There are certain songs that take months or even years to really catch on in the mainstream. Despite never being a number-one track, they still get plenty of airtime many years following their initial release.
One of those songs is Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People, which was released for free by lead singer Mark Foster for a year between 2010 and 2011, and slowly grew into a pop culture sensation. By the end of 2011, it reached as high as number three on the Billboard Hot 100 while ranking as the 13th biggest song of the year.
In the years that have passed, people have still been trying to decipher the true meaning behind Pumped Up Kicks‘ lyrics. On the surface, they suggest something sinister. That is, however, if you listen to the lyrics. Many still get swept up in its jovial beat, which made this song perfect for line dancing.
The lyrics themselves, though, describe gun violence amongst the youth of the United States. After all, the song was briefly banned from radio stations following the tragedy of Sandy Hook. But is there a deeper meaning to Pumped Up Kicks that many overlooked outside of youthful violence?
According to Foster himself, the track as a whole indeed describes the problem of mass school shootings in the United States. When writing the song in 2009, he felt that the country’s handling of these shootings would continue to become a growing problem rather than seeing any improvement. For him, Pumped Up Kicks was essentially a plea to Congress to enact stricter gun laws to prevent further school shootings.
This song is performed through the eyes of a young man named Robert. He is an outcast at school, doesn’t have many friends, and feels like he’s becoming increasingly isolated. This has been a problem that’s been around for ages, and the advent of the internet and social media has had an impact on society, especially among the youth.
Because of this, Foster says that many troubled teens (and people of all ages, really) have an inner monologue where they think about violence. Originally supposed to be from the perspective of a potential victim, Foster changed Pumped Up Kicks so that listeners could get Robert’s perspective. In the end, though, there isn’t an actual shooting that’s carried out by the subject, but rather, the intrusive plotting.
Even if there isn’t overt violence detailed in the lyrics, Foster still feels uncomfortable performing Pumped Up Kicks in many situations. The song came from a place where he would wake up each day and see another tragedy in the news, so the track has essentially been retired by the band. No matter how many fans clamor to hear it at festivals or concerts, it just doesn’t always feel right for Foster.
The singer has gone back and forth a bit on the aspect of Pumped Up Kicks being about mass shootings in school specifically, though. He explained that school shootings weren’t directly referenced in the song and that people have misconstrued it by adding in their own notions. He went on to say that it is more about the place where troubled youth can be, mentally.
Still, due to his comments upon the initial success of the song, Foster sees why so many people immediately think of school shootings when listening to Pumped Up Kicks. What surprised him more was the success of the track itself, and that people were a bit dazed when they realized what it was about. It’s a powerful song, with Foster coming up with the entire thing over the span of just eight hours.
Because of the continued violence, Foster has said that he wants this track retired for good. He’s even considered coming up with a replacement song for the band’s concerts. The one thing he would change about the song if he had to go back in time and write it all over again, though? “I would’ve taken some choruses out,” he said.
Who is Robert?
Breaking down the lyrics a bit, we first have to look at the title of the song. Why Pumped Up Kicks? Foster explains that it’s a reference to the basketball shoes of the early 1990s where the tongue would have a “pump” that elevated those who wore them. However, these shoes didn’t come cheap, making it so that only the more “privileged” children, who would often be the bullies for those like the fictional Robert, wore them.
Robert is portrayed as a loner who has a strained relationship with his father. He finds his father’s gun and bullets in his father’s closet and daydreams about spinning it around like a cowboy while smoking a cigarette. The lyrics suggest, though, that he has no clue about how to use the gun. Instead, he’s being bullied at school and is having a mental escape about his dark revenge.
The members of Foster The People were no strangers to bullying, feeling isolated at school, or even school shootings. Foster himself said that he was bullied during his teenage years while the band’s bassist, Cubby Fink, had a family member who was a student at Columbine High School during the tragic shooting in 1999.
Misconceptions of a Warning and Foster’s Plea
For Foster, Pumped Up Kicks was a warning against violence in schools. However, many parents in the United States felt that the track was glorifying tragedy. Multiple school shooters have referenced the song, but that’s not what Foster wanted; this is part of the reason he doesn’t like performing it anymore. For him, this song is a platform for talking to teens about their mental health and being comfortable opening up about their lives and feelings.
Foster explains that musicians have always had an eye on society and give their own take on the way things are in the world. He noticed that the children that were bringing guns to public places were getting younger and younger as time went on. He wanted to know what these kids were thinking at such a young age to make them want to do something like that.
But why such a bubbly and up-tempo beat for a song of such deep meaning? For Foster, the melody was about getting people in the door. He said it was a “f*** you” to hipsters but that they would still dance to it because of the tempo. Once people were hooked, they listened to the lyrics a bit more and found that the song was Foster’s essential begging to stop tragic violence in today’s society.
What Has Changed?
Though hoping that Pumped Up Kicks would be a catalyst to start conversations and legislation that led to a decrease in school violence, that, unfortunately, wouldn’t be the case. In fact, school shootings would continue to increase following the song’s release and haven’t shown any signs of improvement. This is part of the reason why Pumped Up Kicks is retired by Foster The People, as the band feels that the song didn’t accomplish its goal.
One thing that did change, though, is the life of Foster and his band. Pumped Up Kicks was released ahead of their debut album Torches, which was released on May 23, 2011. The album became a smash hit and the band has since released two more albums, Supermodel (2014) and Sacred Hearts Club (2017). They’ve also released several singles, but none that have matched the success of Pumped Up Kicks.
Foster The People’s biggest hit was their first, and one that they don’t even play to crowds anymore. Still, all these years later, most people are still talking about the subject matter of Pumped Up Kicks because of society’s failure to listen and change.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.