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Hard Times in Pop Music

Foster the People

Arts and culture often reflect the atmosphere of the time period that they belong to. For instance during the Great Depression countless writers, poets, musicians and artists created work that mirrored the troubled nation. The same for the politically turbulent 1960’s where there was an influx in fare about social upheaval and revolution. This could even be applied to the 80’s where so much of the culture was clearly aimed at people out of their minds on cocaine. Those are just a few examples, but you could look at the art from almost any time period throughout the course of human history and see this connection.

So I’m not entirely sure what it says about our current era that the two best singles from this past summer (Foster the People’s “Pumped up Kicks,” and Cults, “Go Outside”) are both about mass murder/suicides.

Pumped Up Kids

The up tempo, danceable beat of “Pumped up Kicks,” would suggest a far different song than the lyrics would.  Eerily reminiscent of the 2007 Robert Hawkins Nebraska mall shooting the first muted and slightly distorted lyrics from singer Mark Foster are:

“Robert’s got a quick hand.

He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan.”

Not necessarily the type of sentiment found in a pop song with a whistle break. However those lines are subtle when compared to the warning of a chorus:

“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.”

On several occasions the band has denied that the song references the Hawkins case, and that the use of the name Robert is just a coincidence. Rather it is about just your generic, run-of-the-mill, homicidal youth. In an interview with Rolling Stone Foster said, “I was trying to get inside the head of an isolated, psychotic kid.”

Pumped Up Kicks Torches. StarTime Intl/Columbia, 2011. CD.

Go Outside

The other song “Go Outside,” by Cults, a band with a sort of distinctive frightening girl group sound (Not that The Shirelles aren’t frightening), actually goes as far to samples a speech from Jim Jones, the man who forever intertwined suicide cults with Kool-Aid, saying, “ To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” followed by a raucous applause. The song doesn’t brightened the mood much from there going on to describe (amongst infectious piano clinking) a conflict between two people in the dark, one wanting to leave into the light and the other wanting to stay.

I really want to go out

I really want to go outside and stop to see your day

You really want to hole up

You really want to stay inside and sleep the light away.

The song concludes with the narrator reaching the decision, “I think I want to live my life and you’re just in my way.”

Sure, this could easily be interpreted as a song about the dissolution relationship, and that’s probably what it is about, but the use of the Jones quote and the imagery of dark and light also suggest something a little more insidious.

Go Outside Cults. Columbia, 2011. CD.

This isn’t to say that just because two commercially successful, acclaimed pop singles that came out this summer have undeniably dark themes means we are in dire times. Well, actually that is what I’m saying.