Mark Foster was a frustrated musician and a jingles writer in LA whose compositions became increasingly complex. In 2009, he formed a band (with bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius) called Foster the People to record an album. One of their first songs — “Pumped Up Kicks” — became a viral sensation in 2010, leading to a record deal. Featured on their 2011 album Torches, the song becamse a crossover hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group received three Grammy Award nominations for the album and song.
Reebok Pumps sneakers were modestly successful at the time, and the story of a loner contemplating killing the owner of a pair forms the core of the song.
As Foster described it, the song “is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He’s an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It’s kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer’s mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood.”
MTV censored lyrics out of the song when it played the video, removing mentions of guns and bullets. Foster wasn’t impressed, saying, “You've got reality shows which are all about teenagers getting pregnant and you’ve got Jersey Shore, where a girl gets punched in the face and they show the clip over and over and over as a teaser to watch the show. It’s like, oh, OK, domestic violence is fine but, like, talking about something like family values and teen isolation and bullying is not.”
The video has garnered nearly 1 billion views on YouTube.
The song was yanked from the airwaves after the shooting of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in December 2012. Notably, Foster agreed with that decision, out of respect for the victims.
Foster the People has remained an active band in the ensuing years, releasing other hit songs, including “Sit Next to Me,” which ended up a multi-Platinum hit.
The vocals are striking, with a distorted, distant radio voice narrating the verses while clear singing takes over on the choruses, possibly an effort to portray a messed up mind moving to clear action.
Foster described “Pumped Up Kicks” as “a f**k you song to hipsters, in a way — but it’s a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to.”