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Yuppie Music I:
Jackson Browne


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 20, 2009

Unlike last summer, I'm not writing about movies this summer. Instead, music is my topic. Still, the two are inseparable. This month's subject, Jackson Browne, wrote the signature song, "Somebody's Baby," for a movie I discussed last summer, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But that song was not about yuppies (and was not even one of his better songs), and this month's commentary is about yuppies.

Yuppies did not garner much media attention until the 1983 film The Big Chill, the 1983 film that put them front and center before the world. The popular Big Chill soundtrack, however, did not itself contain any yuppie music; rather, it contained aging hippie music with an overdose of tunes from Motown, the company that released the soundtrack. Yuppie music is what the fictional Big Chill characters were listening to in their contemporaneous everyday life, music that was undoubtedly too expensive to license for a film like The Big Chill, which was rejected by every major studio despite the fact that its director, Lawrence Kasden, was box-office gold at the time. Yuppie music still looms large on terrestrial radio today courtesy of Clear Channel and CBS. I avoid terrestrial radio, but when I'm in the dentist's chair, it is unavoidable, as is the yuppie music it plays.

Jackson Browne is not a particularly likable guy; indeed, he borders on downright loathsome. Despite co-authoring The Eagles breakthrough song, "Take It Easy," most of Browne's songs are shot through with the dreary depression that subtextually pervaded The Big Chill. Despite being an all-around downer, Mr. Browne is worth of a commentary because of the intrinsic merit of his music. Jackson Brown has written at least a dozen great songs over the years and his music will be playing in dentists' offices well into the next century. While his quirky delivery is sometimes merely annoying, it sometimes adds greatly to his songs. Perhaps his best song is "Late for the Sky," which made Nick Hornby's select list of 31 songs. It is a particularly notable achievement given that Hornby put Browne's song on his list because Hornby considered Jackson to be a wimp and Hornby was even later to Browne's music than Browne was for the sky. (Jackson Browne does make it a habit to be two-clever-by-half; "Late for the Sky" is the only song that I can think of in which the title only appears as its final words.)

The song that turned Hornby off to Browne is the song that is the focus of this commentary, "The Pretender." This song that neatly sums up in under six minutes when The Big Chill was trying to say in over one hundred of them. 

What is particularly notable about "The Pretender" is that it was written in 1975 and released in 1976, long before yuppies were a recognized phenomenon and were known as such. I may not have hung out with Jackson and his buds over in Laurel Canyon, but I was in Southern California at the time and I lived with yuppies. Indeed, although I would deny ever being a yuppie (or ever having been a yuppie), I have to entertain the possibility that I was involved with the earliest outcrops in Southern California between 1974 and 1975 and then in Boston from 1975 to 1979.

Although The Big Chill literally dances around where yuppies came from (the part of the movie that would have done this was wisely left on the cutting room floor), it is all very simple. You see, you have these hippies (apparently, I was one of them). There are non-materialistic. They only desire peace, love, and understanding. They want the Vietnam War to end. They want Richard Nixon out of the White House. They get all of these things. And then what happens. No golden age of anything, expect disco. Quel bummer. What do you do then? Make money and try to have what fun you can any way possible.

So what did we do in Southern California in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned? We went out for fondue.

It is well known that between 1973 and 1975 I lived in a bungalow across an expanse of parking lot from the Pasadena office of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, & Smith, as it was then called, where I frequently hung out. My fellow bungalowmates were evenly divided between the former denizens of Dabney House, an infamous hippie outpost, and the gentlepeople of Blacker House, the house of gracious living. The primary reason that we had moved off-campus was food. The Caltech student houses were fun in their own way, but the food was beyond inedible. All of us castaways were foodies to varying degrees, even if foodies, like yuppies, had not yet been identified by the media. It was from a pair of the Blacker foodies that I discovered cheese fondue and my life has never been the same since.

It never occurred to us that we could cook our own fondue. Back then, fondue sets were not a department store staple. Instead, we trekked a mile or so to the Peppermill on Saturday nights for our fondue. Except those of us in the bungalow, I do not remember anyone else from Caltech who belong to this nascent fondue cult.

Now don't get me wrong, I take no credit for discovering fondue (Wikipedia claims that Homer mentions it in the Iliad) or even being one of the first to eat it in the U.S. (Wikipedia says that it caught on here about ten years before I discovered it.) I was, however, among the first of my generation to partake in one of the many petty indulgences that were typical of yuppies. Running shoes and Haagen-Dazs would soon follow. (Some questions for Lawrence Kasden: Why do your characters eat standard grocery store ice cream? Were you that hard up for product placement money that you would so obviously sacrifice the realism of your film?)

Jackson Browne (I didn't forget him) saw all of this coming and brilliantly captures it is a single song, a song that people take for granted. Indeed, he pretty much sums it up in a single, "(Caught) between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender" and then lays it out full in the final stanza:

I'm going to 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
Thought 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

"The Pretender" is doubly ironic. It is an ironic song that has, in turn, evolved into an anthem of the very people it rails against. Indeed, Jackson Browne himself went on to write several anti-yuppie songs, yet he comes off as such a yuppie that he could have walked into The Big Chill and the film would not have missed a beat.

At some point in the future, no one will remember anything about Jackson Browne or why so many of his contemporaries found him to be loathsome. Terrestrial radio will be dead, but Jackson Browne will be heard on whatever takes its place. But even bigger, and deservedly so, in the past, present, and future, are Fleetwood Mac, next month's featured artist.

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to