What Is It About Pumped Up Kicks?

I can always tell when a song has caught the imagination of a lot of people because I start to hear about it from my guitar students.  It doesn’t even have to be a guitar song per se, but as soon as my students begin referring to it, especially if the students are of different ages, it piques my interest.

Such was the case with Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People.  It’s a very simple song, musically, with a little bass/guitar riff repeating through most of the song and the same four-chord progression.  For simplicity’s sake, I have the guitar capo’d on the 1st fret so my beginner students can play it using Em, D, G and A, one measure per chord.  The bass riff extends over that four-chord progression as well, but you can also play it on guitar, as some of my more advanced students like to do.

But the lyrics belie the chord progression underneath them:

Robert's got a quick hand
 He'll look around the room he won't tell you his plan
 Got a rolled cigarette
 Hangin' out his mouth, he's a cowboy kid
 Yeah, found a six-shooter gun
 In his dad's closet hidden with a box of fun things
 I don't even know what
But he's comin' for you, yeah he's comin for you, hey
 All the other kids
 With the pumped up kicks
 You'd better run, better run
 Outrun my gun
 All the other kids
 With the pumped up kicks
 You'd better run, better run
 Faster than my bullet

Joni Mitchell once talked about the pathos of songs and how it is often created by marrying “sad” lyrics with “happy” music.  That isn’t a direct quote, but something I heard her say in an interview about her songwriting a long time ago.  In the case of Pumped Up Kicks, the lyrics are rather violent, talking about a brooding kid coming to school with a gun that he got from his father’s closet.  Sound familiar?  Not only did he find the gun, he found it with a bunch of other “fun things”.  He warns the rich kids with the “pumped up kicks”, the high-end shoes, that they’d better outrun his gun, and be faster than his bullet.  But underneath this strangely dark lyric, the chorus melody is an upbeat, almost happy ditty.  And it works.

I’ve heard this song peripherally, in stores and on TV shows and I certainly recognized it when a student said she wanted to learn it.  But it wasn’t until I examined it lyrically did I realize what it was about.  In fact, I would venture to guess that a lot of people would probably find the song really appealing and not have paid much attention to the meaning of the lyrics right away.  Once the message reveals itself the song takes on a whole new dimension, but as disturbing as the topic is, it doesn’t lose it’s upbeat quality.

Sometimes the production of a song can do a lot to drive the feeling of it.  This recording employs a “radio” effect on the vocal (when the voice sounds like it’s coming out of a cheap radio) in the verses, creating a kind of detached, strangeness to the dialogue.  And there’s that ever-present, simple little lick and the bright chorus with multiple vocals having an anthem-like quality that definitely keeps it memorable.

When songwriters sit down to pen a song, the chances are that most of the time they aren’t thinking about things like “pathos” and production, it just comes out the way it does.   I don’t know which came first in this case, lyrics or music, or that little happy riff, but Pumped Up Kicks definitely came together in a successful way.


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