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All These Kids: Mark Foster of Foster the People onstage during the 2011 VH1 Do Something Awards on August 14, 2011 in Hollywood, California.
2011's songs of the summer were as schizophrenic as the season itself. Over the next few days on The Record, we'll look at some of the songs that captured our attention (or held us hostage) and ask what they tell us about our standards, our anxieties and the places we want our music to take us when it's hot out. We made a Spotify playlist for as many of the songs we've been talking about as we could. Listen here.
Some songs are predestined to rule the summer. Their creators strive for the perfect balance of relaxation-inducing clichés and fizzy novelty, wrapped up in rhythms so light-hearted they seem to run on the very air of abandon: We'll have fun, fun, fun going back to Cali, because today I don't feel like doing anything except walking on sunshine until we're party rockin' in the house tonight! No one can resist a song like this. Claiming you can is like saying you hate Popsicles.
Another kind of summer song has a more complicated relationship to the season. Instead of invoking an endless, idealized beach day, such a song resonates within a specific time and place. Not intentionally topical, such songs collide with current events in unexpected ways: a simmering bass line might reflect the oppressiveness of a heat wave, or a confrontational chorus could connect with kids forming a grassroots movement in the street.
What if the moment's prevailing mood is hard to pin down — sometimes voluble, sometimes glum? I'd call that floating anxiety, the Red Bull-and-vodka delirium of a culture seriously in flux. That's what this summer feels like to me, with the tensions inspired by economic woes, political skirmishes, tragic accidents and true-crime sprees never quite alleviated by the distractions Kardashian weddings and Harry Potter finales provide. It's not a breezy, easy time, even when the weather's nice enough to put the top down.
"Pumped Up Kicks," by Foster the People, is the accidental anthem of this messed-up summer, because it's just as creepy as it is sweet. Comfortingly catchy but unsettled at its core, it's a beach drive with traffic, a weekend away with the cell phone continually going off.
At the core of "Pumped Up Kicks" is a conflict that seems to belong to its writer, the band's sneaky-voiced frontman and namesake Mark Foster. Foster is a twenty-seven year old songwriter who's been kicking around L.A. for almost a decade, never quite making it. As he portrays himself in his songs, he's a recession kid: a hustler by necessity, who'll try any angle, but who's also aware that losing integrity is a big price to pay. "Pumped Up Kicks" is just one of the songs on Foster the People's debut album Torches that runs on the nervous energy of someone working hard to not be an also-ran.
Written while Foster was working at a fancy L.A. ad-jingle lab, "Pumped Up Kicks" sells itself as a party song with a hangover built in. (The astute blogger Carles at Hipster Runoff calls this "bubble gum indie" — vapidity costumed as the cutting edge.) An ascending riff pings around various synthesizer lines to create a gradual rhythmic build that's both infectious and a bit irritating. Foster's already froggy tenor is distorted in an nod back to another laconic end-times anthem, the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." There's whistling, because these days there is always whistling. As a songcrafter, Foster clearly took his jingle writing lessons to heart.
But even as he fashioned himself a winner, Foster apparently couldn't forget what it felt like to lose. His lyrics, throughout Torches but especially on "Pumped Up Kicks," pull a trick on the party people who sing along at festivals and in the club.
Narrating the story of an unhinged kid driven to random violence in the verses, Foster becomes that character in the chorus, raining sugar-coated bullets on his fans. "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run, better run, outrun my gun," he sings, and the crowd mindlessly mimics him; except by the song's logic they are the ones who should be doing the running. They are the lucky ones who can afford concert tickets and fancy sneakers and the boom badoom doom of designer drugs. Singing the words back at Foster, the crowd also becomes predatory: "You better run, better run, faster than my bullet."
This radically unstable perspective is what makes "Pumped Up Kicks" the ideal summer song for a crash-and-bounce year. Extending the folk form of the murder ballard into the psychoanalytic age, many contemporary songwriters have reflected upon psychopaths: famous examples from the rock world include Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," and Sufjan Stevens' gorgeous "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Mostly, these songs tap into the horror-movie energy of mayhem or reflect more calmly on the vulnerabilities that turned these people into monsters. The listener is left outside the story's frame, to grieve the victims and pity the killer.
Not so in "Pumped Up Kicks." It's more like "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads — a trip inside a messed up mind, without the baggage of moral judgement. Foster's way of shifting from first to third person complicates matters even more than David Byrne's straight-up skittish nightmare did: is he watching this tragedy happen? Is he making it happen? Or is he doing both — is that what we're all doing, immersed in a 24-hour information cycle that simultaneously makes us witnesses to every horror that happens and creates a wall of virtuality, allowing us to feel less implicated?
This may seem like a heavy message to attach to a silly summer song, but that's what happens with pop music. Before there was Twitter or Facebook, songs would take ideas and moods viral, their meanings changing with every new headline and every new audience who would take up a chorus and make it their own. None of us can run faster than life's bullets these days, it seems. There's always a new assault, a stock market crash, a natural disaster, a damaged person on the loose in Norway or Tampa, Florida. "Pumped Up Kicks" gives us a way to live with the worry this causes, and even turn it sunny. As Britney Spears, another avatar of our confusion, also sang this summer: keep on dancing 'til the world ends.