On its surface, Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ is a clever and gently scathing reproof of an affluent, maybe famous — and certainly famously — self-absorbed former lover:
You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
It’s widely assumed that the song’s not about just any affluent, famous, and self-absorbed person, but a specific, real-life affluent, famous, and self-absorbed person (Warren BeattyMs. Simon has said the second verse really is about Mr. Beatty, but that he thinks the rest of the song is about him too. Amusingly, he agrees, and has said so publicly. and Mick Jagger are the usual suspects). This assumption has been nursed along with great care by Ms. Simon herself for near five decades now. She’s doled out conspiratorial hints and winking asides at irregular intervals to various people, and of course none of these clues have ever led to anyone or anything.
All this mystery has resulted in ‘You’re So Vain’ being one of pop music’s most scrutinized songs, pored over and relentlessly scoured for all trace of meaning.
The irony here is that the song was probably never really about any one specific person, nor did it need to be. It works just fine as an evocation of a type of person. The enduring mystery over the ostensible subject(s) of ‘You’re So Vain’ may have successfully worn its way into the public imagination, but it’s perhaps done so at the expense of the song’s actual charms.
What all the marketing and conspiracy helped obscure is how clever and sharply observed ‘You’re So Vain’ really is. Yes, this is a song about a woman putting some egocentric asshole on well-deserved retro-blast…but its disdain is mixed with amusement and regret and genuine loss:
You had me several years ago
When I was still quite naive
When you said that we made such a pretty pair
And that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me
Collectively speaking, we don’t tend to think of Carly Simon as a song-writing heavyweight, but there’s not a line in ‘You’re So Vain’ that doesn’t hit its mark with devastating accuracy (including that bit-of-genius fourth wall-breaking chorus). How many acknowledged song-writing heavyweights could say that about anything they ever wrote?
And we haven’t even mentioned Carly Simon playing her own piano on the tune, or that sinister opening bass line by Klaus VoormanThe same Klaus Voorman who played bass on our previous entry, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’! (“Son of a gun…!”), or Mick Jagger’s uncredited backup vocals, or the snarky, fuck-you strings that make their appearance in the midst of the third chorus.
Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga
And your horse naturally won
Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
You’re where you should be all the time
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend…
Michael Strum: “I’m not a Jungian disciple by any means, though the pan-cultural success of a Mona Lisa or a Starry Night seems to suggest something of a ‘collective consciousness.’ I think ‘You’re So Vain’ is a cultural touchstone, though I suspect many — if not most — couldn’t ID Simon. There’s a notion from the medical improvement science field that’s germane here —borrowed directly from marketing, I believe — called ‘stickiness.’ The idea is that some ideas are ‘stickier’ than others, more memorable, more shareable, more ‘viral.’ There’s something in ‘You’re So Vain’ that’s remarkably memorable, a combination of sound and lyrics. It’s a powerful song that leaves an impression; it’s almost like…it’s about me? At any rate, C. Simon is an interesting woman with an impressive career. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she sets a wonderful example of resiliency and strength. She’s a better musician and songwriter than I gave her credit for, and I’m quite pleased with her presence here!“
Rolling Stone: The holy mother of all diss tracks, “You’re So Vain” contains one of the most enduring musical mysteries of all time. Just who is so vain that he probably thinks the song is about him? Simon previously revealed that actor Warren Beatty inspired the second verse of the song (“Oh, you had me several years ago/When I was still naive”), but speculation abounds regarding the other man (or men) behind the ire. Either way, the track — boasting omnipresent Seventies arranger Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration and Mick Jagger’s background vocals — is pure soft-rock fire.