Oddly, the article doesn’t even quote the song’s most perplexing lyric: “You’re so vain / You prob’ly think this song is about you.” It’s not quite a paradox, but it comes close. Whenever I heard the song as a child, I’d think to myself, “But the song is about him! How does that make him vain?”
My youthful self’s implicit reconstruction of Simon’s reasoning was like so:
(1) It is vain to believe something (like a song) is about you when it’s really not.But Simon might have meant something more like this:
(2) You think this song is about you.
(3) Therefore you’re vain.
(1) Vain people believe things (like songs) are about them, with or without good reason to think so.On a literal reading, the latter interpretation makes more sense than my childhood interpretation. But the whole tone of the song suggests otherwise. Simon is making an accusation (“you’re vain!”), and then adducing an alleged fact (“you think this song is about you!”) as support. The intended listener, on hearing the song, should think to himself, “Whoa – I really did think this song was about me. I am one vain son-of-a-bitch!” And there’s the contradiction: if the song really is about him, then his believing so provides scant evidence of his vanity.
(2) You’re vain.
(3) Therefore, you (probably) think this song is about you.
To put it another way, the word “you” must refer to someone, a Mr. X. Now, say there’s another guy, Mr. Y, who mistakenly believes the song is about him. We might justifiably conclude that Mr. Y is vain. But Simon does not reach that conclusion in her song, because by hypothesis she is not talking to Mr. Y, but to Mr. X. Now, Mr. X might also believe the song is about him. But since he’s correct to think so, his belief does not reveal his vanity. He might just know, from his relationship with Simon, that she’s the kind of person who writes bitter songs about ex-lovers. (He might also remember, one hopes with embarrassment, that time he wore an apricot scarf to a party.)
One hypothesis about Simon’s song is that it wasn’t about anyone in particular, but about several men with whom she’d been involved. I like this hypothesis because of its logical consistency. It preserves Simon’s apparent intent (to accuse someone of vanity and provide evidence) while avoiding any contradictions. When she says, “You probably think this song is about you,” what she really means is, “You probably think this song is about you specifically.” Any member of the target group would be vain to think the song’s just about him – and yet he couldn’t dodge the claim on grounds that the song really is about him, because it’s really about a group.