Today’s top radio hits are usually similar sounding electronic, dance and party sounds that have sweeping build-ups, catchy choruses, and that are fun to dance and sing along too. However, there are some exceptions to this consistent theme. The uncharacteristically mellow song ,“Pumped up Kicks” by Foster The People, was an immensely popular song not too long ago. However, although the instrumentals are easy on the ears, the message that is depicted in the lyrics contradicts the calming sound and it’s that violence is acceptable towards members of a higher economic status and of ideal family situations. It is arguable that this incongruence is the reason for the songs success in modern radio music. While most songs exhilarate listeners with loud and fast rhythms accompanied by simple lyrics, in this song the tension between the musical sound and lyrical content can be somewhat exciting for two reasons: First of all it allows one to feel energized while still maintaining a calm composure. Since Sellnow mentions that music does not evoke feeling, but rather it represents them (117), songs like “Pumped up Kicks” can be appreciated by both excited and tranquil listeners; this universal compatibility is very alluring because sometimes simply exciting or mellow music just isn’t appropriate. The second reason is that the incongruence allows for the morally unethical message of the song to appear more acceptable.
The song is about a little boy named Robert who appears to be neglected by his father and doesn’t seem to have a mother or any siblings. After finding his father’s “six-shooter gun”, he learns to cope with his father’s absence via violence (2011). The virtual experience consists of comic lyrics as it tells the tale of a young boy that has triumphed over the odds. He also has discrete and sadistic ideas for the future which situate the lyrics within a dramatic illusion, “Robert’s got a quick hand. He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan.” Furthermore, the chorus of the song is very simple and repetitive, making the song fun to sing along to, but the message is dark as it implies that Robert wants to console for his loneliness by harming children who are economically well off which can also imply that they have “desirable” families: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks better run, better run, out run my gun. All the other kids with the pumped up kicks better run, better run, faster than my bullets.” The overall message conveyed by these lyrics is that one who belongs to a lower economic status and a poor family situation is entitled to empower themselves by eliminating people who live better than they do. It is a very vicious moral and it would normally be rejected outright by the masses if it wasn’t for the song’s emotional content.
The virtual time of the song is composed predominantly with release patterns. The chorus is slightly louder than the verses, but generally the sound is still predictable, mellow, soft and connected. Also, there aren’t too many instruments playing at once either which further builds on the song’s release rhythms.
As soothing as the sound is, the difference between the emotional and conceptual messages in the song is what makes the normally unacceptable message depicted by the lyrics seem nonchalant and feasible. All of the lyrical content of the song would normally be paired with music that consists of mostly intensity patterns. According to Sellnow, songs with comic lyrics and dramatic illusion are best represented by intensity patterns because optimism is enthusiastic and the future is unresolved (118- 120). Songs with lyrics similar to “Pumped up Kicks” that also consist of mainly intensity patterns do exist, but they are not palatable by a larger audience as they are targeted at a smaller sub-group of people. Through the rhetorical ascription utilized in this song though, members of the sub-groups previously mentioned would listen to it, but general listeners can also tolerate its harsh words because of its generic, animated sound.
There is an effective use of strategic ambiguity in the song too. Most of the verses are composed of seemingly non-related and harmless sentences, but they connect to form controversial ideals. For example, in the second verse, Robert “reasons with his cigarette” then tells someone, “Your hair’s on fire, you must have lost your wits, yeah?” Upon the first time hearing this line, one might be confused. Eventually though, the listener will deduce that the cigarette and all that it stands for is the foundation for Robert’s moral system and it allows him to cause an innocent victim harm whilst blaming them for not being able to protect themselves against his obscure “wisdom”.
To summarize, “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People is an incongruent song with soft, smooth and mellow instrumentals that mask lyrics that approve the sinister message of violence against the wealthy and fortunate. Consequently, if listeners do not take the conceptual content of the song seriously, they may become desensitized to this form of violence and actually consider it to be acceptable. Since many radio listeners are children, allowing sly rhetorical persuasion like this to manipulate the acceptable set of ethics can produce unsettling results in the future.