The Pumped Up Kicks

I rarely listen to the radio anymore, and except for an occasional broadcast from the Met or the rare occasions when I've rented or borrowed a car, I could safely say I never listen to radio anymore. I tend to favor places that are quiet, so I don't frequent loud bars or establishments with music pumping through them, either. In other words, though I still like pop music I actually hear very little of it, and what I do is usually inspired by what I read or the recommendations of friends.

This means I typically hear about a new pop artist or a hit song long after everyone else has. It wasn't always this way, but it is now. I'm comfortable with that. It's okay that it was only this year I actually learned the title of the song "Clocks" and that it's by Coldplay, though it's been in my head for years.

Two years ago Maria Gostrey and I were in NYC together, and one night we found ourselves dancing in a dark, warm club in the Village on an extremely rainy night. Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" came on and the joint, which was full but not crowded, suddenly filled with palpable elation. I'd never heard the song before, but instantly knew it was a classic. Every time I hear it now I think of that night, of Maria in her red dress, and of walking in the rain toward the subway at 4:00 am. Only music and certain scents can conjure up Proustian memories in this unique way.

Like many, the holidays make me nostalgic, but it's a nostalgia often cloaked in dark shadows. The ghosts of Christmas past are often not pleasant company for me and for many I know they bring bitter madeleines with them. This year isn't any going to be any different. I just returned from a funeral in L.A..

I've mentioned before I've taken to listening to music on my phone as I walk to and from wherever it is I'm going. Many of the songs in the queue are darker ones by the Stones: "Hand of Fate," "Stray Cat Blues," "Midnight Rambler," "Paint It Black," "Gimme Shelter," and lately I've been playing "Crazy Mama" over and over again, relishing the lyrics and whiskey-soaked sound of the song:

... You can scandalize me
Scorn my name
You can steal my money
And that don't mean a doggone thing
'Cause if you really think you can push it
I'm gonna bust your knees with a bullet...
... If you're gonna keep on comin'
I'm gonna take it all head on
And if you don't believe I'm gonna do it, yeah

          Just wait till you get hit by that bullet...

Don't think I ain't thought about it
It sure make my shackle rise
And cold blood murder
It make me wanna draw the line,

Well, you're crazy mother
With your ball and chain
You're plain psychotic, ooh
Plain insane

And if you don't believe I'm gonna do it, yeah
Just wait for the thud of that bullet, ooh
You're crazy mother, ah yeah
You're crazy mother, yeah

I know- it's only rock and roll, but I like it. However, as the days have grown shorter and the shadows darker, it's begun to feel like I was listening to Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" on an endless loop. Feeling stalked by a jackal (formerly the Femme Fatale) recently didn't help matters. I realized I needed to shine a light into all of this, but where to start? Florence & the Machine's "Dog Days Are Over"? The last movement of Beethoven's 9th? What the hell was I going to listen to now?

Then I heard a perfect pop confection via NPR Online- Canon Blue's "Indian Summer." I've always appreciated songs like this- simple, hook-laden, irresistible pieces of pop perfection. The lyrics are a sad current running through it, and the song has a definite yearning quality, nicely refuted in the refrain "No you won't ever reach me, won't ever reach me..." but it hit me hard and the shadows in the words couldn't obscure the poppy brilliance of the music and melody. Add some  "Yellow Pills," by 20/20, "Hey Ya" or "I Like the Way You Move" by Outkast, and I'm well on my way to a queue chock-full of happy-sounding songs. Feel the music, ignore the words- and resume walking. There'll be no listening to this.

Last Thursday night The Swede came over for dinner. As I was preparing the meal before he arrived I was looking for some music to play. I decided to queue up an album by a band whose name I've often seen lately but haven't ever heard- Foster the People. Their warm, friendly name sounds like an Obama/2008 slogan and  people I know on Facebook like them, so they seemed a perfect fit for two people sharing a meal and catching up on the past month whose favorite bands respectively are ABBA and Madonna (in his case) and Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones (in mine).

I loaded it up on MOG and the first song had a catchy hook and steady beat. The Swede arrived and we talked over the music coming from the other room as I fried potatoes, sauteed vegetables and clanked around in the kitchen waiting for the meat to warm. All I could really discern was this insistent beat you could dance to and easily memorable melodies. After dinner we sat in the living room having dessert, continuing our conversation about his recent visit to Sweden and his travels in Egypt (he's just returned- I was there in '97). A couple of hours went by. I must have accidentally hit repeat on the album, because it kept playing over and over- I recognized the ear-candy hooks as we talked but had the volume down and neither of us were really paying too much attention, though we agreed it sounded good "for young people's music"- a joke we have between us.

It sounded so good I loaded it onto my phone the next morning for my walk to work. I found the beat for "Pumped Up Kicks" irresistible bubblegum, but the distorted vocals gave it a tart bite until the glorious chorus kicks in, floating over it all in a 10cc/Style Council/Swing Out Sister kind of way.

As I hit Market Street I heard the lyrics "... better run, better run, faster than my bullet" clearly for the first time in the chorus. What? The song has fucking whistling in it. Where are these bullets coming from?

I hit repeat and turned it up, so the song didn't have to compete against the streetcars rumbling down the street. Four blocks to work. I heard the vocal in a different way- as a disaffected squawk. Holden Caulfield had suddenly been replaced by Jared Lee, as I realized the most delightful-sounding song I've heard in ages featured this chorus:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks,
You better run, better run, outrun my gun.
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks,
You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

I liked it, but found it disturbing. I listened closer:

He found a six-shooter gun
In his dad's closet, in a box of fun things
I don't even know what,
But he's coming for you, yeah!
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks,You better run, better run, outrun my gun.All the other kids with the pumped up kicks,You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

Listening to it again, the chants of "Run! Run!," which precede the whistling section, now sounded like an homage to the "Run rabbit, run!" scene in House of 1000 Corpses.

I love the brilliant irony of the song's lyrics and sound. It isn't the first time this has been done of course, but it's the best example I've heard in a long time. I also appreciate the irony that I discovered this ear worm while trying to avoid songs with dark and violent lyrics. Like Crazy Mamas, I seem to attract these elements of darkness even when trying to consciously avoid them. I may as well give up running- it appears there's nowhere to hide anymore.

It's a fitting song for the year- at least the one I've had.