it ourselves lol,” Whaley told the New York Times.) Again, the sneakers are not an official release: NBC News reported that “Nike denies involvement,” as if it were still an open a question as to whether the company had authorized the release of devil shoes infused with human blood. “Nike did not release nor design these shoes,” the company said.
Releasing a product tinged with blood is not a new idea. In 1977, Marvel said it printed an issue of a Kiss comic book with the band’s blood. A notary public actually witnessed the donation and signed off on it. “Written by Howard the Duck's Steve Gerber, of all people,” says a website selling copies of Marvel Comics Super Special #1 for between $255 and $1,349. “A vein attempt at publicity,” wrote the Charlotte Observer. If the blood comic caused much of a controversy, I can’t find any evidence of it in old newspapers.
If you’re wondering how and why MSCHF can release such a product, it’s because copyright and trademark are not laws of fucking physics. Have you ever shopped for something online and found a litany of knockoffs? Anyone can put any sneakers for sale—it’s up to companies to protect their trademarks and to lawyers to argue over which parts of sneaker design are protected. For example, in 2014 Converse (which is owned by Nike) sued 31 footwear makers for ripping off the Chuck Taylor All-Star.
Even if you haven’t heard “Old Town Road,” you know Chucks. First sold as a hi-top basketball sneaker about 100 years ago, Chucks eventually became a favorite of everyone from athletes to slackers. It is almost the platonic ideal of a sneaker. Seven years ago, Converse sued companies high (Ralph Lauren) and low (Walmart) for ripping off Chucks. Plenty of companies settled. Skechers did not, and has won a series of court victories against the Swoosh.
Nike is not done wrangling with its rivals. An Instagram account for the Sneaker Law Firm has several current examples: Vans has signaled it may oppose Nike’s recent trademark applications for the design of the original Air Jordan. Nike, meanwhile, is opposing Vans’ checkerboard trademark. Adidas frequently challenges anyone with the temerity to try to use three stripes in their design. Van Halen has even sued Nike.
Sometimes the infringement is overt enough to attract lawsuits that are won or settled. New Balance recently defeated a knockoff called New Barlun, for instance. Last year, Nike sued designer Warren Lotas after he had sold more than $10 million worth of sneakers that aped classic models of Nike’s currently red-hot Dunk Low sneaker—only with a Jason mask at the end of the swoosh. Lotas changed the sneakers and settled out of court with Nike.
Lotas, though, had previously sold Nike knockoffs and gotten away with it. Nike cannot possibly police every picayune copyright infringement. Smaller producers really can and really do get away with it; by the time Nike sends a cease-and-desist to a small knockoff brand, the sneakers could already be sold and shipped. Are the Jesus Shoes and the Satan Shoes enough of a comment on Nike that MSCHF can legally sell them? Unless the Satan Shoes’ publicity leads Nike to sue, who knows.
Lil Nas X’s video has been praised in a number of mainstream venues, both in thoughtful ways like the Variety column and in a less sincere “Goop on Ya Grinch” kind of way. Even a magister (basically, a cardinal) in the Satanist Chuch told Yahoo he was impressed with the video. Others are not so happy, for about the reasons you'd expect; this Slate column details some complaints. While Lil Nas X hasn’t quite reached Madonna level yet—the Pope called for a boycott of her shows in 1989—he did elicit some similarly over-the-top commentary. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem really did tweet that the blood shoes have put our children’s souls (and possibly their soles) at stake. Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback who will be one of the first picks of this year's NFL Draft, tweeted: “Line has to be drawn somewhere. Smh.” Nick Young tweeted he’d no longer let his kids listen to “Old Town Road,” then later said he was hacked. Lil Nas X, for his part, responded with a fake apology video.
You know how social media uproar works in this moment. And if all of this has you even faintly curious about Lil Nas X’s new song or dropping a grand on a pair of shoes, you already know the point. Even though everything I learned about all this was ostensibly "for work," I myself almost fell for the hype. At 11 this morning, I stood in a bakery with the MSCHF app open. The sneakers were released. I went to satan.shoes. I added my size 13 to the cart. I got through checkout—no queue! Free shipping! It seemed conceivable the Satan Shoes could be mine, if I were really willing to pony up $1,018.
I paused. I took a breath. I looked at my phone. I looked at my wife. And I chickened out. I’m pretty good at retail arbitrage, but a thousand-dollar investment on one shoe was too much. If I’m going to spend a grand on something hyped and stupid, it should be the Supreme Mortal Kombat arcade machine. I think my wife would be proud of my good judgment.