The Meaning Behind Foo Fighters’ Muppet-Metal Masterwork About Feeling Effed Over, “The Pretender”

By the time Foo Fighters released their sixth album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, in September 2007, they had spent the previous 12 years firmly establishing themselves as a steady presence on rock radio and in packed arenas. As the main creative force and the face of Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl would occasionally use his platform to support political causes, but his lyrics veered much more frequently to the personal than the political.

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With the hard-hitting first single from Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, “The Pretender,” Grohl and his bandmates appear to be making a statement that goes beyond the forceful attack of their guitars, the urgency of the late Taylor Hawkins’ beat, and Grohl’s scream-singing. While Grohl hasn’t been especially forthcoming about the specific message he intended with the lyrics for “The Pretender,” we can glean much of the meaning from his statements and the song’s words themselves.

What’s Got Grohl So Fired Up?

Grohl hasn’t had much to say about his inspiration for writing the lyrics to “The Pretender,” but he did say in an interview for the British radio station Radio X (then known as XFM), “I think a lot of people feel f—ed over right now and they’re not getting what they were promised, and so (it has) something to do with that.” Given that the song was written in the late spring of 2007, one can infer that Grohl was channeling some of the public’s anger towards President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings had fallen to nearly 30 percent. The subprime mortgage crisis was in its early months, the U.S. economy was on the brink of recession, and Bush had sent more troops to Iraq earlier in the year.

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The song’s lyrics don’t specify the particular target of Grohl’s wrath, but it’s clearly not about another individual in a personal relationship. The first lyrics Grohl sings in the quiet intro refer to a larger sinister force.

Keep you in the dark
You know they all pretend
Keep you in the dark
And so it all began

Once the band kicks in for the first verse, Grohl makes another reference to a nebulously-defined “them” with the lyrics Send in your skeletons / Sing as their bones go marchin’ in again. It’s not clear if Grohl is making a reference to soldiers being seen as disposable, but later in the song, he is much clearer about his belief that the powers-that-be view people as mere pawns.

In time or so I’m told
I’m just another soul for sale, oh well
The page is out of print
We are not permanent, we’re temporary, temporary
Same old story

These lyrics give us enough information to form our own picture of the “pretenders” who mislead us so they can use us for their own ends. However, the Foo Fighters’ official video for “The Pretender” fleshes out Grohl’s (or perhaps director Sam Brown’s) vision in far greater detail. The video shows the band performing the song in a cavernous room with a white floor, while a wall of police officers in riot gear stand on the other side, the two groups separated by a black line on the floor. The video doesn’t depict the deception practiced by the powerful, only the brute force that enables their real intentions to be acted out.

The Lighter Side (Sort of) of “The Pretender”

Grohl is defiant in the chorus, calling out “the pretender” and asserting he will “never surrender.” However, the rapid-fire lyrics and melody were inspired by a not-so-scary source. Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett pointed out to Grohl that the chorus bears a strong resemblance to the Sesame Street song “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others).” After being made aware of the similarities, he realized the song had probably been top-of-mind for him after having spent the previous several months at home with the Grohls’ first daughter, Violet.

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“The Pretender” was Foo Fighters’ third Top 40 single, peaking at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song enjoyed greater success on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock and Alternative Airplay charts, reaching the top spot in both rankings. With over half a million views, the official video for “The Pretender” is the band’s most popular video on YouTube. The song has been streamed more than 700 million times on Spotify, with “Everlong” being the only Foo Fighters song to be streamed more often on the platform.

“The Pretender” won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance, and it also received Grammy nominations for Record of the Year and Best Rock Song.

As far as Foo Fighters hits go, not many go as hard as “The Pretender.” Yet it’s catchy enough to rank as one of their most popular and celebrated songs. The blending of aggression and melodicism can be tough to pull off effectively. But then again, Grohl and his bandmates managed to successfully merge a Sesame Street-inspired melody with some of their most pointed lyrics. There must be some musical genre they aren’t able to pull off. But with “The Pretender,” they can check “Muppet metal” off their list.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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