"The Pretender" is a song written and performed by American rock performer Jackson Browne and featured on his 1976 album The Pretender.
"The Pretender" was composed, according to Browne, in a number of locations; in Los Angeles, within a rented store-front in North Hollywood, and in a "tacky" hotel in Hawaii. Browne is quoted to have claimed that the song was almost complete before he had discovered the defining opening piano-riff.
In answering the question of who The Pretender is, Browne said - "...it's not me exactly, although sometimes people applaud for me at that moment in the song as if I am, but in truth there is a bit of The Pretender in me, but it's anybody that's sort of lost sight of some of their dreams...and is going through the motions and trying to make a stab at a certain way of life that he sees other people succeeding at. So maybe it's a lot of people of a certain generation who sort of embraced a very material lifestyle in place of dreams that they had that sort of disintegrated at some point."
Piano is in the forefront, played by Craig Doerge. Drums are played by Jeff Porcaro, bass by Bob Glaub, acoustic guitar and electric guitar are played by Fred Tackett, harmonies performed by David Crosby and Graham Nash and the string section was arranged by David Campbell.
"The Pretender" was only a minor hit single, reaching #58 on the Billboard Hot 100, spending 5 weeks on the chart in 1977. However, it gained substantial progressive rock radio and album-oriented rock airplay, and has since become a staple on many classic rock formats. It was featured in the 1995 film Mr. Holland's Opus.
William Ruhlmann calls the song "a cynical, sarcastic treatise on moneygrubbing and the shallow life of the suburbs," saying that it was "primarily inner-directed," and that "the song's defeatist tone demands rejection, but it is also a quintessential statement of its time, the post-Watergate '70s; dire as that might be, you had to admire that kind of honesty, even as it made you wince."
Writing about the songs in the context of its placing as the finale on the album of the same title, Author Peter Ames Carlin noted in 2010 that "tellingly, this is the first JB album to not flirt with holy transcendence in its final grooves." He describes the song as "a tart portrait of society, but unlike, say, Billy Joel (whose simple folk are so often reduced to Davy-in-the-Navy caricatures) JB sees himself right in the middle of the crowd. 'We’ll fill in the missing colors in each others’ paint-by-numbers dreams,' he pledges." Compared to the "sweet, sticky erotica" one might recall Browne singing of with Bonnie Raitt on 1973's "The Times You've Come," Carlin says "this ain’t it. Not even close:"
"The life of an idiot, perhaps. But certainly not a happy one," writes Carlin.
A version appeared on the Dedication album released by Gary U.S. Bonds in 1981.
Columbus, Ohio band Saving Jane did an up-tempo version of the song for inclusion on their 2005 Girl Next Door album.