“The Pretender” by Jackson Browne

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One of the hallmarks of a great songwriter is a kind of psychic ability to suss out trends in the culture almost before they occur. Jackson Browne is without a doubt a great songwriter, and his fans can point to “The Pretender” as one of the finest examples of his second sight.

Written in 1976 for the album of the same name, “The Pretender” is the story of a man who betrays his ideals and principles in pursuit of the almighty dollar. That kind of materialism would become more associated with the decade of the 80’s, but here Browne is writing about a guy who could easily be described as a yuppie several years before that term came into vogue.

Accompanied by an unforgettable piano hook, some lovely strings, and the impeccable harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash, Browne’s lyrics depict a narrator trying to decide what matters most. When he tries to reconcile his youthful promise with what he has become, he can’t understand it: “I want to know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring/Were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?”

Browne has always been one of the most literate songwriters, but that quality sometimes overshadows his sense of humor and his sharp eye for detail. All of those traits come together in this song in his trenchant descriptions of suburbia: “Where the veterans dream of the fight/Fast asleep at the traffic light/While the children solemnly wait for the ice cream vendor.”

As the song progresses, the narrator relents and gives in to conformity: “I’m going to be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender.” It really stings when it becomes clear what he’s leaving behind: “And believe in whatever may lie/In those things that money can buy/True love could have been a contender.”

Browne then steps out of the first person for the final blow to this poor sap, even as he asks the audience for some mercy on him: “Are you there, say a prayer for the pretender/Who started out so young and strong only to surrender.”

When asked about the song by Rolling Stone in 2008, Browne said, “”The Pretender” took a long time. It’s not that I worked on it every day; I was reluctant to finish it before I had gotten all there was out of it.” When you combine such dedication to craft with the innate talent possessed by Jackson Browne, it’s no wonder that the song is pure perfection from those haunting open piano chords to the fade-out. What can’t be properly explained is the haunting way it predicts a time when “Greed is good” started to win out over “All you need is love.”

“The Pretender”

I’m going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again
Say it again

I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening?
I’ve been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it’s the wink of an eye
When the morning light comes streaming in
You’ll get up and do it again

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

Ah the laughter of the lovers
As they run through the night
Leaving nothing for the others
But to choose off and fight
And tear at the world with all their might
While the ships bearing their dreams
Sail out of sight

I’m gonna find myself a girl
Who can show me what laughter means
And we’ll fill in the missing colors
In each other’s paint-by-number dreams
And then we’ll put our dark glasses on
And we’ll make love until our strength is gone
And when the morning light comes streaming in
We’ll get up and do it again
Get it up again

I’m gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
where true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.

Say a prayer for the pretender
Are you there for the pretender?
Say a prayer for the pretender
Are you there for the pretender?
Are you prepared for the pretender?

Written by Jackson Browne


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  1. This song, which I lived from the 70s , knowing the words yet without knowing (or caring?) about the meaning, has been playing in my head for days now.
    I agree entirely that the meaning has more to do with the monotony but neccessity of earning a living and sacrificing your time and dreams in order to do so. Then waking up and realising your dreams are no more.
    As an aside, wouldn’t it be much more rewarding and effective if school kids were given this type of poetry to consider in school class – both in lyrics and music – to encourage them to embrace poetry?
    Ironic that in the 70s, the beauty of this work was being written yet I was asked to study Keats, Wordsworth…and a host of others which, for me, a working class kid in an industrial town , meant little or nothing, yet we were unknowingly carrying these LPs to each other’s houses to spend hours together (no mobile phone present) to listen to this type of music.

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