The Meaning of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”

Foster the People’s 2010 smash hit “Pumped Up Kicks” was the first-ever release from the band, which started as a solo project for then-television jingle writer Mark Foster. The song sounds like an upbeat indie-pop anthem, but there’s a darker truth lurking beneath the bubbly soundscape.

It was a massive hit in the fall of 2010, blaring out across the airwaves everywhere, and only a few took the time to consider the meaning behind Foster’s lyrics.

“Pumped Up Kicks” tells the story of a troubled kid named Robert, who’s “got a quick hand” and sits around plotting his revenge in the form of a school shooting. He sings about the gun that he found in his father’s closet, and warns the other kids that they better “run, better run, faster than my bullet”.

With the song being so popular, Foster has often been asked about the meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks”, and has explained that it was written to bring awareness to the issues of mental health and gun violence in teenagers, something that he had been hearing more and more about in the news at the time.

One such interview took place on the Los Angeles radio station KROQ in 2011:

I kind of wrote the song to bring awareness to the issue. 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.

When a 13 or 14-year-old kid brings a gun to school and does something, sure, you blame them for making that choice….. But at the end of the day, he or she is still just a kid and there’s a lot of other things that led up that moment that should have changed.

Mark Foster on the meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks”.

The subject matter of “Pumped Up Kicks” has also been the cause of some controversy over the years, starting right when the song went viral and some accused him of fictionalizing Robert Hawkins, the perpetrator of the Westroads Mall Shooting that took place in Omaha, Nebraska in 2007. Foster insists that the character names are just a coincidence.

However the song has remained extremely popular since its release, and unfortunately school shootings as well as teenage gun violence and mental health issues have continued to rise in America.

This has led Foster to second guess his writing of the song, especially since some who have committed such heinous acts have mentioned “Pumped Up Kicks” both in their journals and in person.

He spoke about this with Billboard in 2019:

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.

Mark Foster on wanting to retire “Pumped Up Kicks”.

As for the “pumped up kicks” themselves, it can be assumed that Foster is referring to the Reebok Pumps, which were popular among school kids and professional athletes alike in the late 80s through the 90s. They were the shoes that all the cool kids were wearing at the time.

Reebok Pumps

Watch the music video for Foster the People’s controversial superhit “Pumped Up Kicks” below.

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