"Pumped Up Kicks"
Have you ever had a dream where you're sitting in a bright meadow under a towering tree, watching butterflies flit from flower to flower and cute little bunnies hop through the clover? Then, as you loll, you realize that the bunnies have fangs and the reason you've been sitting for such a long time is that the tree has snared you in its roots?
But if I did, I'd be thinking to myself (as the tree pulled me closer), "This feels like first time I heard 'Pumped Up Kicks.'"
The song, by up-and-coming indie band Foster the People (members: Mark Foster, Mark Pontius and Cubbie Fink), sports the happy mellow vibe of a dewy morning in a meadow—smooth and dreamy and ever so groovy. And then you tap into the lyrics and it twists into a nightmare.
"Robert's got a quick hand," it starts. "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 hidden in a box of fun things/ … He's coming for you, yeah, he's coming for you."
So. This sunny-sounding ditty is actually about an adolescent who grabs a gun—à la Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho and so many other recent killers and would-be killers—and takes aim at his classmates.
The verses dive into a killer's mindset: Robert, we sense, is a loner—quiet, resentful of his more popular peers. The "pumped up kicks" line in the title and chorus refers to trendy, expensive footwear—shorthand, in the song's ethos, for the accoutrements of the cool set. "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks," Mark Foster merrily chirps, "you better run, better run, outrun my gun."
Robert finishes with an act of patricide. "Daddy works a long day," we're told. "I've waited for a long time/Yeah, the sleight of my hand is now a quick-pull trigger."
"I kind of wrote the song to bring awareness to the issue [of school violence]," Foster told KROQ radio in Los Angeles. "That sort of thing keeps happening more and more in our country; it's kind of turning into an epidemic. To me the epidemic isn't gun violence; the epidemic is lack of family, lack of love and isolation—kids who don't have anywhere to go or anyone to talk to, and that's what makes them snap."
Regardless of movies, MTV has censored the song, suggesting that even one of media's most provocative voices feels the need to tone this particular one down.
And I'm not sure I am either. I know there are those out there who think the whole "bad influence" card—the idea that someone would listen to "Pumped Up Kids" and be inspired to replicate Columbine—is overplayed. I can understand how Foster hopes the song will serve as a disturbing cautionary tale. And, as he notes, not everyone will probably even really hear the words. "Some people just listen to melodies and other people just care about the lyrics," Foster told The Washington Post. "There's something for both types of people. It's OK."
As much as I got sucked into the melody, these lyrics take you to a very dark place—one all the more disquieting because of its outward buoyancy. There's something deeply chilling about knowing that teens—perhaps subconsciously, perhaps without actively processing the words—might be softly singing a chorus about murdering their peers while going to class or walking around the mall.
"You better run, better run, faster than my bullet …"