On my way to yoga this afternoon I heard a bit on NPR about the song “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. You remember the song, it’s addressed to some mysterious man who wears a fruity scarf and apparently has a big ego.
At the end of the segment there was a query from a listener that packed a punch. (Paraphrasing the NPR listener) She sings “I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you?” Why would she sing that? After all, the song is about him.
At first I thought that the listener just didn’t understand the point of the barb: She is saying that he is so vain because when he hears a song about someone he assumes it is about him. But after thinking for awhile, I see that the listener was onto something.
Is it vain to think that a song is about you when indeed it really is about you? Can you be accused of being vain just for being right? What if the guy has never before thought a song was about him. Maybe this was the very first time in his life that he ever thought a song was about him, and he had good reason to because in fact it was about him and indeed all the clues were laid out in previous verses?
She could have sung “I bet you think those other songs, like you know the song about turning brown eyes blue, by Crystal Gayle, or the one by the Carpenters about birds suddenly appearing, you know those songs, I bet you think those songs are about you. Well I got news for you, they are not. In fact those singers have never met you, duh.” But she didn’t.
Even worse, the song clearly accuses its subject of being vain. If he thinks the song is about him, then he is acknowledging his own vanity. Certainly the guy gets humility points for recognizing his own vanity, right?
But wait. The subject knows that Carly knows that the subject’s recognition of himself in Carly’s song is an admission of vanity, and hence an act of humility. And therefore “I bet you think this song is about you” translates to “I bet you think you are humble.” And given that, since the subject indeed recognizes himself in the song he is in fact claiming to be humble, an act of sheer vanity.
So Carly’s lyrics cut deep indeed.
(Postscript: before today I actually thought the song was about me.)