The ‘uncanny valley‘ is a theory that refers to the feeling of revulsion that tends to happen when a person sees human-like features or movement from something that is not a living human being. Generally, the less faithful an effort to appear human, such as what one might expect from cartoonish puppets, the more positive the reaction. The closer an effort gets to appearing human, without actually being human, the creepier the result tends to be.
A useful term if you watch movies with bad CGI or have the dubious fortune to spend time around lifelike animatronics, I recently wondered if a lighter version could be present in works of art that had nothing to do with human representation but still struck one as eerily close to The Real Deal, but ultimately false. The feeling that stirred this idea was my contempt for indie pop act Foster the People.
It’s important to clarify my tastes here: I usually love what more discerning listeners might accurately describe as “indie garbage.” Even that one song with the whistling. I also don’t have a pretentious requirement that music meet some standard of authenticity. If that was the case, I’d be writing about how Vampire Weekend is a gang of phonies for using Afro-Caribbean beats (a nice image to keep in mind in case you thought this was as insufferable as it could get). One may find authenticity (whatever that means) in music important, or not have a general enjoyment of whatever strikes them as indie. But as someone who is fine with inauthentic trash, “Pumped Up Kicks” stands out for the way it strikes me as uncanny and unsettling.
According to my extensive research, “Pumped Up Kicks” was the unexpected hit that propelled the three-man Foster the People from obscurity to chart-topping fame. The lyrics about adolescent murder fantasies could be entirely ignored if it weren’t for the presence of the catchy hook. The provocative subject matter that can’t be heard without a concerted effort is about the only thing that could give anyone offense. Every other thing is harmless and been done a thousand times before. It’s a paint-by-numbers exercise. It’s like someone went down a checklist of what makes a successful indie hit:
✔ Basic structure – Verse – Hook – Verse – Hook – Interlude – Hook
✔ Catchy hook that makes up the bulk of the song
✔ Heavily distorted vocals (covers lack of rhyme and makes it so mumbling IS singing along)
✔ Spacey, distant “indie”-sounding instrumentals on loop
✔ Whistling, for Christ’s sake
More could possibly be said about the lyrics giving a cute treatment to violence seeking to endear the “ain’t I adorable” irony contingent of the indie listeners, but that’s not really my point. I only seek to convey how strongly I feel that this song is calculated artifice. It’s engineered to sound like a surprise indie-crossover hit and gets very, very close by checking off all the main features – like ensuring the eyes, mouth, nose of a face are all there. Yet as the nature of uncanniness goes, closer is worse, landing a lazy but thorough efforts right in the corpse/zombie depths of the valley.
“Pumped Up Kicks” is too close for comfort. It’s a replicant that not only fails the Voight-Kampff test, but walks through the desert turning turtles onto their backs.
I’ll conclude with this delightful paragraph from the uncanny valley Wikipedia page. It’s one attempt to explain why people feel the reaction – perhaps not the only factor at play, but if it brings these things to mind, it seems valid:
Mortality salience. Viewing an “uncanny” robot elicits an innate fear of death and culturally-supported defenses for coping with death’s inevitability…. [P]artially disassembled androids…play on subconscious fears of reduction, replacement, and annihilation: (1) A mechanism with a human facade and a mechanical interior plays on our subconscious fear that we are all just soulless machines. (2) Androids in various states of mutilation, decapitation, or disassembly are reminiscent of a battlefield after a conflict and, as such, serve as a reminder of our mortality. (3) Since most androids are copies of actual people, they are doppelgängers and may elicit a fear of being replaced, on the job, in a relationship, and so on. (4) The jerkiness of an android’s movements could be unsettling because it elicits a fear of losing bodily control.”
In this song is a face, and it reveals no capacity for empathy. In “Pumped Up Kicks,” one can see death.