The prophetic imagination of Foster the People

“For beauty I will gladly feed my life into the mouths of rainbows, their technicolor teeth cutting prisms and smiling benevolently on the pallid hue of the working class hero.”-From the Supermodel album cover

Rock music is no stranger to songwriters who double as modern-day prophets. From Bob Dylan to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, U2, Pearl Jam and Mumford & Sons, one could argue that many truly memorable modern songwriters have a bit of the gift of prophecy indwelling within them.

The latest and, for my money, most refreshing addition to that tradition comes from an unexpected source. The alternative rock band Foster the People already put themselves on the map with their first album “Torches,” spearheaded by the effervescent, catchy and deceptively dark single “Pumped up Kicks.” But it’s their second album, Supermodel, released in March, that truly catches the prophetic imagination in unique and sometimes startling ways. If it appeared that Foster was headed toward instant super-stardom, their sophomore effort will likely perplex or even anger some fans of their earlier work; and that’s just one reasons why Supermodel is one of the most complex, challenging and, yes, prophetic works of art to emerge from contemporary rock music in quite a long time.

In discussing the prophetic tradition, it’s important to define what we mean by “prophetic.” In the history of humanity, prophecy goes back a long way. Nostradamus made prophecy chic in the 15th century, but the most famous examples of prophecy stem from the biblical Old Testament prophets, in particular Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Prophetic voices may differ on the source of their inspiration, but one thing they all share is a dissatisfaction with their surrounding culture. Often, this leads to a warning, an exhortation that if we do not change the course we have set for ourselves (and, in the biblical example, turn ourselves toward God), calamity in some form will ensue. “As I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, o house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).

In that same vein, modern prophetic songwriters write lyrics that dream of a better world, that convey a dissatisfaction with the way things are and perhaps even dream of ways we can make things better.

The thrilling thing about Foster is that their prophetic voice is often filtered through the explicit language of old-school biblical prophecy. Their vision is uncompromising, sometimes even impenetrable upon first listen. Such an approach can be off-putting but, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, their message is profound and well worth exerting a bit of intellectual effort for.

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That effort is put into overdrive on Supermodel’s first track, “Are You What You Want to Be?” which finds the band experimenting with Afro-Cuban inspired chants and drum beats. Any illusion that the band is gunning for another easy-listening, radio-friendly hit is shattered by lead singer Mark Foster’s staggered lyric. “The right words in the hands of dissidents with the fire/Will rip apart the marrow from the bone of the liars/Well I’m afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr/But even more so I’m afraid to face God and say I was a coward, yeah.” The song speaks of waiting for “revolution,” which, in the spirit of prophecy, is a very anti-establishment thing to say.

But what exactly is Foster rebelling against? Foster gives us an idea in a revealing interview with the L.A. Times.

“For me, a lot of the record is about Western culture, consumerism and the ugly side of capitalism,” Foster says. “I don’t want to hit you over the head with it, but those are the major topics. One thing I find really interesting is our worship of celebrity or politicians. We love to put people on pedestals. Look at reality shows. These people become giant stars. I find that fascinating. ‘Supermodel,’ for me, represents the age we are living in.”

Foster’s revolution may be cloaked in violent language, but their desire appears to be to increase understanding, creating a quiet revolution by rejecting the vanity inherent in the cult of celebrity and instead focusing on the “biggest question,” and it all starts with deciding “Are you what you want to be?”

The band’s philosophical inquiry grows more explicit in perhaps the album’s high point: “Ask Yourself.” The song suggests that we can’t do our part in making the world a better place if we resign ourselves to simply dream big; being who we want to be takes something more. “And you say that dreamers always get what they desire/But I’ve found the more I want the less I’ve got/Is this the life you’ve been waiting for/Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?” The subject of the song “Never needed the proof/Just followed the rules,” but found that “I’m always falling behind/Just floating the lines.”

But human endeavors to improve ourselves can only take us so far, if “Coming of Age” is any indication. In the prophetic tradition, Foster says that we cannot find true peace within ourselves because we are, in so many words, wicked. In biblical prophecy, this condition is more directly referred to as “sin,” a concept songwriters have been utterly fascinated with ever since the first guitar chord was struck. If anything, it’s a bitter answer to the last song’s charge that hard work alone leads to improvement. “You know I’ve tried to live without regrets/I’m always moving forward and not looking back/But I tend to leave a trail of dead while I’m moving ahead.” Lyrics like this are a rejection of philosophies like Buddhism, which say that we can reach salvation (or at least inner peace) by searching within ourselves. Our default state is failure after failure after failure; and such seemingly fruitless striving can take its toll.

The eerie “Never Mind” serves as the band’s rejection of moral relativism, or the idea that an absolute “Truth” is unobtainable and therefore not worth pursuing. “You have your truth and I have mine,” as the mantra goes. Foster expresses his confusion over this muddled philosophical view. “Yeah it’s hard to know the truth/In this post-modernist view/Where absolutes are seen as relics/And laughed out of the room/And I’m scared to say your name.” The band is concerned about a culture where they fear to even mention God’s name due to the fact that they may offend someone whose “truth” doesn’t cop to the idea of a deity.

In the album’s trippiest track, the seemingly drug-induced fever dream “Pseudologia Fantastica,” the band goes further in calling out post-modernist thought as “Another weekend massacre of opinion” before calling to memory some of the most powerful and challenging words Jesus Christ ever spoke. “Don’t be afraid of the knife/Sometimes you have to cut the limb to survive.” In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus was referring metaphorically to cutting off anything in our lives that may cause us to sin; Foster seem to be referencing a more philosophical rejection of anything or anyone that sacrifices a desire for ultimate truth on the altar of opinion.

images“A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” offers the band’s most challenging lyrics, as well as the deepest philosophical subtexts. It’s here where their use of direct biblical language is most obvious. Foster goes directly after those phony people who do things for show and talk about nothing but trivial matters. I’m coming for you giants and your liars and your chariots of fire/You charmers with your anecdotes have started to show your true colors.” The language gets even more old-school. “We’ve been crying for a leader to speak like the old prophets/ The blood of the forgotten wasn’t spilled without a purpose, or was it?” It seems to me that Foster is clamoring for more prophetic voices to speak the truths that no one else wants to hear. Looking at the history of prophetic music, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lack of people with wisdom to impart, but, rather, a lack of reception from the people who need to not only hear their messages, but be transformed by them.

The album’s last two songs drive its message home powerfully. “The Truth” reaffirms the idea that there is a Truth (singular) even while “floating within your walls of opinion.” The song goes on: “There is a Truth, there is a light if you’d follow me there/I’ve been searching for the directions and/I’m convinced the world doesn’t know what it needs/There is a hope for the hopeless/I can promise you that.” The band again takes the emphasis off of our own actions to “discover” what life means, and rejects the idea that the object of our searching is forever out of reach. “The truth stands in the end/While you’re deciding what to do.”

The soft, pleasant acoustic album closer “Fire Escape” is actually the album’s most bitterly ironic song. It’s an outraged cry to the band’s hometown of L.A., a place of “pimps and prostitutes” who “wave you down at stopping signs.” Foster sings, “Los Angeles, I’ve been waiting for you/To pick yourself up and change.” The song repeats the refrain: “Save yourself, save yourself, yourself.” Of course, the city can’t save itself from its wickedness, just as we can’t save ourselves from ours. When the troubles of this world turn on the heat, we think we can jump out of the fire escape unsinged, but the rest of the album has shown that attempting to save ourselves is a fruitless exercise that leads to pain and defeat. So, the biggest question the album leaves us with is, if we can’t save ourselves, who can?

Supermodel is already an underrated album critically, mostly because it does not feature a catchy radio-friendly counterpart to “Pumped up Kicks.” That’s a great song, and Torches is a great album, but Supermodel takes the listener to places I never thought they could go. Not every song is immediately catchy, but every song is, in its own way, essential to the band’s inspiring contribution to the imagination of the prophetic voice.

In a philosophical slap in the face to most popular music, Foster the People says things are not okay, we are not okay, and our post-modern culture’s search for ultimate meaning is so grounded in the individual self (just think of all the popular songs that seem to find ultimate meaning in romantic love) that it has lost nearly all of its value. Mark Foster contemplated this as the band’s popularity grew. He told the L.A. Times, “I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen. I lived paycheck to paycheck. Then suddenly my life changed. We had people helping us. We had money. We could see the world. I traveled and saw how other people lived, and it left me brokenhearted.”

“I felt guilty for how my life had changed.”

Our culture places a high priority on finding a truth, but belittles the idea of the Truth, with a capital T. What is that bigger Truth, and what is our part to play in it? I believe that bigger Truth rests in God himself, and I have a sneaking suspicion Foster does as well. Nevertheless, a culture that refuses to even ask that question is living blindfolded, stumbling around in the dark and headed for self-destruction. And, if we find out someday that Mark Foster was correct, and we chose to ignore his pleas, at least he can be comforted by the fact that no one ever listened to Ezekiel, either.

 

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