The lyrics to “Pumped Up Kicks,” the 2011 indie hit by Los Angeles band Foster The People, were apparently lost on American Idol contestant Jessica Meuse, leading the chartreuse-haired aspiring country crooner to receive a tongue-lashing from judge Harry Connick Jr.
Connick Jr. appeared uneasy at the way Meuse smiled and grinned her way through a country-music interpretation of “Pumped Up Kicks,” whose lyrics describe a mentally ill teenage boy preparing to gun down his schoolmates after finding a revolver in his father’s closet.
“You kind of were smiling,” noted Harry Connick Jr., “and I’m thinking about the words which are extremely provocative lyrics and I’m wondering, why were you smiling?”
The appeal of “Pumped Up Kicks” is that it juxtaposes the dark lyrics with a catchy, upbeat tune and highly singable hook, a combination that led the song which was originally released as a homemade online download, to become one of the most widely played hits of three years ago.
It is highly likely that most of the fans who would sing along with “Pumped Up Kicks” had no idea what the lyrics were about, or if they did, gave them no thought.
Meuse attempted to defend her upbeat demeanor while singing “Pumped Up Kicks” with an acoustic guitar and Texas twang, saying that her smile was brought about by the clever way in which songwriter Mark Foster set the troubling topic of the lyrics against an infectious melody.
The lyrics include such lines as: Yeah! He found a six-shooter gun / in his dad’s closet, with the box of fun things. / I don’t even know what / but he’s coming for you. Yeah, He’s coming for you!
The chorus of “Pumped Up Kicks” has the song’s disturbed protagonist taunting other children, warning them to “run faster than my bullet.”
But the two other American Idol judges also defended Jessica Meuse, apparently questioning Harry Connick Jr.’s propensity to actually contemplate the content of a song performed on the show, or to hope that performers understand the content of the songs they perform.
Songwriter Foster himself explained the lyrics to “Pumped Up Kicks” in an earlier interview,
“I wrote ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness,” he said. “It was terrifying how mental illness among youth had skyrocketed in the last decade. I was scared to see where the pattern was headed if we didn’t start changing the way we were bringing up the next generation.”
Check out the Jessica Meuse performance from Wednesday night’s broadcast of American Idol. You be the judge. Does she do justice to the “Pumped Up Kicks” lyrics?