[In the past, I've written short blurbs for each of the year's 100 Songs. Some of these "short blurbs" were actually thousands of words long, but you get the idea. This year, sadly, I didn't have time to do that. But I still have a lot to say about almost all of these songs. So I'm just going to start writing. This is one of a still-undetermined number of essays. Maybe I'll find something to say about all 100 Songs. Maybe there will just be a handful of these. I'll try to write one every day, but I make no promises. Also, they will be in no real order. In case it gets buried, the original 100 Songs for 2011 post, with links, can be found here.]
(64) Foster the People - "Helena Beat"
On January 20, 2011, Ilana, Jamie and I saw Foster the People in concert. The flyer looked like this:
Depending on who you ask, capacity at the Rickshaw Stop is either "about 400" or exactly 127. Foster the People opened for a band called Royal Bangs, who I had not heard of at the time and have not heard from since. As far as I could tell, the members of Foster the People were hovering dangerously close to the line at which it becomes dishonest to call yourselves "professional musicians."
The three of us were familiar with "Pumped Up Kicks," the band's first single, which hit the blogosphere in spring 2010, first sniffing the spotlight on the still-essential "Blogwave Summer" mixtape over at Daily Beatz. It was catchy and dark at the same time, a pop-rock oddity with just a hint of a dance element. We assumed Foster the People were disposable LA scene kids, but there was something about that song.
As with virtually every song we've ever heard, Ilana and I had made up nonsense lyrics about our dog.
"Pumped Up Kicks" checked in at #69 on my "100 Songs for 2010" list. At the time, I said:
I’ve done a pretty exhaustive search, and I’m pretty sure this is the only Foster the People song that exists in recorded form. It may be the only song they have. And yet, they play shows. Those shows may be very short.***
If this one is their only song, though, they’re definitely batting 1.000 so far. It’s almost impossibly light and summery, even though the lyrics appear to be about shooting kids for their shoes. So it goes, I guess.
That "pretty exhaustive search" link goes to Hype Machine. At the time, Hype Machine had one lonely link to "Pumped Up Kicks." A few dozen people "liked" it. Maybe they were into triple digit "likes" by the time 2011 rolled around. Click on that link now. There are pages and pages of Foster the People songs, remixes, covers, and mash-ups. Many have been "liked" tens of thousands of times. Somewhere along the way, Foster the People became the biggest indie band on the internet. They've dominated the charts at Spotify since the day that service became available in America. They appeared on Saturday Night Live. They sold out back to back shows at the Fillmore in minutes. The next time they come to San Francisco, they'll be too big for just about any venue in the city. Ilana heard "Pumped Up Kicks" at a gay club in the Castro. This blows her mind. Those are Kylie Minogue Only establishments.
The backlash was just as instantaneous. The cool kids on the internet now refer to Foster the People as "Maroon 6." Friends update their status on Facebook, threatening to kill everyone if they hear one more effing Foster the People song. If you're not sick of Foster the People yet, you will be. Corporate America will make sure of that.
And the point of all this is not that I'm so cool and I knew about this band before anyone else. That's not really true, anyway. The point is that 2011 was the year of Foster the People ... and I have no idea why.
I still like "Pumped Up Kicks." I still like pretty much every song on Torches. But if someone came up to me and said, "Your life depends on selling one song to the youth of America" ... I sure wouldn't have chosen "Pumped Up Kicks."* I still wouldn't, even after seeing its success. It's too slow. It's too weird. There isn't much of a sing-along element.
I'm glad they blew up. I really am. But I have no idea how it happened.
* Obviously, I would choose "Empty Streets" by Ghost Beach.