Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" is the runaway hit of the summer. Tickets to the band's October 9 date at the Showbox SoDo are gone. A few weeks ago when I was at KeyArena to see Katy Perry, the DJ onstage between sets put the song on and the sold-out arena full of thousands of tweens went nuts. I dig the song a lot; it's so catchy it's pretty much impossible not to. But I only recently (sometimes I'm late to things; bear with me) noted, looked up, and was creeped out by the lyrics to "Pumped Up Kicks." (Until then I was doing that thing where you sing along mumbled made-up words, and I thought it was a cute nostalgic little ditty about Reebok Pumps).
OK, so now I know that the cool kids wearing the Reebok Pumps in the song are actually having their lives threatened by another kid who found his dad's gun in the closet: "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You'd better run, better run, outrun my gun/All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You'd better run, better run, faster than my bullet."
Because the verse of the first song names a "Robert," some have speculated that it's a direct reference to Robert A. Hawkins, the teenage perpetrator of the 2007 Omaha mall suicide/massacre. Foster the People have done a number of interviews in regards to the song's lyrics, especially after MTV censored the words "gun" and "bullet" from the video. One of the more specific interviews I found was this one that lead singer Mark Foster did with Time Out Chicago:
What was your motivation for writing about school shootings?
Kids are just getting younger and younger and losing their minds and going on killing sprees. It really was bothering me, and I was trying to figure out why that was happening more and more. I wanted to tell that story and get inside the head of a kid going crazy. The song's about isolation, being an outcast, and seeing the world through the character's eyes. It's not about him actually physically going and doing anything, it's about his mental state.
On your band's debut, Torches, there's a consistent bite behind the bubbliness.
I like to undercut joyful music with a seedy underbelly lyrically. That's how life is, honestly. You see a beautiful rock and you pick it up and all the bugs scatter. If I wrote "Pumped Up Kicks" as a dark, minor-key ballad, then the song would be devastating.
MTV censors the lyrics. Does that bother you?
It does kind of make me upset. There's two reasons why I think the song is getting censored. And one is that it hits close to home. But the other is that, I don't think that there've been a lot of songs like this in this style of music. You know, there are bands like Odd Future out there. So, it is a little bit surprising, because the song never actually talks about him doing anything. I never talk about a school. It's about his thought process. Which Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood and Dostoyevsky did in Crime and Punishment.
Here's what I don't understand--why shouldn't the song be devastating? It's devastating subject matter. Obviously the band's entitled to write about and make their music sound however they want it to. Maybe they're doing something bold and revolutionary. I just don't understand the point of writing lyrics about a kid wanting to shoot other kids and then making it really bubbly and upbeat. He's an outcast, he's dark, he's crazy--where did the decision to give his story a dance beat come in? Having fallen for the song's happy groove before knowing about the lyrical content, I feel tricked! By way of contrast, Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" is a moody and intense song; nobody was dancing to it; it doesn't come as a surprise or a jarring realization when you find out it's about a messed-up violent kid.
I still like Foster the People. I like "Pumped Up Kicks." This doesn't make me irritated, like I was when I recently found out there was a band in Seattle called High School Shootings, which I think is stupid and pointless. I just don't get it. Any explanations?