The Real Meaning Behind Foster The People's Song Pumped Up Kicks

In 2009, 25-year-old Mark Foster wrote a jingle for TV commercials. In 2011, he was the frontman of a band with a hit that ranked No. 3 on the Billboard Top 100. The song was a jingle of sorts, too, but this one wasn't about Honey Bunches of Oats. It was from the perspective of a mentally-disturbed teen named "Robert" who wanted to bring a gun to school and shoot all the kids who wore better shoes.

"Pumped Up Kicks" is a bubbly, mellow song that launched Foster the People to fame. The song was a radio hit, dubbed the second-best song of 2011 by Entertainment Weekly and 11th-best by the writers at Rolling Stone, and it might've been played at your high school dance. Regardless of its cheerful tempo, the subject matter of "Pumped Up Kicks" doesn't match.

According to writer and Foster the People frontman Mark Foster, the song is about a fictional high schooler, Robert ("Robert's got a quick hand"). The "kicks" in the song refer to expensive shoes worn by popular kids at Robert's school.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

The meaning of the song surprised many

At the time of the song's 2010 release, we hadn't yet endured national tragedies like the Orlando nightclub shooting or the Parkland shooting, but the Columbine and Fort Hood shootings were still fresh in memory. Foster said that when he wrote the demo song alone in his studio, a shooting that had occurred earlier that week was on his mind. Billboard asked him the disturbing but necessary question, "Do you remember which shooting it was?" Foster gave the equally disturbing answer that he did not.

Mark Foster told Rolling Stone he had wanted to "get inside the head of an isolated, psychotic kid." He said the song was a ballad on teenage mental illness, a trend he found "disturbing." The tune was banned from some radio stations in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2011, but if you were among those who got distracted by the cheery melody and missed the grim nature of the song's lyrics, you're not alone. 

"[I]t took people a while to really let the lyrics get into their bones, and I think that once the lyrics got under their skin, it was a bit of a slap in the face," Foster told Billboard in 2019. "And I think some people were embarrassed that they didn't realize it in the beginning — that they had been dancing to it ... when I wrote it, it was a warning. That's where it was coming from for me."

If Foster meant "Pumped Up Kicks" as a warning about gun violence, it was certainly one we didn't hear. But at over 813 million plays on Youtube, we've all listened to the song. A lot.

It's not actually about a school shooting

The song isn't specifically about a school shooting. "I think people filled in the blanks that it was about a school shooting, but I never say anything about a school in the song," Mark Foster told Billboard. He added that it was more about Robert's psyche. Foster went on to explain that the song was about "violent things, but it is a misconception that it's about a school shooting."

Foster also explained to Billboard that he didn't have anything specific in mind when sat down to write "Pumped Up Kicks." He also says that the song wasn't any more special than other songs he'd written. "The thing that made that song special was the public, and the fact that people thought it was special, and it resonated and it created a conversation. And I'm proud of the conversation that it created. But now I've been very seriously thinking of retiring the song forever," he told the outlet.

What are pumped up kicks?

While Foster never explains what the "kicks" in the song are, it's not a far stretch of the imagination to associate them with expensive basketball sneakers, namely the Reebok Pump. American Songwriter points out that a pair of Reebok Pumps cost around $170 in the 90s. ESPN reports that at the time, the Pump was the most expensive sneaker on the market, noting that Reebok's revenue increased 18% from 1990 to 1991 to a whopping $2.2 million. Like many designer shoes, not everyone could afford to own a pair. From the way "Pumped Up Kicks" is written, Robert didn't own a pair and was jealous of the kids who did (via American Songwriter).

Reebok Pumps gained popularity because they were unique at the time, but like many fads, they fell out of favor. D.J. Senatore, a Pump collector who worked with Reebok on the 25th-anniversary edition of the shoe, told ESPN that the shoes just aren't cool anymore.