| December 06, 2019 01:48 PM
Almost 10 years ago, Matt Foster wrote the song that would become one of the biggest hits of the decade.
One day in January 2010, Foster spent eight hours writing and singing a synth-filled single with a cheery beat that belied its somber lyrics. By the next year, Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks was on the Billboard Hot 100, and listeners wanted to know why Foster had written about what appeared to be a school shooting.
“I kind of wrote the song to bring awareness to the issue,” he said at the time. “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.”
There had been a shooting just before Foster wrote Pumped Up Kicks, and he wanted to “get inside the head of an isolated, psychotic kid.” Some listeners, however, have misinterpreted the song’s meaning, Foster says.
“The song is not about condoning violence at all. It’s the complete opposite,” Foster said. “The song is an amazing platform to have a conversation with your kids about something that shouldn’t be ignored, to talk about it in a loving way.”
Not every medium was right for that conversation, though. Pumped Up Kicks, like Ke$ha’s Die Young, was pulled from many radio stations following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. It has been a perennial source of controversy, particularly after it was revealed that the Parkland shooter was a fan of the song.
Now Foster says it may be time to retire the song itself.
“I’m proud of the conversation that it created. But now I’ve been very seriously thinking of retiring the song forever,” he told Billboard in an interview published this week. “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.”
Foster the People may stop performing Pumped Up Kicks at concerts. The band already opted not to perform it at a concert in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, since the performance was close to the anniversary of the festival shooting in Las Vegas in which nearly 60 victims died.
“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,'” Foster said.
That wasn’t the only time the band questioned whether the performance was appropriate.
“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,” Foster said. “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.”
Good performers know their audiences, and they know when a particular performance could be inappropriate. When you sing about touchy issues, you’ll often have to question whether each venue is right for them. But Foster the People shouldn’t retire Pumped Up Kicks entirely.
The controversy over the song’s contents, not its appropriateness for a particular venue, evokes the outrage over another piece of art depicting violence: this year’s Joker film. Despite the media’s repeated insistence that the film would inspire violence because it depicted a violent killer, it did no such thing. The film was evidently intended to explore a different side of psychology.
“I was going through [the script] and I realized, I said, ‘Well, why would we make something, like, where you sympathize or empathize with this villain?’ It’s like, because that’s what we have to do. It’s so easy for us to — we want the simple answers, we want to vilify people,” said Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the Joker.
When asked about Pumped Up Kicks, Foster said much the same.
“I wrote Pumped Up Kicks when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness,” he said in a statement after the Sandy Hook shooting. “I wanted to understand the psychology behind it because it was foreign to me. It was terrifying how mental illness among youth had skyrocketed in the last decade. I was scared to see where the pattern was headed if we didn’t start changing the way we were bringing up the next generation.”
However well or poorly Foster executed his goal, Pumped Up Kicks certainly doesn’t celebrate violence. It’s true that the song is not appropriate for all venues. But that doesn’t mean it has to go away entirely.