I made the mistake of turning the radio on to Q102 last month, and I was shocked to discover that instead of the thumping beats about gratuitous sex that I’d come to love, they were playing Foster the People’s song Pumped Up Kicks.
The song was released in September of 2010 and is currently number three on Billboard’s top 100. It has this great, catchy beat. The singer mumbles incoherently in a high-pitched voice for two thirds of the song, and then during the chorus you discover that he has a voice; he’s singing to all the other kids with the pumped up kicks, who better run.
In fact, it’s so ridiculously catchy that I didn’t even really listen to the lyrics until, one day in the car, when my dad said, “Oh, this song is about Columbine.”
I looked up the lyrics to Pumped up Kicks because, even though the Columbine, CO shootings happened when I was five, it’s impossible not to know something about them. The Columbine shootings occurred in 1999. Two boys at a high school in Colorado went into their school and killed 13 people, injuring 24 others. They then killed themselves.
I don’t think that Pumped up Kicks is about Columbine. The song starts, “Robert’s got a quick hand.” Neither of the boys in the Columbine massacre was named Robert. In the song, Robert “[finds] a six-shooter gun… [and] he’s coming for you.”
There was another shooting called the Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2007. A teenager named Robert Hawkins killed eight people and injured four, and then committed suicide.
This seems closer to the mark—but does it matter? Maybe it’s not about a specific incident at all.
The Pumped up Kicks music video starts with a man in black clothes and sunglasses walking across a cement slab, making guns with his hands. A boy with a backpack and a deranged smile appears frequently throughout the disturbing video.
I’m going to be clear: I don’t think that Foster the People intended this song to be the next anthem for sociopathic, homicidal teenagers. In an interview with the LA Times, bandleader Mark Foster said, “[Pumped up Kicks] is psychologically breaking down someone’s state of mind, and diving in and walking in their shoes. Maybe your average music listener would never get to the lyrics, but for people who dig in and find the story, it’s a slap in the face.”
I can’t blame Foster the People for writing this song. The point of music and art is to make people dig deeper and question the meaning of things.
However, this song made me realize something: a lot of the time, we take for granted what’s on the radio. If a popular, mainstream station is playing it, then we listen to it and enjoy it. Eventually, we dub it overplayed and move on to the next one. But how many times have songs like Pumped up Kicks come onto the radio without really catching our attention?
As a whole, maybe our society is more ignorant than we like to let on. We should probably start paying a little bit more attention—this time, the song was about a crazed killer. Before that, Eminem and Rihanna had Love the Way You Lie, released in August of 2010, which was about an abusive relationship. Love the Way You Lie won top rap song for Billboard Music Awards for 2011.
And if we don’t start paying attention to what the media streams through our heads, then what’s going to happen to our society as a whole?
I still think Pumped up Kicks is really catchy, so maybe I’m a lost cause. But at least I’ve learned my lesson. I have to think about what is influencing me, instead of just taking everything as a given.