Songs We Take For Granted / Listeria: The Top Ten Things About Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 21, 2009
Son of a gun…
Usually, if an artist has made three separate songs, years apart, that you would consider classics, close to being among your all-time favorites, it would only tend to follow that you would consider them one of your favorite artists as well. Remarkably, even though I wouldn’t even know to say that I like her as an artist–“Mockingbird” and “Jesse,” at the very least, are among the worst songs I’ve ever heard–Carly Simon has accomplished this feat with me. There’s 1982’s hugely underrated “Why?,” which I’ve already expounded upon at great lengths elsewhere on this blog, 1977’s “Nobody Does It Better,” up there with “A View to a Kill” and “Goldfinger” in the Bond canon, and though it took me forever to realize its greatness, 1973’s “You’re So Vain.” (There’s also a fourth if you count Will Powers’ must-be-heard-to-be-believed lost 1983 classic “Kissing With Confidence,” which featured Simon uncredited on vocals and really deserves to get its own entry on this blog some day).
Lately, I’ve been moderately infatuated with “You’re So Vain.” It’s sort of hard to articulate why, so rather, I’m going to break it down to the ten things that most make it the gloriously bitter, time-stamped, self-loathing, heartbreaking classic I now believe it to be.
10. “You walked into the party / Like you were walking onto a yacht.” As far as opening lines on #1 hits go, I’d say this is a fairly enigmatic one. Besides, never having been on a yacht (or a witness to others on one) myself, I’m not even quite sure I know what one looks like when they walk onto one. Nonetheless, the line perfectly sets up the rest of the song, establishing the setting (the jet set crew of the 70s), the subject matter (an entitled ex of some sort) and the tone (very, very bitter). It also sets up the rhyme use of the word “gavotte” later in the verse (n. 1. A French peasant dance of Baroque origin in moderately quick duple meter, 2. Music for this dance.), quite possibly the only time you’ll hear the word on classic rock radio (outside of KISS’s “Detroit Rock City,” anyway).
9. The acknowledgement of deed in the 2nd verse. It’s not until verse two of “You’re SO Vain” that Simon admits her one-time relation to the subject in question, and even then, only with great reservation (“You had me several years ago/ When I was still quite naive”). It’s a sign of a genuinely spiteful love song when the singer clearly has to admit that hey, yeah, there was a time when I really dug this person, but only does so at the last second and under extreme duress, not wanting to give the ex the satisfaction of admitting to the world that they loved/screwed them at least at one point. With that in mind, the explanation of the split–“You gave awaythe things you loved / and one of them was me”–is even more of a killer.
8. The voice tremble on “pretty pair.” Possibly not even intentional, but on that second verse, when Simon sings “Well you said that we made such a pretty pair,” her voice quakes somewhat at the “pretty pair” part, a perfect example of the caustic edge brought on by all the brilliant little details in this song, a deeply-imbued seething that seems completely unforced. That, or it’s just the natural hoarseness of Simon’s voice coming out, but cool either way.
7. The widespread musical influence. “You’re So Vain” is almost unparalleled in the range of artists whose music it has gone on to touch–in terms of covers and direct references, if not in subtler artistic ways. Covered by both showbiz diva Liza Minelli and scuzzy hair metallers Faster Pussycat, interpolated into hits by both Janet Jackson (“Son of a Gun (Betcha Think This Song is About You“), a moderately-successful attempt to recapture the Joni Mitchell magic of “Got Til It’s Gone”) and Nine Inch Nails” (“Starfuckers, Inc.,” you were just a little too a head of your time), even working its way into the ouvres of indie darlings Mountain Goats and Andrew Bird…considering that the song is neither a mainstay of Greatest Song Ever lists or a kitschy piece of retro nostalgia, its endurance has been extremely impressive.
6. “Well I hear you went up to Saratoga / and your horse naturally won / Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia / To see the total eclipse of the sun” Dear lord, could you cram any more rich scumbag signifiers into one couplet of pop vocals? It’s all almost too vivid–good thing she saves it for the song’s last verse, or we might be too nauseated to listen to the whole thing.
5. Mick Jagger on backing vocals. I don’t even know how long it took me to notice these, or if I read about them first, or what, but yeah, that’s Mick singing with Carly on the “don’t you, don’t you, dooooon’t yoouuuuuuu???“s that provide the back end of the song’s titanic chorus hook. Would they be as meaningful if it was someone besides the Rolling Stones lead singer–himself rumored at one point to the subject matter of the song–singing the parts? I dunno, but I definitely fixate on them now whenever I listen to it. Oh, and speaking of which…
4. The conspiracy theories. In the annals of rock history, “You’re So Vain” is rivaled only by Alanis Morissette’s far inferior “You Oughta Know” for notoriously mysterious subject matter. Which member of the “Me” decade is it about? Mick? James Taylor? Warren Beaty? You can read about all the clues and theories on the song’s impressively detailed Wikipedia page, but all I know–when you can auction off your musical secrets for up to $50,0o0, you’re probably something of a success in this world.
3. The Intro. I simply can’t get over how amazing the introduction to this song is. Partly, it’s because for the longest time I couldn’t remember its existence. Maybe they used to cut it on the radio when I was a kid, but as recently as a year or two ago, I would hear those creepy opening bass rumbles, disembodied guitar chords and stray piano notes and Simon’s barely audible “Son of a gun!” whisper and think “what the fuck is this song?” (right up until Simon’s wail finally entered and the wave of familiarity hit). Musically, it has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the song, and after Simon comes in, you never hear that rumbling again. But wow, what a cool thirty seconds of weirdy weirdness to just tack on to the beginning of your big pop song–predating Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by almost three decades. You probably don’t even remember what I’m talking about, do you? Listen to it, really.
2. The windup. You can’t just jump into a great chorus–or, you can, but you’re doing your listeners a disservice by just thwacking them over the head with it without giving them any kind of fair warning. That’s why it’s so important that “You’re So Vain” take the time to gear listeners up for the big one, with each verse coming to a close by Simon repeating the same end phrase with increasing intensity as the music crescendoes in the background (“I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee, CLOUDS IN MY COFFEE, AANNNND…”) The “and” might ultimately be the most important part of the pre-chorus, as the way her voice slides down on it basically drops her right at the beginning of the hook, making the transition utterly seamless. You have to be careful with these things, folks–leave it up to pros like Carly.
1. “You’re so vain / You probably think this song is about you.” You’ve heard it so many times, in so many different settings, now, that you probably never take the time to actually think about what a fucking ingenious line this really is. I mean, yeah, on the surface, it might be a bad joke–of course, the song is about “you,” so how can Carly call “you” for thinking that–but the implications of that are fairly vast. Truth of the matter is, when you hate a person–especially when you used to like, or even love them–you spend way too much time thinking about them, thus likely continuing to feed the very things about them (arrogance, namely) that so turned you off. And when you rant about how terrible they are, generally, it makes you look a lot worse–hung up, deluded, sad–than them. It’s a bad joke, but it’s one that Simon as a songwriter is almost definitely in on, and one that encapsulates the entire song in its bitterness, obsession and patheticness. And hey, it earned her 50 grand, at least.