INTRO: Hello. Welcome back to Protest Anthems, the podcast about all things music, social justice and protests. In a society plagued by violence, Mark Foster, singer and songwriter of the indie pop band Foster the People, draws our attention to rising trends in school shootings, the shooting of their 2011 hit song, “Pumped Up Kicks.” Although the song is upbeat, a serious social commentary lies beneath the surface. In today’s episode, Emily Graham explores Foster’s purpose behind the song and considers how his intentions compare to the song’s actual outcome.


[Clips from news coverage]

[0:05-0:18] Columbine

…if you are just joining us, two young men apparently dressed in long black trench coats opened fire about an hour and a half ago at a high school just outside of Denver in Littleton, Colorado. At least three students have been injured and possibly as many as eight…

[0:35-0:50] Virginia Tech

…the aftermath of the horrible shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. He was asking for prayers, asking for healing for everyone involved, and a lot of healing is needed because the latest death toll we can give you is 22 people killed in two separate shootings on the campus this morning. More than 20 people are said to be injured. It is said by all involved to be the work of a lone gunman, no idea what he was after today…

[0:00-0:08] Sandy Hook

…right here in Newtown, Connecticut, the sight today of a mass shooting, and this time gunfire aimed at elementary school children.


Intro to song plays


NARRATOR: Like many Americans, Mark Foster has found himself feeling distressed after watching the news, as news stories about gun violence in the United States seem to arise every day. Mass shootings, especially in school settings, have become more and more frequent in the last few decades.

In 2010, Foster had no idea how much worse this situation could get in the following nine years, but he still felt called to speak out against it. The result was the 2010 indie pop hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” the band’s breakout single that peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Top 100 list in September 2011.

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

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun


NARRATOR: While the song became wildly popular for its upbeat, psychedelic sound, many listeners may not have realized what lay beneath the electronic surface: a dark narrative of a young boy planning to shoot his classmates.

Mark Foster, lead singer of the band Foster the People, has been open in interviews about his inspiration for the song. Here’s Foster in an interview with NME Magazine:


FOSTER: It forced the public to have a conversation, not only about guns and gun regulations, but also about art itself and where the line is, what should be edited and what shouldn’t be edited. And I feel like in terms of pushing the envelope of culture and forcing people to have those conversations, I think it was a really healthy thing for my country.


NARRATOR: Foster has said that he believes the role of an artist is to hold a magnifying glass up to society and bring attention to the prominent issues in our culture. In this case, Foster wanted to illuminate the recurring tragedy of school shootings.

Although the song does not specifically refer to a school setting, in today’s culture, our minds go immediately to the many horrors that have taken place in schools around the country when we hear…


Robert’s got a quick hand

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

He’s got a rolled cigarette, hanging out his mouth he’s a cowboy kid\

Yeah, found a six-shooter gun

In his dad’s closet oh in a box of fun things

I don’t even know what

But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you


NARRATOR: The song’s lyrics are vague. They tell a story about a boy named Robert who has a plan. We don’t know at first what that plan is, but the chorus makes it clear that Robert has a gun, and the other kids have to run.

So what exactly is Foster trying to tell us?

According to a 2012 study on the characteristics of mass shootings published in the Social Science Journal, author Michael Rocque found that many of the school shootings in the past 20 to 30 years have had some striking common threads, many in regard to the perpetrator.

These similarities include that “nearly all are middle to lower middle class white males;” they are male victims of harassment and mental illness; their “target is generally symbolic…what matters in these instances is not exacting revenge on particular people, but to make a statement with violence.”

Foster’s lyrics reflect many of these characteristics. The song alludes to themes including mental illness, a strained home life, a low social status, and a general goal of harming the kids with “the pumped up kicks,” a reference to wealthy children who can afford nice shoes.

In an interview with CNN, Foster discusses his method of conveying these ideas:


FOSTER: You can also think about it like Dostoyevsky when he wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’ or Truman Capote ‘In Cold Blood’ or even Vince Gilligan writing ‘Breaking Bad,’ the character Walt, Walter White. It’s like your protagonist also happens to be the enemy in a way. It’s illuminating a situation but from an interesting point of view.”


NARRATOR: Foster’s intention was to write from the perspective of the villain to explore the very real scenarios that continue to play out. The song serves as a warning, detailing red flags and common sources of trauma.

In a 2018 article from the Washington Post, John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich offer an in-depth study into the school shootings that have occurred since 1999, the year when the Columbine shooting happened.

The researchers narrowed their study down to 105 cases–the number in which the perpetrator’s weapon was specified. Of this sample, they concluded that 80% of the guns were obtained from the home of a friend, family member, or their own parents.

Got a rolled cigarette hanging out his mouth he’s a cowboy kid

Yeah found a six shooter gun

In his dad’s closet hidden oh in a box of fun things, I don’t even know what

But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you

NARRATOR: In the song, the lyrics make a point of mentioning how the boy obtained his weapon: in his dad’s closet hidden in a box of fun things. It’s no coincidence that the Washington Post article is titled “The gun’s not in the closet,” as so many shooters–145 of which have been under the age of 18–have access to guns in their own homes.

The Post concluded that around two-thirds of school shootings in the last 20 years would not have happened if the the weapons were properly stored and out of reach.

All of this context lies beneath an upbeat, alternative sound, which Foster has said some listeners may take to be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Why, then did the band choose to sing such dark lyrics along with upbeat music? Foster explains in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone:

FOSTER: In terms of writing darker lyrics coupled with more joyful music, that’s something that I kind of naturally do. And I don’t always write dark songs. There’s a lot of hopeful songs on the record too. But I think life is like that. There’s two sides. There’s something that you see with your naked eye on the surface, and then there’s something’s underneath the surface that might take a little digging to uncover.


NARRATOR: While the music choices were intentional, a metaphor for the social issue the song discusses, some audiences were not receptive to the message.

Not long after the song’s release, MTV began to censor the lyrics, cutting out the words “six shooter,” “gun,” “bullet” and “trigger.” Here’s a clip from that version:


All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You’d better run, better run, outrun my–

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You’d better run, better run, faster than my–

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You’d better run, better run, outrun my–


NARRATOR: Foster responded to this by questioning MTV’s standard for what deserves to be censored.


FOSTER: I think MTV’s scared of an alternative band that has a sound like this. I think the sound is deceiving, and I think that that’s something that scares them. If you listen to a song and it’s like some angry gangster rapper that’s already screaming about something, you kind of know it’s not really a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, which I think MTV kind of looks at “Pumped Up Kicks” in that way. It’s like, you’ve got reality shows that are all about teenagers getting pregnant, and you’ve got Jersey Shore a girl gets punched in the face, and they show the clip over and over and over. A guy punches a girl in the face, and they show that over and over and over again as a teaser to watch the show. It’s like, oh okay domestic violence is fine, but talking about something like family values and teen isolation and bullying is not fine.


NARRATOR: While MTV’s reaction to the song was immediate, the song continues to come up in the media each time a major mass shooting breaks out. Radio stations pulled it from their line-ups after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Shortly after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, Foster the People decided not to sing it in their next live performance. The band continues to appear in interviews to explain the meaning behind their song in light of recent events.

The question that often arises among listeners is, “What is the purpose of the song?” We all know what Foster thinks based on his interviews, but audience response does not always align with the artist’s intention. Like MTV and other media outlets, some listeners misunderstand the song’s intention.

On one hand, the song provides social commentary, highlighting an issue through storytelling. However, some may take it to be a glorification of violence. News coverage of school shootings is often accused of the same glorification, focusing too much on the shooter rather than mourning the victims.

There may not be one clear answer to this question. Songs of protest seem to frequently call into question purpose and its relationship to intended meaning and perceived meaning. While some may take it as exploitative or insensitive, others have found it to be a thoughtful reflection of real events.

Is “Pumped Up Kicks” a true protest song? It may not have a clear call to action or words of empowerment, but it does paint a shockingly accurate picture of a tragic recurring issue in society. It’s more relevant today than it was eight years ago, and it continues to come up in conversation after each major school shooting around the country. The song is definitely polarizing, but so is the topic of gun control—which is ultimately what Foster was trying to combat when he wrote the song.