Pop & Circumstance: Foster the People and the art of the mainstream crossoverBy Allison Berger | September 9th, 2011 | 8 comments
Here’s a secret: The first song I ever “Shazam’d” on my iPhone was off of the University of Pennsylvania’s independent radio station, 88.5 WXPN. It was May 2011 (with a 3Gs, nonetheless) and I was pretty behind on the whole smart phone thing. I heard the catchy beat and the low-key vocals and whipped out the app faster than you could say “Don’t text and drive.” “Foster The People,” I read from my brand new electronics device. “Pumped up Kicks.” Cool.
I got the band’s album, “Torches,” a month or so later. I blasted “Houdini” while I cleaned my apartment, “Life on the Nickel” while I pre-gamed with friends. “What a great record,” I thought to myself. “These boys might really make it.” When I saw them on MTV2, I smiled. They were cute, too!
I sort of forgot about Foster the People for a little while. I had played out the album on Spotify and was onto other summer songs, like the new Bon Iver and Lady Gaga’s never ending stream of singles. The next time I heard “Pumped up Kicks” was on Q102, Philly’s Top 40 radio station. The next thing I knew, they were nominated for Best New Artist and Best Rock Video at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards.
And thus, the popularity debate continues: Can you maintain cute indie boy cred while rising to the top of the pop music charts? Can hipsters still enjoy listening to their favorite bands long after they’ve made it onto a “Twilight” soundtrack or gone home with a VMA moon man (or four)? Or will they just feel a boatload of anger and guilt?
Foster the People burst on the L.A. scene two years ago, starting out with mega blog hype about the three-part band, snagging a 2010 performance at South by Southwest, and continued on with a mention on NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” Some might call them an overnight sensation, causing many early fans to question if Foster the People is considered to be indie.
Even big name indie-rockers like Death Cab for Cutie, who had a very slow rise to the top throughout the 2000s, have never been played on my local pop station, or nominated for a VMA. In fact, fans of Death Cab went a little nuts after they dropped indie label Barsuk for major Atlantic, therefore dropping their literal “indie” label. Foster the People, however, is signed to Startime International, a division of Columbia Records, among music makers like Passion Pit, the Futureheads, and Peter Bjorn and John. You don’t see any of them at the VMAs, do you?
For comparison, Death Cab has 52,000 Twitter followers and has been around the alternative scene for over a decade. Foster the People, still fostering their place in this crazy-mixed-up world of music, has 67,000.
All sounds aside, when does an artist cross the line from “indie” to “pop,” or “popular?” Leave your opinion in the comments.
Allison Berger is a Philadelphia-based writer and a pop music columnist for Reverb. Check out more of her writing here.