100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #23: “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People

The song at #23 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Pumped Up Kicks” by Los Angeles-based alternative pop-rock band Foster the People. The second song by them on this list (“Coming of Age” ranks at #65), “Pumped Up Kicks” was their debut single, and became their breakthrough hit and one of the most popular songs of 2011. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, spending eight weeks at that spot, and was the #1 song of 2011 on the Alternative chart. The track was later included on both their self-titled EP and their marvelous debut album Torches

“Pumped Up Kicks” has a breezy and upbeat synth-driven melody accompanied by cheerful whistling, in sharp contrast to the dark lyrics describing the thoughts of a troubled and delusional youth who’s contemplating shooting up his high school. Mark Foster wrote and recorded the song in about five hours, playing all the instruments himself and arranging and editing it using music software. He also electronically altered his vocals, giving them a menacing, almost creepy vibe. The demo he recorded was ultimately the version of the song the band released. He posted the song on his website as a free download in early 2010, and after Nylon magazine used it in an online advertising campaign, and an influential German music blogger shared it on his website, the song grew in popularity.

Foster later told CNN.comI wrote ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness. I wanted to understand the psychology behind it because it was foreign to me. It was terrifying how mental illness among youth had skyrocketed in the last decade. I was scared to see where the pattern was headed if we didn’t start changing the way we were bringing up the next generation.” He wanted to raise awareness of gun violence among disaffected youth. The subject also hit close to home for the band. Foster was bullied in high school, while then-bassist Cubbie Fink has a cousin who survived the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The song was temporarily pulled from several radio stations after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. And in a recent interview with Billboard, Foster stated he continues to wrestle with the song’s legacy in light of the ongoing epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., and is considering retiring the song and no longer performing it in their shows.

Robert’s got a quick hand
He’ll look around the room
He won’t tell you his plan
He’s got a rolled cigarette
Hanging out his mouth
He’s a cowboy kid

Yeah he found a six-shooter gun
In his dad’s closet, boy, in a box of fun things
I don’t even know what
But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, outrun my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, outrun my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

Daddy works a long day
He be coming home late, he’s coming home late
And he’s bringing me a surprise
‘Cause dinner’s in the kitchen and it’s packed in ice

I’ve waited for a long time
Yeah the sleight of my hand is now a quick-pull trigger
I reason with my cigarette
Then say, “Your hair’s on fire, you must’ve lost your wits, yeah?”

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, outrun my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

The lighthearted video does not make reference to the dark subject, instead showing scenes of the band performing the song and having fun and socializing.

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