Foster the People’s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’: the Making of a Great Sleeper Hit
Though it’s never actually kicked the bucket, chart-wise, rock & roll does tend to lapse into a coma now and then. Such was the case in the early ’00s when Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were the sound of America’s electric youth. But while the rest of this millennium so far hasn’t seen a rock-in-the-mainstream movement to rival grunge in the ’90s, the genre has had its commercial moments (Coldplay, Muse, Kings of Leon, this year’s Album of the Year Grammy winners, Arcade Fire, and hopefully, the now-returning Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose excellent and brilliantly titled comeback single, “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” sounds promising).
Sadly, with girls like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha now running the world (according to Rihanna and according to Billboard’s Hot 100), rock & roll has been mostly on the backburner for the last few years. Thank God for Foster the People then. I first heard about the L.A. trio that sort of looks like a boy band but sounds more like MGMT about a year ago when a friend sent me a Facebook message with a link to a YouTube video for the band’s “Pumped Up Kicks” single, which was officially released in September 2010.
Nearly a year later, it’s a pop hit. It’s been certified gold, and, this week, its lucky 13th on Billboard’s Hot 100, it rises from No. 38 to No. 29 with a bullet. I’d say that persistence is as key a factor in its long-time-coming mainstream success as quality. FTP’s label, Columbia Records imprint Startime International, has made sure that the song, which has been kicking around since February of 2010, has been pretty much everywhere: on the band’s self-titled debut EP, which was released in January; on their debut album, “Torches,” out since May; and at No. 32 on Triple J radio’s Hottest 100 for 2010.
The song was billed as a “hit” when it had yet to become one and went viral on YouTube long before it landed on mainstream radio. Of course, YouTube success doesn’t necessarily translate into Top 40 status. Before it was removed from YouTube, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” had about 20 times as many YouTube views as “Pumped Up Kicks” now has (167 million vs. 8.1 million), yet it only peaked on No. 58.
What does “Pumped Up Kicks” have that “Friday” didn’t? Well, it helps that it’s an actual song, not an is-it-a-joke-or-isn’t-it gimmick. And a pumped up kickin’ beat that deserves its title and almost seems to laugh in the face of deceptively dark lyrics about a youth contemplating a shooting spree. Judging from the lack of controversy following the recent tragedies in Norway, many of the people downloading it and dancing to it might not even realize what the song is about.
At the end of the day, as was the case with previous slow-starters like La Roux’s “Bulletproof” and Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” (which owes its eventual success to Florence’s plum performing gig on last year’s MTV Video Music Awards), it’s all about the music, which is solid and durable, built to move bodies and move digital units. It’s proof that not only is rock & roll not dead, but sometimes the best songs still win.
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