As artists, how do we choose our interpretation?
Is there a story that needs telling? Good people versus bad people? A perspective that is underrepresented at the table? An angle we’ve overlooked?
Foster the People had a sizeable hit in 2011 with “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song that attempted to articulate the point of view of young loners whose anger we typically fail to recognize—until something terrible happens.
We’ve all seen the news. Outcast teen channels isolation into rage. By inhabiting the viewpoint of the teen, songwriter Mark Foster is seeking empathy for a devil that we had a hand in creating.
He explained further to Spinner UK:
“’Pumped Up Kicks’ is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He’s an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It’s kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer’s mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I love to write about characters. That’s my style. I really like to get inside the heads of other people and try to walk in their shoes.”
Foster mulled over writing from the perspective of the victim, but felt it would be a cop out. He also points out that there is no actual violence in the song, only the kid’s internal monologue.
To give shape to this discussion, let’s look at a crop of Unofficial Music Videos, each seeking to define or process the artist’s view on a volatile subject, school shootings.
The Dancing One
Dancer Marquese Scott is a verified sensation as his dope dub-stepping performance video to a remix of the FtP tune has passed 130,000 views. No two ways about it, this is physical artistry of the highest caliber.
Scott’s rippling, contorting, and body control are precise like videogame animation; it’s easy to overlook his nearly inhuman movement potential.
As for the source material, Scott appears to be advising us to dance (i.e., make art) in the face of mounting danger, and to never stop living passionately as a countermeasure to dread and paranoia.
Just for the record, I’ve been saying the same thing for 50 years.
The Anime One
We find similar forces at work in the anime mashup of “Pumped Up Kicks” by video artist AMV BR. Foster’s lyrical frame is abandoned in favor of an anime tone poem that also seems to promote joy and optimism in the face of what can only be imminent tragedy.
The mercurial expressions of rapture and rage countenanced by anime characters tell us everything we need to know in any situation. We’re either having fun, in love, furious, or miserable. In the case of adolescents and adolescence, this is an unarguable statement.
The Narrative One
The video collective known as TheCactusClub employs the most basic approach to the narrative at hand, as we witness an abused, ghostly teen taking a long walk to school with his six-shooter. The action has impact, but lacks an emotional payoff; obviously we’re supposed to feel sympathy for the kid—he does have a vicious wino for a mother—but visually all we are left with is a protagonist who may or may not have committed a violent act. This makes sense in terms of Foster’s observation that the threats are only visible in the kid’s mind.
Footnote: There are many UMVs of “Pumped Up Kicks” out in YouTubeland which reinforces the idea that the song struck a nerve and generated considerable conversation. Even more telling, cable television series such as The O.A. and American Horror Story, that have depicted school shooting incidents, have become UMV visual aides after being synched up to the song. And it definitely gets you thinking.