The Struggle Is Real: Meditations Upon Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”

By Michael W. Harris

Jackson Brown is one of those artists who has the tendency to drift in and out of my playlists without much thought. His songs will simmer in the background for weeks or months before exploding to dominate my listening for a solid month. His easy acoustic melodies and plaintive voice paired with an equally longing piano is the perfect companion to certain moods.

In many ways, it is a perfect fit for feeling of mono no aware that I wrote about almost two years ago. There is a wistful sadness to many of his songs, especially the ones I gravitate towards, that captures the peaceful resignation to the inevitable passing of all things. Not a rage against the dying of the light, but an acceptance, nigh an embrace of it, that is at the heart of mono no aware and much of Japanese thought.

For me, nothing captures this feeling in the work of Browne more so than a pair of couplets in his 1976 song “The Pretender,” off the album of the same name:

“Out into the cool of the evening strolls the Pretender,
He knows all his hopes and dreams begin an end there.”

And:

“Are you there? Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong only to surrender.”

The resignation found in these lines, the walking into the night, knowing that it holds all of his ends and beginnings in equal measure, the giving into the forces that would beat him down into submission and compliance…it is a deep, cynical view of the world, jaded even, that is the darker tinge of mono no aware. It is not the peaceful acceptance of the Japanese mold, but a more Western resignation. Not full of rage, but contains a simmering resentment none-the-less. But it also does not detract from the other wistful qualities of the song.

So, if these lines are about a submission to something, it begs the question: a submission to what?

*          *          *

In so many ways, “The Pretender” is more relevant now than it was in the Post-Nixon 1970s. It is a condemnation of the material obsessed culture that American had become after the failure of the 1960s counter culture and hippie movement. It is about how those who were once rebellious and defiant have given into the reality of the work-a-day life we all must give into unless we go all in on dropping out of society:

“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 morning light comes streaming in I’ll get up and do it again.
Amen.”

The invocation of the religious both here and at the end of the song—the earlier quoted “Say a prayer for the Pretender”—is a sideways leer at the quasi-religious place that consumerism has in our society, one that was supercharged after Browne released the song with the rise of Neo-Conservatism politics, its conflation with the Religious Right, and its aligning with Neo-Liberal economic policies.

But The Pretender of the song’s title is aware of what has happened to him, that he has given in and given up:

“I want to know what become of the change we waited for love to bring,
Were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening.”

And he is also aware that something is missing from his life, something that he seeks to fill with the love, or at least the sex, of another person:

“I’m gonna find myself a girl who can show me what laughter means,
And we’ll fill in the missing colors of 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.”

But in the end, they wake up and the day, the cycle, starts over again:

“I’m gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender.”

And yes, “legal tender” is probably of the Top 10 worst forced rhymes in pop music history, but I am willing to let it slide for all the other lyrical brilliance Browne demonstrates (especially for going with “make love until our strength is gone” instead of the more clichéd “until the break of dawn”).

What is clear throughout “The Pretender,” though, is the struggle to both survive and yet find meaning in our existence. That the forces that propel out society, especially our economy, are fundamentally at odds with our inner selves:

“Where the ads take aim, and lay their claim to the heart and soul of the spender,
And believe in whatever may lie in those things that money can buy,
Thought that true love could have been a contender.”

Could true love, or some simulacrum of it, be bought? Ads for jewelry, clothes, perfume, houses, and on and on might lead one to believe that it was possible. That we are all just one diamond ring and a car away from meeting our perfect soulmate.

And this is where the song points to a deep schism and contradiction in our modern society, one that is 40 years removed from the 1970s of Jackson Browne: we are simultaneously less swayed and more aware of the presence of ads in our lives, but are even more obsessed with projecting a certain image or style to the world. Both of which are trends driven by the internet and social media.

Indeed, in 2018, the Pretender is all who take to Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook and project a life that is anything less than their flawed, authentic self.

*          *          *

To be certain, we have always been Pretenders. Before the social internet, before Jackson Browne, long before anything resembling our contemporary culture emerged, we were probably pretending in some way. As humans, most likely as a defense against showing weakness or trying to attract a mate, we always try to appear better than we are. Display our plumage as it were. And in a hyper-capitalist society, late-stage capitalism if you will, in which having outward markers of wealth on easy display is almost de rigueur, it is easy to equate acquisition of “stuff” with completeness (see: Fight Club). But as Browne writes, neither things being advertised nor looking for it in another will ever “fill in the missing colors” of your life.

However, all of this is turned to 11 when our lives are on display for all the world to see, or at least your friends and followers. We Instagram our meals or new things. Show our picture-perfect vacations, and try to project an ideal life style, much to the detriment of our authenticity and our bank account. And I am no angel in all of this. I too have shared pictures of ideal moments. Maybe not as much as others, and it is something I actively fight the urge to do. But there is a peer pressure to give in…to surrender.

The drive to assimilate or be shunned, the dystopic late-stage capitalist future that we live in, has a homogenizing effect on our actions. This trend was sussed out by Browne in the 1970s, long before capitalism won over communism, though in a very similar cynical cultural moment in which new and shiny technology was coming on to the market that would become a marker of wealth. And in such a moment when so much of our cultural discourse is wrapped up in arguments about identity based on some external marker (race, gender, wealth, etc.) perhaps it is high time that our social media becomes more about the complex interior individual. That we stop pretending and start showing our authentic inner selves.

To be sure, a lot of who we are has to do with the more easily seen markers—we try to express our inner selves with outward signs. But we are more than simple demographic sets that one can spot just by looking at us (age, gender, race, etc.), something that is seemingly lost in an era of big data. Data that makes it easier for us to be sold to…and to be sold.

*          *          *

Author, vlogger, and third-tier English football supporter John Green has a phrase he likes to use: “imagine others complexly.” It means that we need to realize and think of other people as complete human beings with complex inner lives that go beyond the small sliver that you see filtered and curated via either social media or in real life. Indeed, it might be the scariest realization of our lives that we will probably never know another person in their totality no matter how long we know them. Even if we end up sharing our entire life with a person, there will probably be some part of it in which they are still “The Pretender” even to their supposed lifetime partner.

To many, this realization might bring great sorrow, but it shouldn’t. We should revel in the joy of the knowledge that such mysteries exist in our everyday lives. Which is why our sorrow should be reserved for the knowledge that we treat others who we don’t know with such inhumanity. That we shun, dismiss, ostracize, defame, dehumanize, and otherwise treat poorly those who we do not fully know or understand.

Such deep sorrow at inhumanity is only hinted at by Browne directly, but the entire song is really a plea to imagine others complexly. It details all the ways in which we struggle against the forces of modern life only to ultimately succumb. It ends with the refrain of “Say a prayer for the Pretender / Are you there for the Pretender?” It is also a call to action for all of us to act differently in the face of this reality. The very last line is an even more damning question: “Are you prepared for the Pretender?” Asking us if we are either ready to confront him, or even more chilling, we are the Pretender and are on the verge of such a realization. Are you prepared to realize that you are The Pretender? Indeed, the song attempts to move us in that direction by moving the perspective of the line “I’ll get up and do it again” to “You’ll” in its second repetition, and finally “We’ll” in its last iteration.

The realization that we are all the Pretender is similar to the realization that others are as complex an individual as we are, that everyone is the protagonist in their own story that you might simply be an extra in. This is something that the website The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has dubbed “sonder,” which is a word and concept that we should all learn.

Look around you…everyone is just trying to get by just like you, and maybe they are pretending and project an ideal life just like you.

*          *          *

When I listen to “The Pretender,” I am always wanting the song to end slightly differently. I want the final verse to instead end with:

“Out into the cool of the evening strolls the Pretender,
Who started out so young and strong only to surrender.”

It is a mash-up of those two couplets and I think it appeals to me mostly because it reminds me of the closing of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which in turn reminds me of the closing of Fredrich Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense”—two works whose impact upon my intellectual development during my PhD cannot be overstated.

To briefly summarize why these images link together in my mind, it is because they all feature figures walking into an unknown, uncertain future, resigned to their fate. Rashomon has its Woodcutter, its central storyteller who has also been the leading “Pretender” (liar) of the film, taking custody of an abandoned infant resigned to the truth of our society and its false faces that everyone puts on, including himself.

Likewise, Nietzsche closes his essay with a strikingly similar image: that of the stoic man walking slowly and deliberately into a rain storm, but doing so in the knowledge that he faces the world with eyes open and free from the deception of others, though still projecting something other than his inner self to the world:

“While the man guided by concepts and abstractions merely wards off misfortune by means of them, without extracting happiness for himself from them as he seeks the greatest freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of culture, in addition to warding off harm, reaps from his intuitions a continuously streaming clarification, cheerfulness, redemption. Of course, he suffers more violently when he does suffer; indeed, he also suffers more often, because he does not know how to learn from experience and he falls again and again into the same pit into which he fell before. He is then just as unreasonable in sorrow as in happiness; he cries out loudly and cannot be consoled. How differently stands the stoic person who has learned from experience and controls himself by reason! He who otherwise seeks only honesty, truth, freedom from delusions, and protection from enthralling seizures, now, in misfortune, produces a masterpiece of dissimulation, as the former did in happiness; he does not wear a quivering and mobile human face but, as it were, a mask with dignified harmony of features, he does not scream and does not even raise his voice. When a real storm cloud pours down upon him, he wraps himself in his overcoat and walks away under the rain with slow strides.”

Now, I fully admit that I still don’t fully understand Nietzsche’s essay, but as far as I can tell, he is comparing two approaches to our existence. One in which a person lies to himself and the world about their condition (the Pretender), and one who resigns themselves to a very cynical existence, but with eyes wide open to it. To be honest, neither sound all that appealing, but then again, neither did the life of the Woodcutter in Rashomon.

It is only in writing this essay that the similarities between these works really struck me, and it makes me wonder where our “Pretender” or Rashomon or even Nietzsche essay for the 21st century is. To be certain, we have no shortage of cynical takes on our consume, image-driven culture, but what they all lack and “The Pretender” has is the self-reflection. While Browne’s lyrics are damning of his world, they are equally critical of himself. He has had what I call the “Jimmy Buffet Realization:” “It’s my own damn fault.”

I am certainly not well-versed enough in all of the current pop culture zeitgeist to know for sure that this self-reflection isn’t there—and you can trace its outlines in a lot of Black Mirror or the reputation-based-economic-horror-show that is the world of Cory Doctrow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom—but where are the turns of phrases, the simple, cutting remarks that so perfectly encapsulate the ennui and angst of our current moment? We all walk into the evening of our lives and know that our hopes and dreams lay scattered about in ruins as we struggle daily for the money to acquire the things that will supposedly make our live complete…or at least make it look like it is to an outside observer.

*          *          *

“The Pretender” is a call and challenge for us to live a more authentic life. Even though the title character surrendered, it is by no means certain that we all will. And the tools that today lead us to pretend a perfect life instead of the messy reality, are the exact tools that we need to stop pretending and make it easier to imagine others complexly. We can be more honest with ourselves and each other, break down the barriers between our interior and exterior lives. And, most importantly, actually listen to the lives of others.

This might be the most challenging aspect of the call. We resist knowing others complexly because it complicates our lives to know that the lives of others are not easily reducible to side quests in our personal life story (see: sonder). But on a planet of over 7 Billion people, there are over 7 Billion different stories and life experiences out there, and most of these people are pretenders to some extent. And every morning they get up and do it again.

Amen.

One thought on “The Struggle Is Real: Meditations Upon Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”

  1. I’ve always thought “… while the junkman pounds his Fender” refers to a garage band rocking the electric guitar down the street.

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