Carly Simon’s song “You’re So Vain” is not what many consider to be a source of irritation. It is a beautifully written story, backed by a simple melody, delivered to us by a chart-topping female vocalist of the early seventies. However, the meaning behind the tune, the inspiration and the contradiction that intertwine to form the very life of the song – all of these are enough to drive someone mad. A select few, yes, but from these listeners comes a common cry of frustration.
“You’re So Vain” begins full of gorgeous imagery and telling detail. “I had some dreams / they were clouds in my coffee” stamps scenes into memory of a woman sitting at a kitchen table, stirring absentmindedly, maybe gazing out the window at her past, of lovers long gone on to other things. Or maybe the mind recalls a relationship that never was, or the one who got away, or a perfect romance that quickly became a pile of broken dishes on a cheap linoleum floor. Then, we’re transported into some of the details of Carly’s life, as one man in particular begins to haunt her. “Well I hear you went up to Saratoga / And your horse naturally won” and earlier hints, like “You had me several years ago / When I was still quite naïve / Well you said that we made such a pretty pair / And that you would never leave” start giving us more personal snapshots, as we watch a mystery man trample her precious heart.
As we’re swept away to these distant corners of our minds, the very crux of the song suddenly disintegrates in the chorus. Carly cries out, full of taunt, yet laced with longing: “You’re so vain / I bet you think this song is about you / don’t you?” Herein lies the source of the frustration – because it is about him! She spends several verses telling us exactly who he is, and what he did, and then makes the very heart of the song useless, bordering on ridiculous! It’s almost as if she’s saying to her subject, “I’m going to exactly pinpoint who you are, and then make fun of you for thinking I wrote this song about you – when in all actuality, I just did.” It spits on the brilliance of her imagery and mangles the beauty of her recall.
For some, frustration runs in the form of long lines in the grocery store and bad drivers on the highway. For others, it may be a particular form of handshake, or window blinds left haphazardly half-straightened. And then we have “You’re So Vain”. In the years since it was written, Carly Simon’s compliance in shrouding her suitor’s face from the musical paparazzi gives him the very life she tries to deny. Whomever it was she dreamed of as she held her pen to paper that fateful day, be it James Taylor, or Warren Beatty, or any number of high profile suitors the rumor has encompassed – it is, in fact someone. And yes, Ms. Simon, as we gaze into our coffee cups, we bet he thinks that song was about him. We think so too – because you’ve already told us so.