A Look Behind the Meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Mark Foster was a jingle writer. He wrote commercially for ​​brands like Honey Bunches of Oats and Verizon. But Foster had bigger dreams for himself, and he knew that he had a lot to tell the world. So, he enlisted drummer Mark Pontius and friend/bassist Cubbie Fink to help him bring his songs to life. Together as Foster & The People, which evolved into Foster the People, the musicians released their debut song “Pumped Up Kicks” on September 14, 2010.

The meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks.”

“Pumped Up Kicks” holds a darker meaning behind its alt-pop dance sound. Foster wrote the track from the point of view of a deeply troubled youth named Robert, who’s named only once at the beginning of the song.

Robert’s got a quick hand
He’ll look around the room, but won’t tell you his plan

Yeah, he found a six-shooter gun
In his dad’s closet, and with a box of fun things
I don’t even know what
But he’s coming for you, yeah, he’s coming for you

After finding his father’s gun, Robert imagines others running from him as he wields the weapon. You better run, better run, outrun my gun. This scene never unfolds, though. Robert only imagines and toys with the idea of all the other kids running from him. It’s a horror of the mind.

“I wrote ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness,” Foster told CNN Entertainment in a 2012 interview. “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.”

What’s up with the shoes?

If you’ve heard this song once or twice, you would’ve heard the chorus that warns: All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run, outrun my gun. What are pumped-up kicks, exactly?

Foster is likely referring to the ’80s and ’90s somewhat popular shoe, the Reebok Pump basketball shoe. When wearing the shoe, you had the option of physically pumping up the sneaker to inflate a better fit. In 1991, this sneaker peaked in popularity when Dee Brown of the Boston Celtics won the Slam Dunk Contest in the shoes.

The Reebok Rump was also pretty expensive at the time, initially selling for $170. This price point likely caused jealousy among kids because not everyone could afford them. Hence why the troubled Robert targeted the kids with the pumped up kicks—he wasn’t like them. He didn’t have the shoes.

Where “Pumped Up Kicks” stands today.

Initially, Foster the People used this song’s virality as a platform to speak out about gun violence. But now, Foster is having second thoughts.

“So it’s something that I’m really wrestling with, but I’m leaning towards retiring it [‘Pumped Up Kicks’] because it’s just too painful,” Foster told Billboard. “Where we’re at now, compared to where we were 10 years ago, is just horrific.

“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,” he said.

What do you think? Should “Pumped Up Kicks” be retired? Comment below.

Photo Credit Andy Barron

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