Friday, June 03, 2005

Whether Vain

Tyler links to an article about Carly Simon’s 1973 hit song, “You’re So Vain.” While the identity of Deep Throat has now been revealed, the subject of Simon’s song remains a mystery.

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.
(2) You think this song is about you.
(3) Therefore you’re vain.
But Simon might have meant something more like this:
(1) Vain people believe things (like songs) are about them, with or without good reason to think so.
(2) You’re vain.
(3) Therefore, you (probably) think this song is about you.
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.

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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Vanity alone would not cause an individual to assume all songs were about him; I think a large ego would be necessary as well.

Unless of course, he considers himself to be vain, and then assumes that all songs about vain people are about him.

The fact that he knows Carly Simon personally also might be a tipoff.

J.V.Raba said...

How about:

(1) Simon actually addresses her song to nobody in particular (merely "you"), yet had someone in mind when she wrote a "song about them".
(2) A song being "addressed to someone" ("Hey, you, vain person") is different than a song being "about someone". [E.g., sometimes songs are addressed to people of virtue, but are about the unvirtuous, etc.]
(2) It is not vain to think a song is about you, when a song actually is about you.
(3) The actual addressee cannot be actually vain.
(4) Those who mistakenly think the song is addressed to them are vain, and Simon had reason to believe there are several vain individuals who would mistakenly think so.
(5) The song is actually about someone who is not vain.

This could potentially confirm conventional wisdom that James Taylor is not vain, but that Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger are.

J.V. Raba said...

Heh. Oops, poor editing on my part. Let me restate:

1) Simon actually addresses her song to nobody in particular (merely "you"), yet had someone in mind when she wrote a "song about them".
(2) A song being "addressed to someone" ("Hey, you, vain person") is different than a song being "about someone". [E.g., sometimes songs are addressed to people of virtue, but are about the unvirtuous, etc.]
(2) It is not vain to think a song is about you, when a song actually is about you.
(3) Those who mistakenly think the song is addressed to them are vain, and Simon had reason to believe there are several vain individuals who would mistakenly think so.
(4) The song therefore is actually about someone who is not vain, even though it is addressed to someone who is.

This could potentially confirm conventional wisdom that James Taylor is not vain, but that Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger are.

J.V.Raba said...

I think this makes sense because even if Simon had addressed a group as being vain, they would be similarly not vain because the song really would be about them. You can be plural after all.

Of course, maybe my idea is a bit forced because it suggests that a song can be addressed to one person (or set of people), but actually be about someone else. But then again, I think that happens quite a lot. Isn't that what subversiveness is all about?

And I note despite my attempt to clean up my logic, I failed to successfully clean up my numbering. Oh well.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I think this post explains why Carly Simon now just writes songs for "Winnie-the-Pooh" animated films.

Glen Whitman said...

"Of course, maybe my idea is a bit forced because it suggests that a song can be addressed to one person (or set of people), but actually be about someone else. But then again, I think that happens quite a lot."

Yes, it's possible for a song to be *about* X but *addressed* to Y. Consider Michael Jackson and Phil McCartney in "The Girl Is Mine"; each singer is addressing the other, but the song is about the girl.

However, in this particular song, the use of the second person pronoun 'you' (in the title, even!) pretty clearly indicates that the addressee and the subject are one and the same. The song is about a person who is vain, and the singer says "you're so vain."

Gil said...

I thought it had been settled that "you" was about Warren Beatty.

Anyway, I react to the song the way Glen did. The song is about "you".

But, the only reasonable interpretation that I came up with, is that the song does tell things about him, but that's not what the song is really about.

It's really about self-absorption in general, not about the person in particular.

J.V.Raba said...

I dunno. One the one hand you could say, "Well, you're so vain that I you'd think this song is about you" indicates what the song is about. But I think it is a scathing, "obviously, this song is not about you, vain person."

Ben said...

theres also that Nine Inch Nail song Starfucker that borrows those lyrics... maybe he meant something different?

lizriz said...

Bloody Hell!

I've had this damn song in my head all frikkin' weekend since reading this post.

And even worse, someone "sang" it at a Memorial Day BBQ this year, so it's not even the original stuck in my head, it's karaoke caterwauling.

Oy vey!

Anton said...

If James Taylor ever wore an apricot scarf, I don't wanna know about it. For me that line always conjured an image of Truman Capote.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't any thought on Carly's part that a few people might think the song was about them, make the song, in some small way, about them?

Personally, I think the song is directed at one person in particular with Simon probably realizing (as j.v. points out) that some other men might take it as being about them. Bonus burns.

To me, the rest of the lyrics, even assuming factually tweaked, point to one person: Mr. Main Vain. A vain personality type would do all the other things described in the song: rock bright metro scarfs, take off to anywhere on a whim and compliment his girl by referring to her as part of a 'pretty pair.' We can argue all day long whether these things implicate vanity, but well-reasoned definitions of what actually constitutes vanity may be out of place in a textual interpretation of Carly Simon's musical motives. Just saying ;)

Anyhow, if the other behaviors described in the song are also about Mr. Main Vain, then he can both know the song is about him and still be vain. He's got vanity back-up.

I dunno, my mom thinks it's about a good friend of Taylor's.

Lex

P.S. Hey Jaime, do you really want to know the deal with this song,or is this some logic-exercise game you've been kickin around to later sell as lsat prep? Personally, I just care way too much about the song. I'll probably be thinking on your theory for days. Like, serious pre-bedtime and staring into the stars thinking. Damn you.

TMS said...

Whitman, the song is about Carly, and her feelings about the way he acts and treats her. His focus on himself in reaction to hearing the song accentuates the fact that he has never had any access to her feelings, or the effect on them that his actions have.

Anonymous said...

How does thinking oneself to be the subject of a negative song make you vain? Wouldn't that make you either a)honest with yourself, if you're actually the subject or b)self-effacing, if you're not?