You’re Not Vain
In case you haven’t heard – or are willfully ignoring it, like the group of people who attempt to avoid discovering the victor of the Super Bowl every year – one of the great mysteries of pop music has finally come undone, albeit partially. In an interview with PEOPLE magazine, singer-songwriter and proto-Taylor Swift Carly Simon has revealed that the second verse, at the very least, of her seminal hit “You’re So Vain” is, as many suspected, about Warren Beatty. With a great sigh of relief, I’m certain, James Taylor can rock himself to sleep, and Mick Jagger has finally achieved some level of satisfaction, depending on the geography of his egotism in 2015.
What Simon also did in revealing Beatty as her muse, however, was take some of the intimacy out of listening to music. To be frank, I’d really rather she wouldn’t have done that. It isn’t so much that she’s ruined “You’re So Vain” – the classic rock stations in Charlotte, North Carolina, that seem to think Simon only ever released one song already achieved that in my youth – but she did manage to remind us that, as much as we want to feel closer to the musicians we love, they are eternally out of reach, mingling with people more famous than we in parties on yachts, dressed in white clothing after Labor Day like the bourgeois bottles on the top shelf that they are.
To be clear, I’m only half-serious, but that half is deadly serious.
First things first: Carly Simon auctioned off the rights to knowing the inspiration for her biggest hit to NBC’s Dick Ebersol in 2003. He can’t feel great about that investment now, although apparently he found out over a lunch at Simon’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, which was probably delightful. She served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and vodka on the rocks.
Besides screwing over Ebersol for charity, Simon has muddied up a perfectly fine piece of pop songwriting. The people who attend the 70-year-old’s concerts now will hear that song with just a little less wonder and amazement. Few are the attendees who, upon the opening chords, will now not conjure an image of Beatty, in all his coiffed, ’70s glory:
Good luck forgetting that.
It is as if Simon has awoken us all from a dream we were thoroughly enjoying. At least as far as compositions with lyrics go, what most often makes music a universal language, as the cliché goes, is its oblique applicability to listeners. The overwhelming majority of us know we didn’t inspire “You’re So Vain,” yet when we listen to a song, any song, the magic behind it allows us to escape into it. This is basic grade-school logic, the kind of thing a third grader could probably tell me about why she enjoys the kid-friendly music her parents feed her before she discovers Blink-182 or whatever, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Explicitly removing the listener from the equation by revealing the inspiration of the song creates a different listening experience than what had been possible previously. It’s like how that same third grader has a vast imagination, unbound and unhoned by the realities of begrudgingly paying taxes and ill-advised drunk texting in the wee, small hours. It just doesn’t as much fun or carefree when we know more about a song, removing our ability to project onto it.
Maybe Simon’s case is more singular than others, one that has been exacerbated by media hype and speculation for the last 44 years. As I lay these pixels down, Rumours is playing in my living room. You, I, the sideboard and the guy outside my window catcalling at passersby know that album is a case study in transparent songwriting, what with the whole “disruption of two in-band relationships simultaneously” thing happening at the time of its recording. Then again, the whole world knew it at the time, too. It wasn’t like we had to wait four decades for Lindsey Buckingham to tell us who the inspiration for “Second Hand News” was.
It was as much Simon’s right to let us in on the secret as it was to keep her inspiration to herself, but the latter just seems so much more fun, for lack of a better, more bombastic term. I can’t imagine there were too many people fretting over the actual identity of the vain man in the second verse, but I guarantee most of the people who have heard it have placed themselves in Simon’s shoes and filled in the surrounding blanks with people in their own periphery.
Part of Bob Dylan’s mystique, at least to those who hold him in high regard, is the way his metaphorical language could implicate any of us. “Positively 4th Street” is so wonderfully vitriolic, and anyone who has dealt with a painful double-cross can hear where he was. By the same token, knowing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was intended for Dylan’s first wife, Sara, changes the way that song appeals to someone.
Don’t take my word for it though. Here’s a gratuitous YouTube screenshot:
YouTube user projekt2501 is the current top comment, expressing a sentiment many of us feel while listening to many songs. For instance, The Smiths have replaced Fleetwood Mac in my living room, because I am a Millennial, and I am now a charming man and/or a dude who will not go out tonight because he hasn’t got a stitch to wear. Anywho, projekt2501 is just trying to have some fun living inside a song, and then ALONG COMES JASON MACUMBER WITH THE #ACTUALLY. Tell me your knee-jerk reaction to reading Mr. Macumber’s comment isn’t, “Well, maybe, but you’re kind of an asshole.”
Maybe I’m just mad that Carly Simon wants one-third less speculation about her song than she did previously. Maybe I don’t want to see her start a trend in which songwriters start revealing inspiration left and right, and then we’re all left to deal with the fact that Edie Sedgwick and Wilt Chamberlain inspired every great song of the sixties and seventies. Maybe I’m so vain, and I hate that I can’t think this song is about me anymore.