Ten Years of "Shoes," the Story of the First Great Viral Music Video, Betch
Oh my god, we found Kelly, and we interviewed her.
thump thump thump
thump thump thump
thump thump thump
“Oh my god... Shoes.”
You remember. It was delivered in a flat monotone, the rallying cry of Kelly, a teenage girl whose parents and brother simply don’t understand her unending drive for footwear. Strutting between boutiques, she’s the Pontius Pilate of platforms and pumps: “These shoes rule,” she proclaims. “These shoes suck!” If she gets what she wants, she’ll throw a pool party for all of her dubiously fashionable friends; if not, she’ll invoke a demonic rage, siccing a gang of fiery hula hoopers on anyone who attempts to curb her obsession with footwear, and call you a "betch."
The video was “Shoes,” a passion-for-fashion acid trip that captured the attention of millions, and what we might call the very first viral video of the internet.
In the video, teen angst is taken to its comical extreme. Kelly’s parents are caricatures of unsympathetic guardians, and beyond just-not-getting-it, they openly loathe their daughter now that she’s old enough to expect “con-dams” for a birthday present. To describe Kelly’s home environment as unfair would be an understatement. Ferris Bueller thought it was unfair when his sister got a car and all he ended up with was a computer—in Kelly’s case, her twin brother gets both while all she receives is a goofy stuffed animal. When she finally gets out into the world, it’s no surprise that her freedom soon spirals into a fever dream of consumerism, hedonism and revenge fantasies. Something like the end result of puberty-plus-PCP, “Shoes” wins you over with absurdity, empowerment, and its anthemic electroclash.
The first quarter century of the internet has been shaped by a series of technological gold rushes. The “Dot Com Boom,” the rush to become “Instagram famous,” the current “streaming wars”—all of these inform how we currently move around the online world, despite the fact that they’re often defined by Sutter’s Mill-esque flukes. A new site or app is introduced, and nobody seems to know how to reap profit from it until somebody stumbles upon an iPod Nano-sized nugget of precious internet fame in their digital backyard. The three founders of YouTube said that they originally intended to create a place where people could easily access and share big, newsworthy footage (namely the Janet Jackson nipslip and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). But by creating an easy way for anyone to upload their own videos and instantly reach a global audience, the site had a somewhat unintentional DIY-championing consequence. Low-budget “viral” videos were the nugget of gold in this case.
SNL digital short “Lazy Sunday” was the first music video to emerge as a YouTube sensation, being forwarded “millions of times” in December 2005, but as it was produced by NBC and featured two television stars, it was more the means of access that was astounding, not the actual exposure. Just a few months later though, a self-shot-and-produced music video called “Shoes” achieved similar reach, and heralded the the true beginning of the viral age.
Actor Liam Kyle Sullivan wrote, composed, edited, directed, and starred as a character named Kelly in the four-minute-long clip, which first appeared on YouTube almost exactly ten years ago. It’s bizarre, grating, and hilarious, and for at least a month in 2006, it was all anyone wanted to talk about in my high school cafeteria. Despite multiple user-uploaded versions existing on the site for years, the current official “Shoes” video (which Sullivan didn’t upload until 2007) has over 58 million views. Considering the unregulated, Wild West-style nature of YouTube’s fledgling years, the total number of views is impossible to calculate, but suffice it to say that it’s a hell of a lot more than 58 million.
A decade, several more Kelly videos, and a national comedy tour with Maraget Cho later, Sullivan has all but retired from YouTube stardom, but is still reaping the benefits of the skills he taught himself in his Kelly era. Noisey caught up with him to reminisce about “Shoes,” the genesis of Kelly, and the dawn of virality as we know it today.
Noisey: What was your background with comedy before you started your YouTube channel?
Liam Kyle Sullivan: I did sketch comedy at the Acme Comedy Theater in LA, a few commercials, a few episodes of 8 Simple Rules. Then I started doing my own live show—a little stand up, a few characters, and then I’d show videos and do songs. The “Muffins” video [an absurdist sketch about a muffin bakery that sells varieties ranging from blueberry to paperclip] first appeared in my live show because I didn’t know about YouTube at the time.
I put my videos up on my own website and then those got copied onto YouTube by many, many different people. I couldn’t even tell you what the combined view count was. When I finally figured out that I could make my own channel, I don’t even know how viral it had gotten.
What do you remember about YouTube in its early days?
It was wild, it was brand new. Everyone was just clamoring in there. I remember the comments—it was before the word “trolling” was invented—and there were some really nasty, like illegal nasty, comments. The first video I saw on there was probably one of mine, “Muffins,” or “Shoes.”
How long after that did you decide to make your own channel?
It was a while, maybe six months. I was slow. I couldn’t believe it was free to post things—I had just paid for the server and domain name for my own site—I was slow to react because I was cheap.
I remember walking into Best Buy around that time and asking where I could buy a copy of iTunes to install on my computer.
Yeah, I think our instinct was still to ask, why is this free? But then, advertising.
How did you first come up with the Kelly character? Her family?
Her creation took a long time. I first started talking like Kelly in the car, driving around and just saying, “Shut up!” I remember the first time I did that character in public, I didn’t have her look, I was just a guy doing a silly voice. I imagined a teenage girl who had braces, and had to pull her lips back and hold her head back because they were so heavy. That simple bitchiness came out—I’m only going to say a couple of words because it’s almost too much for me to talk. I did that character at the Acme and it didn’t work, it wasn’t funny. So I scuttled it, and brought it back a few years later when I was doing stand up, and it didn’t work then either. I’m chalking it up to not having the look—I didn’t have the wig or the chunky glasses. I think once I had all that stuff, it worked. But I could be wrong.
Some of her family is borrowed from my own life, because I was the younger brother and my sister, who isn’t like Kelly at all, had restrictions on her that I didn’t have. Being younger, the parents make all of the mistakes with the older one, and then with the younger one they’re like, “Ah, he’s fine, let him be.” And also being a girl, maybe you have an earlier curfew than a boy would—those kinds of things. So I just exaggerated that. I made the parents just openly hate her. Here she is, a young woman now, and they’re not comfortable with that. But the boy, he gets a computer and a car, whatever he wants.
The song reminds me of a lot of the electroclash that was big at the time. Were you into any of that stuff?
I was definitely inspired by Peaches, she was huge for me, as well as Chicks On Speed. I remember hearing them and they just captured the attitude so well. They were so expressive, but not doing too much. They weren’t screaming or singing, they were just talking their way through it.
What made you first realize how big Shoes was? Was it when that Fox anchor played it on Good Day LA?
I think so. I was actually a big fan of that show—they were really funny. They’d always play popular Top 40 songs in the background on the show, and so when they played “Shoes,” I was like, wow. They also played a snippet of it on TRL, and they seemed confused by why they were playing it. Like, “What is this?” That was when YouTube was like, a news story. People were still hearing about it for the first time.
Was it your original intention to make multiple Kelly videos?
It actually wasn’t. I had written a bunch of songs, and actually had to be persuaded by my friend to shoot a video for “Shoes,” but I had no idea I’d be doing so many different things with her. At some point I was just throwing everything out there, like, “What else can I do with Kelly?”
Would you change anything at all if you were just getting started with Kelly today, 11 years after the birth of YouTube?
When I look at YouTube comedy now, it’s a lot of playing games and doing challenges and collabs—there’s a way to do it that’s not just straight sketch comedy or straight music videos. Back then, I would make a video once every six months, like a short films with multiple shoot days and locations. I had no idea that anyone would be interested in what I had to say, other than, you know, “Shoes!” As I watch other peoples’ videos now, I’m like, no no no, they can just talk to their audience, and I never quite grasped that. You can’t go viral every week, but you can be a niche celebrity, and that seems to be the way to make a living at it. I guess I’d pay more attention to where I fit in and how I could do what I like to do. I’d adapt better if I had to do it again.
In what ways have you seen viral videos change in the last decade?
Well the last real viral video I can remember was “Gangam Style,” and that’s a few years old now. Every couple years, a giant video comes out and everyone has to see it, but I remember when brands were reaching out like, “Be viral again… for us!” And that’s not how it works. Viral is… I don’t know. I guess there’s a recipe for it, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.
Especially now with Vine, I feel like the word “viral” may not even be relevant anymore.
Yeah the other day I was with my friends and I was like, “Guys can I ask a stupid question right now? Is Vine a site or an app?” It was like your iTunes moment. Six second jokes are great, but I don’t know, is that going viral? I don’t even know how to share a Vine unless you have the app. But Viners are doing gangbusters. It’s these quiet fortunes that are being made, these quiet celebrities that are being formed. The other day I saw a billboard here in LA for [YouTube personality] Grace Helbig, and I was like, it’s about fucking time. It’s 2016—she should have had a billboard five years ago. She has an enormous audience, her numbers are better than cable television shows, but it’s still under the radar.
What have you been up to since you stopped posting videos on YouTube?
I got a real job! Well, sort of. I’m a video editor, and that’s something I taught myself back in the “Shoes” days. I edited all of my own stuff, so I managed to pick up a skill, and I’m thanking the maker for that because I don’t know what else I would do. But I’ve also been auditioning for things again, looking at my channel and trying to figure out what I could do with it in a smaller way. I have a daughter now, I got married—I grew up I guess. Sometimes I wistfully long for my days of touring the country and all of that, but then it’s great that I have this job too. I still get up in front of an audience every now and then to get my fix in.
With Kelly, people have thrown different ideas at me. What if Kelly was 42, and she grew up and had kids of her own—what is that like? Or just put a really soft gauze over the lens and try it again! I don’t know, we’ll see. Maybe it’s an animated thing, or just paintings. Maybe I could do graffiti.
And Kelly’s face will start popping up under freeways in LA.
Yeah, like Obey, but it’ll just say Shoes.
Liam Kyle Sullivan’s YouTube account is still a treasure trove of laughs. Check it out here.
Patrick Lyons is a writer based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter.