I'm a big fan of Songfacts, so I found the year-end results of most requested Songfacts of 2011 quite interesting. A lot of Adele. But No. 1 was "Pumped Up Kicks," a song I was vaguely familiar with to the point of asking a buddy of mine what it was every time it came on at Filter, where I often do my work from. Now I know for reals. It's pretty great.
Not everyone thinks so though - once they realize what the song is about. I couldn't disagree more with those folks.
For example, here's the Chicago Tribune's Steve Johnson:
"Maybe we're desensitized by the almost absurdly violent first-person-shooter video games so many kids spend their afternoons playing. Maybe naming the song after fancy sneakers instead of the weaponry creates enough emotional distance.
"Or maybe we figure - as I initially did - that it's just pop music, and its ear-candy qualities trump whatever the point of view might be.
"But after looking closely at the song's lyrics and listening to it many extra times, I have come to agree that this song is more deserving of a push away than the warm embrace it has mostly received."
Really? Another in a long line of student revenge fantasies is just too much because it's so, um, catchy?
"I don't for a moment fear that my kids or yours are one ill-considered pop song away from going bad, but I'd just rather not have their environment include a school shooting treated with all the gravity of bubble-gum pop - with whistling!"
Wow. First, the song hardly sounds like bubble-gum pop to me. It's not The Archies.
Besides that, dark lyrical matter is often ensconced in bubblegum casing. True, that can sometimes be a problem. "Born in the U.S.A." was easily mistaken for a Reaganesque testament to patriotism in part because of its anthemic chorus. But those kinds of mistakes are mostly attributable to lazy listening. And sometimes - often - the contrast of inner truths with outer sweetness is part of the point.
Also, it's not the music doesn't really sugarcoat the lyrics. It's sufficiently ominous, with its swirly keyboards opening the song and the disembodied voice achieved using whatever kind of microphone that is or whatever studio effect is in play.
"[I]n interviews, when the song's dark subject matter has been an issue, he's seemed able to satisfy questioners by referencing Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
"He has said that he wrote the song because he's been troubled by school shootings, telling, for instance, NPR Music's "World Cafe" that he wondered 'what would it be like to be inside of a kid's head that's a teenager and is basically losing his mind.'
"Yet, when that interview went up on the NPR website, the introductory text reduced the song to 'a breezy summer jam with a subtly sinister edge.'"
That's NPR's fault, not the artist's.
"[W]hile I will certainly stand up for Foster's right to try such a thing, and while I don't doubt his sincerity, his reach simply exceeds his grasp."
Does it? He's not writing a book. And inquisitive music fans got it. From Songfacts:
"So why did you flock in your hundreds of thousands to check out this particular number? Mostly to reconcile the cheery, feel-good tune with the lyrics about an unhinged, psychotic kid plotting revenge. That and to find out if it has anything to do with those Reebok Pump basketball sneakers from the '80s."
Back to Johnson: "Foster is no Katy Perry, brazenly exploiting teen sexuality for the sake of 'controversy.' But you can't do In Cold Blood - even a Cliff's Notes version of In Cold Blood - in two cryptic verses and eight repeats of the chorus. There's just not enough information there."
I dunno, I'd say "All those kids with the pumped-up kicks better outrun my gun" is enough information in 12 words, especially given the tone in which it's sung. Not every work of art has to be a treatise or a Springsteenesque song-story or even "Jeremy."
"Contrast that with Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats' 'I Don't Like Mondays,' the 1980s hit about a school shooting that made the 'dark reason' the girl gave into its title and chorus and artfully contrasted that with the people around her trying to find out why, really.
"Popular music, to be sure, is full of murder songs, many of them classics: Johnny Cash 'shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.' Robert Earl Keen's oft-recorded country rave-up 'The Road Goes On Forever' tells of a drug dealer who shoots a cop so his girlfriend can get away. Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' opens with a son confessing murder.
"But these songs have consequence, both narrative and musical weight. Cash's character is in Folsom Prison at the time he sings, with a hard case of the blues. The Keen character, in the final verse, 'is going to the chair.' The 'Bohemian Rhapsody' protagonist pours out his regret operatically."
Yes, and innumerable commentators have also argued that the Beatles' "yeah, yeah, yeah" is one of the greatest rock 'n' roll lyrics of all time.
Art, music and entertainment come in many forms, big and small, wordy and not, vague and specific.
"'Pumped Up Kicks,' by contrast, introduces its star as 'a cowboy kid' with 'a rolled cigarette hanging out (of) his mouth.'"
That one's easy. He's a kid fantasizing about being a big man - based on media images and probably old movies. It's just shorthand.
"We don't know why he's planning to do what he does, only that the songs temporary narrator sees him as sort of glamorous."
I don't think so. I think the song empathizes but certainly doesn't advocate.
"And, if we bother to think beyond the song's 4 minutes and 16 seconds, we know that he will bring a lifetime of agony to people who have done nothing to deserve it."
Did they do nothing to deserve it? Like the kids blown away at the end of "Jeremy"?
Or did they flaunt their privilege and make the boy feel small - so small he emulates cowboys to feel strong and dangles a cigarette in his mouth to feel cool?
Doesn't the song imply that his father mistreats him? And that he feels invisible? And the he's probably bullied and belittled at school? All those kids better run!
"That just doesn't feel very pop."
Well, that's a very limited view of pop. It's not the 1950s anymore. The pop landscape is littered with dark material and serious topics. (Even the chorus to one of Britney Spears' biggest hits opens with My loneliness is killing me.")
Wondering if those expensive, trendy shoes could outrun the bullet from my gun is just another entry in a long thematic line of a pop world grown up.
Originally posted at The Beachwood Reporter, Chicago's leading online news and culture review.