Howdy, and welcome back to Radio Rants. Toss the single art down there.
Foster the People are newcomers to the music world. Their debut was released in May, and lead single “Pumped Up Kicks” has managed to chart as high was no. 18 on the Hot 100, despite almost nothing in terms of promotion or names attached to it. And that’s not just in the mainstream; outside of being voted Stereogum‘s Indie Song of the Summer, there hasn’t been a lot of indie/blog-buzz for this group, at least not enough to separate them from other indie.
My first reaction to “Pumped Up Kicks” was similar to the first time I heard “Little Lion Man” last summer: mainstream kids are going to name-drop this band/song around their hipster friends for “indie cred” (it’s in the Top 20…little late for that), while the indie crowd gets split right down the middle between casual approval and spitting hatred. Although, in all fairness, Foster the People/”Pumped Up Kicks” sound much less disingenuous than Mumford & Sons ever did.
And much like Mumford & Sons, part of the indie derision for “Pumped Up Kicks” comes from accusations of bandwagoning. Between the song’s loose drum beat, spacey synths, and slinky bassline, it can come across as MGMT on Xanax; the blunted point of comparison would be to imagine “Pumped Up Kicks” as a cover of “Congratulations” with denser production. But, speaking personally, I really don’t see any bandwagoning. Yeah, Foster the People has a very “indie” sound, but it doesn’t remind me of particular artists right away. Compare that to “Animal” by Neon Trees, which was only a hit because The Killers and The Strokes exist.
Even if it takes awhile to get there, “Pumped Up Kicks” is a fairly repetitive song. For the intro, the bass/drums begin the same pattern they’ll have for the next four minutes while some ambient synths play in the background. Not the best start, but it’ll do. Eventually, singer Mark Foster (first Marcus Mumford, now this guy?) drifts for the first verse, complete with a talk box. Between the talk box, the gauzy production, and low vocal mixing, it’s hard to pick out any of Foster’s lyrics in the verse, but the melody is quite nice.
And speaking of lyrics, here we are! What are the words to this fun, summery tune? “Robert’s got a quick hand/He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan” Alright, a little vague…what else? “Yeah he found a six shooter gun/In his dad’s closet hidden in a box of fun things“. That’s…that’s kind of dark. So how do we a song called “Pumped Up Kicks” from a first verse that sounds like conspiracy to murder?
“All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You’d better run, better run/Outrun my gun”
…well, that ties it together. Indie Summer ’11, y’all. Brought to you by fictionalized school shootings. But in a column where I frequently bemoan dealing with bad, meaningless, and/or nonsense lyrics, I’ll take a vague sounding song about something that grizzly. Shit, at least the song knows what it’s about and has fun with it by making the chorus irresistable.
And “Pumped Up Kicks”‘ success is 96.3234% (rounding down) to its chorus. The so-so-ness of the verses is completely made up in a toe-tapping, sing-along chorus adorned with handclaps and plenty of backing vocals. The melody is simple but elegant, and once you hear it once, it’ll be stuck in your head for forever. Foster the People, or someone close to them, seemed to know that the chorus was going to carry this song, because in addition to several repetitions, the bridge consists of the same melody whistled while a guitar noodles around behind it. Hey, it works, right?
“Pumped Up Kicks” is a catchy, fun tune. Not my favorite song by far, but as far as breezy summer songs go, this is one of the stronger ones of the year. I can see how it has such broad appeal; it’s indie, but at the same time not too indie. It leans a bit heavy on its chorus, but with a chorus like that, wouldn’t you?