Last week Jessica Meuse, the blue-jeaned, country-singing American Idol hopeful, raised the ire of judge Harry Connick Jr., who was unsettled when the contestant sang the song Pumped Up Kicks in a blithe manner, apparently unaware that the melodically carefree 2011 hit by the L.A. popsters Foster the People concerned high-school hipsters as the victims of a troubled youth with gun and a big-time hate-on for fancy sneakers.
"You were kind of smiling," Connick Jr. said to Meuse afterward, "and I'm thinking about the words, which are extremely provocative lyrics and I'm wondering, why were you smiling?"
Well, she was smiling for the same reason the audience was smiling (and clapping their hands and singing along). It has to do with a catchable tune and a breezy tone, and the overlooking of the darkest of lyrics: "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."
Pretty heavy, but if Connick Jr. was "thinking about the words," he's in the minority.
But who can blame the kids for not wanting the heaviness? They've got it rough, what with the no-future thing. So they turn to anthems about staying young, because getting old is a bummer of an alternative. The indie-pop cheerleaders Fun win a Grammy for the swaying rally starter We Are Young, Avril Lavigne goes Peter Pan on Here's to Never Growing Up and Taylor Swift sings about the freedom, confusion and magic of being university-aged – "Everything will be all right, if we just keep dancing like we're 22."
Mark Foster is no kid, having been born way back in 1984. He is the eponymous front man of Foster the People, the pop troupe that released its second album, Supermodel, last week and celebrated the occasion with a pop-in performance on Friday evening at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern.
There the band played old hits from its debut LP Torches – including a sing-along version of Pumped Up Kicks – while premiering trippy new material that would seem to be less radio-friendly. In a nutshell, the often danceable music of Foster the People slots somewhere between the hook craft of Maroon 5 and the psychotropic adventures of MGMT, with touches of New Wave and Brit Pop too. The often excellent Supermodel is produced and co-written by Adele collaborator Paul Epworth. At the Horseshoe, the clean-cut Foster occasionally rap-sang (Miss You) but mostly employed a blue-eyed falsetto style. He tried to actually sing on the balmy, acoustic Nevermind, which didn't work out so well. The trio was augmented by additional musicians and pair of female backup singers – full marks for Sony Music for spending the bread on the extra people.
At one point, after a false start on one of the new cuts, the audience was told by Foster that one of the touring musicians was unable to make the trip for the gig, but that they would forge ahead. After all, he reasoned, "This is rock 'n' roll." Oh, come on. I dig what these guys are doing, but they wouldn't know rock 'n' roll if Little Richard and Ray Davies delivered pizzas to them backstage personally.
They might know Brian Wilson, though, if the beach-fresh harmonies on the new tune Coming of Age are any indication. On it, Foster sings that he is "bored of the game and too tired to rage."
Best Friend is party-starting disco romp, but with lyrics about a strung-out pal. Foster wasn't smiling as he sang, but the crowd grinned and grooved. Connick Jr. is coming for them – yeah, he's coming for them – but not for Foster, a pop songwriter who's not into kids' stuff.