Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved. This is an extended Q&A with Mark Foster of Foster The People about one of those songs, “Pumped Up Kicks.”
“Pumped Up Kicks” was the ultimate breakthrough for Los Angeles-based alt-pop group Foster the People. It was a catchy crossover hit that catered to multiple genre formats, and it helped usher in a new era of commercially successful indie-leaning pop music. Plus, it turned frontman Mark Foster from a L.A.-based jingle writer to a sought-after rock star.
So it may be surprising that, when reflecting on the song eight years after it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, Foster says he might be ready to retire the song for good. “It’s something that I’ve been wrestling with,” he tells Billboard.
Why would you retire your most popular song? Well, it’s complicated.
Below, Foster talks with Billboard about the song’s legacy, how it took off and why he’s weighing the decision to retire it for good.
So the song was written from the perspective of Robert, a high schooler with plans to go through with a school shooting. Can you share a little about how you wrote the song and where that idea came from?
Well, I'll stop you in the question and say the school shooting part of it was never spoken about in the song. I think people filled in the blanks that it was about a school shooting, but I never say anything about a school in the song. It's really more about this person's psyche. Obviously the song is speaking about violent things, but it is a misconception that it's about a school shooting. I mean, it's not a big point that you have to hit home, I just want to point that out.
Were you surprised that that was how people took it?
No, I wasn't surprised at all. It's been interesting to watch the lifespan of that song. The fact that it took off in the first place was something that I never predicted would happen. There were other songs that I'd written before that -- that I would get excited about and say people are going to connect with and like -- and nothing happens. And then this song...
What's interesting about it to me was, topically, [the song] struck a chord and resonated with people, which is why the song became what it did. But it took people a while to really let the lyrics get into their bones, and I think that once the lyrics got under their skin, it was a bit of a slap in the face. And I think some people were embarrassed that they didn't realize it in the beginning -- that they had been dancing to it. But I also want to say that 10 years ago when I wrote it, it was a warning. That's where it was coming from for me.
What moves me is culture. I'm watching culture and responding to it. I remember that week [that I wrote the song], there was some shooting that happened, and it really bothered me, because I recognized that it was going to continue to get worse. And that nothing was going to change. And then that song popped out. But the perception [of the song] 10 years later has shifted, because now it’s a reminder of this really painful moment in our country's history.
Do you remember which shooting it was?
I don't remember which one but I can tell you I wrote the song in January 2010. It wasn't necessarily reacting to the shooting itself, it was reacting to the idea, realizing that this isn't going to change and that this is going to get so bad. It was like peeling back time and looking into the future and being like, "This is going to get so bad before anything changes that a lot of people are going to die and this is going to be a really dark period of American history."
Did I write it specifically to try to warn the public? No, I didn't think anybody was ever going to hear the song. I was a starving artist, I didn't have an audience. I never in a million years thought that it was going to become a global phenomenon.
Walk me through what it was like in the studio recording the song. I saw that you did nearly everything on it -- you wrote it, produced it, engineered it, and played all the instruments, even the whistling and the clapping. How did you make the decision to make the melody upbeat and cheery?
Well it's funny, I was about to leave the studio that day because I was across town in L.A. and just wanted to get home before rush hour traffic. And as I was about to leave the studio, I had this thought. It was like, "You know what, you're here, why don't you just start a new idea. Just write something, start a song, experiment, try something."
And so I laid out the drumbeat that eventually became the beat for “Pumped Up Kicks.” I went into that idea saying, "Okay, I want to try and make something sound kind of like Fleetwood Mac." So I laid out the drumbeat that was kind of like that classic “Dreams” drumbeat, you know? And then I added the harmonies that were like late-'60s-early-'70s, like Mamas and Papas, kind of Phil Spector-y. Everything happened really quickly -- I didn't overthink anything. When I picked up the guitar for the bridge, I wanted to do something in a style like Jimi Hendrix -- like, if he was just casually riffing over this with his hammer-ons and blues influence, Americana style. So it was little things like that where I was pulling from little bits of history and just experimenting.
After that, I just turned on the mic and when I started singing, both of those verses pretty much came out of me verbatim. I remember the moment when I sang, "Robert’s got a quick hand," because I had no idea it was going to be about a singular person -- and then it changed the entire context of the song. A lot of times when I'm writing, I try to leave it open for the universe to try to serve as some kind of a channel, or some kind of a lightning rod, for whatever comes out. And in that first verse, I didn't change one word that came out.
I wrote that song in eight hours, and for me it wasn't necessarily more special than any other song. The thing that made that song special was the public, and the fact that people thought it was special, and it resonated and it created a conversation. And I'm proud of the conversation that it created. But now I've been very seriously thinking of retiring the song forever.
Is it because shootings have continued to happen in this country or is it something else?
Yeah, exactly. Because shootings have continued to happen, and I feel like there are so many people that have been touched, either personally or by proxy, by a mass shooting in this country -- and that song has become almost a trigger of something painful they might have experienced. And that's not why I make music. At some points I do make music to bring awareness to something, but I make music to connect with people, and I feel like the awareness that that song brought and the conversation that that song brought, that’s been fulfilled. We're still talking about it 10 years later. It still gets brought up.
And I'll tell you, that kid... what was his name, the Florida shooter? Nikolas Cruz. I read his journals, and he was talking to some journalist and he said, "Listen to ‘Pumped Up Kicks’." And there was a shooting in Brazil where the shooter had made “Pumped Up Kicks” their anthem.
(Editor’s note: Cruz, who was behind the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reportedly encouraged others to listen to the song.)
What is it like to read those stories and see that?
It's probably too hard to put into a small soundbite for this interview… It's a lot of different things. Like I said, I've been thinking about retiring the song and just not playing it live anymore. I can't ask other people not to play it live, but the public made the song what it is -- and if the song has become another symbol for something, I can't control that. But I can control my involvement in it.
The way that people perceive the song is their choice, and it becomes a separate entity that I don't have control over. But I do have control over whether I'm going to take part in playing it over and over again. It's like pushing your song in somebody's wound -- I don't really want to do it. And so yeah, it's something that I've been wrestling with.
You also have so many other hits that you could still play. Do you think people would miss it and still request it at shows?
I'm sure people would, and that's the scary part. Luckily, we have other songs that have resonated, but that was the song that put us on the map and changed my life -- it’s still our most-known song. So there is fear, of course. What artist has officially retired their most well-known song? So it's something that I'm really wrestling with, but I'm leaning towards retiring it, because it's just too painful. Where we're at now, compared to where we were 10 years ago, is just horrific.
We played Life Is Beautiful in Vegas a couple of years ago and it was a massive crowd -- I think it was 50-60,000 people at our show -- and it was very close to the anniversary of the [Route 91 Harvest festival] shooting in Vegas and we opted out [of performing the song]. I was like, "I don't want to play the song here, it's just too much, it's too dark. We're in the place where this happened."
And so we ended the show with “Hey Jude,” and we did this collaboration with Cirque du Soleil and they came out and did this whole big thing and it was really beautiful -- it was one of the most beautiful moments of my career. And after we were done, I said goodbye and we walked off stage and there was a large group in the crowd of people chanting, "Pumped Up Kicks."
That must have felt so morbid.
Yeah, it just felt really dark. It's like, "Wow, we just left you with this unifying song that everybody knows, and there's f--king clowns hanging from the ceiling and spinning around and rose petals being blown into the air. What more do you want?" You want to sing a song in a place where all these people were murdered a year ago? And like I said, the song, the symbol of the song changed -- the public made it what it was, and if the public wants to make it something different, that's okay. But that's my choice of how I want to react to that.
If you were to retire the song, would you ever consider writing a follow-up to “Pumped Up Kicks” and having that replace it at your shows?
Yeah, I've thought about it. But I don't know, I'm not a huge fan of sequels. If I can figure out a way to do it in a way that's authentic and feels fresh and not preachy, I'll do it. I've even thought about releasing that same exact song, with completely different lyrics. Or continuing the story, and talking about where Robert went from there -- because nobody knows how that story ends.
The thing about “Pumped Up Kicks” is that it's a moment in time, and you don't know where it went. So people fill in the blanks, and I think sometimes horror is the most powerful when you let the imagination fill in what happens.
After Sandy Hook happened, some radio stations began to take the song off the air and MTV censored some of the lyrics. What was your reaction to that?
I think in the beginning, when that first started happening, I felt like it was bulls--t and I felt like the song was being treated differently, because it sounded like West Coast sunshine pop.
If you look at the content on television and the shows that are getting nominated for Emmys every year, and movies that are getting nominated for Oscars every year, the content that we desire tends to be pretty dark. The stories that get rewarded are the ones that tend to be really dark and talking about the deepest, darkest parts of humanity that people don't want to discuss. That's the most interesting thing for people to read in a book, that's the most interesting thing for people to make a movie about.
But for whatever reason, songs are held in a different regard when it sounds like, "This is something that my three-year-old kid would really like. This is safe. This doesn't have any bad words in it or cuss words." I think "run from my gun" is a much more dangerous phrase than saying “f--k” or “s--t.” I think the way that things are edited in our culture is completely backwards. I think that nudity should be allowed on TV, but watching someone's head get blown off shouldn't. But you know, that's a much bigger subject to talk about.
That's just how we are, and people want things to stay the same. People aren't used to things changing and people aren't used to things creating a ripple in society, and when something does, people react to it and most of the time when something changes, your natural reaction is fear. The United States, since the age of the Western, early cinema, we've been watching people get shot, we've been rooting for that character to gun somebody down in the OK Corral. And Clint Eastwood, you know, here he comes to save the day, he just murdered a bunch of Native Americans, the good guys win again. That's something that we grew up on and so we're desensitized to it until it comes in a different form and then in that different form you see the horror of it because you didn't have your walls up from the years of propaganda that you've been fed to be numbed to receiving it in a certain way.
I'm curious if radio stations and MTV would have reacted the same way if the song wasn't as upbeat and the melody wasn't as high and it sounded more dark and ominous.
Absolutely! It would've been fine, but nobody would've cared about the song. People cared about the song because of how it made them feel, and then it shocked them when they dived into it.
A similar thing happened with Kesha’s song “Die Young,” where stations began to remove the song after Sandy Hook.
As much as I want to say that art forms should all be created equal, they're not. I think what that shows you is that people do hold music in a higher regard in some form -- that a three-minute song can make somebody more uncomfortable than a two-hour movie. And I guess maybe it's the fluidity of it too -- like, when something is being played everywhere around the world for a month or two, you hear it everywhere, and you really don't have a choice.
It’s interesting that the song peaked on the Hot 100 right around when Sandy Hook happened.
Over the past 10 years or so, there have been many times when a shooting would happen and we'd be in the middle of a tour, and we'd be playing that night, and it started to feel wrong to play that song. Not because of where we were coming from, but being sensitive to the people in the audience that might misperceive it or might be triggered by it.
Looking back on the song, is there anything about it that you would change today?
Yeah, I would've taken some of the choruses out. There's too many double choruses. That's the nature of putting a demo online. Usually, I would sit with a demo and listen to a song a hundred times and then when I go to record it for real, I would have a better idea of which parts feel kind of long and which parts make me lose interest or start to get annoying so I can tighten them up. But because that was the demo, I didn't have time to do that and once it became reactive, it didn't make sense to put a different version out. It's like, "Well, why would I change it? It's not broken."
But that second chorus was something that always bothered me -- it's already a long chorus so it didn't need to repeat, and then the end, the outro, it's the chorus three or four times in a row. It's just overkill. We've been playing it different live for years. I think we changed that the first year when we're playing it live, we never play double choruses.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about how the song has held up over the decade?
Obviously it's a very complicated thing for me, but even with all the blemishes, I'm proud of it. I'm proud that a three-minute song created so much conversation about something that's worth talking about, and I think that every artist dreams of making something that holds its value -- and that I really feel like I made the earth pause for a second and bend down to hear what I was saying. And I'm proud of that. But I think it might be time to retire it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.