The Music Question

So here it is, the question I’ve been thinking about a lot. I guess it’s kind of a convoluted question, with layers and levels and all that. But in the simplest form, here goes:

Why is that “Pumped up Kicks” song so popular?

You see, that question doesn’t really do my REAL question justice.

Because I know WHY the song is popular. It’s got a great hook. And a great beat. And a funky guitar lick. And it doesn’t SOUND* like most other songs that you hear on the radio. 

*I might add the song’s subject matter may seem about as deep and profound as what you hear on most top-40 stations, but the lyrics — the imagery of beachy, high-top sneakers aside — are actually quite disturbing.

“Yeah, he found a six shooter gun.

In his dad’s closet with a box of fun things, I don’t even know what.

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

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.”

Yep. That’s some funked up stuff. And it may change your next experience with this song. If so… well, what are you gonna do?

But this question isn’t really about why the song is popular. It’s more about why this Particular Song is so popular. And not another one.

Why is THIS song being played on top-40 radio at all hours of the day? Why has it been on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart (topping out at No. 3.) for 26 weeks? Why did this seemingly decent and seemingly fun little indie pop song become a radio darling; a cultural phenomenon; a song that is in the top five of the Billboard charts right now, along with these other four songs?

1. Someone Like You, Adele*

2. We Found Love**, Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris

3. Moves Like Jagger, Maroon Five*** featuring Christina Aguilera

4. Sexy and I Know It, LMFAO

*Wow. This really surprised me. This is a great song. Beautiful performance. Adele is a powerhouse. All that. But I guess I just didn’t realize this song was STILL popular. It feels like it’s been ages since this song came out. And perhaps it’s at this point where I realize I have no real idea about music charts or how they’re formulated. More on that in a minute.

**This is not a terrible pop song. 

**Man, Maroon 5 has really fallen off.


As recently as 2010, Foster the People was just another indie “it” band, a group that had plied its trade at places like South by Southwest, a band that was mostly unknown outside the club and college radio scenes.

The group formed in 2009, frontman Mark Foster, drummer Mark Pontius and bassist Cubbie* Fink.

*Cubbie, I think, is great nickname. I knew a guy in college that went by Cubbie — and it’s just a sweet nickname. Fun to say. Evokes a certain image. All that. But, in the confines of a now-slick band that may or may not still be indie, it’s just kind of too much, I think. 

And now the guys have their song, and their headline tours, and they have Rivers Cuomo and Weezer covering the song.

And, I don’t know, there’s just something unsettling about it.


Here’s the thing: I suppose I don’t want this to come off as a snobby screed against a talented band that became big, and therefore, unworthy of being cool. I don’t want to be that guy.

I think there’s room in this world for critical acclaim and money and success and art. And why can’t it co-exist? At least, I hope this is the case.

And “Pumped up Kicks” is still a fun song. Yea. That’s is. It just… fun.

But I guess I’ve just begun wonder about why certain songs are popular; why certain songs get played on the radio; why certain indie rock* songs can be played on top-40 stations but others never will.

*I know I’ve been throwing that this label pretty loosely. But, hey, do me a favor. Save that argument for another day.

What other forces are at work here? Is it just because it’s a likable, accessible, friendly piece of music? Should it just be encouraging that a song like “Pumped up Kicks” can be higher on the charts than “Party Rock” and “Mistletoe”?


Here’s the thing about this question I’ve been thinking about. I don’t really have a good answer. Not surprising, I suppose.

But I have been thinking about other songs; songs I’ve never heard on top-40 radio. Like this one, and this one, and this one.

I feel like there is no earthly reason why more people would like “Pumped up Kicks” than those songs. No reason at all.

I want people to hear those songs, and enjoy them, and realize all their little, genius qualities.

More people should know these songs, I say to myself.

But here’s the thing: I’m sort of glad they don’t.

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