Story Behind The Song: Who was Carly Simon’s hit ‘You’re So Vain’ actually about?
Carly Simon’s popularity owes much to her simple, relatable and candid lyrics. As her admirer Rae Jepsen correctly stated, “In truth, I think I’m inspired by her for many reasons, I think her music is amazing. I love the way she writes, which is very – almost to the point. There’s not a lot of – I want to say there’s not a lot of metaphor to it. I think it’s really relatable and honest.” The teen pop sensation Taylor Swift also expressed similar awe when she said, “She has always been known for her songwriting and her honesty. She’s known as an emotional person but a strong person…I think she’s always been beautiful and natural and seems to do it all effortlessly.” Maybe it was this transparency and frankness that made the audience believe that the subjects of her songs were exclusively personal.
So, when Simon’s career-defining song ‘You’re So Vain’ came out in 1972, it triggered a suppressed excitement among her listeners, all of whom instantly occupied themselves in a guessing game. The song, whose catchphrase was “you’re so vain/ You probably think this song is about you,” was deduced and analysed to a great extent in order to find out which of Simon’s ex-lover was it referring to.
Simon enjoyed the buzz that the song created and dropped a few clues like a quiz master time and again. She initially claimed the song to be an improvisation of ‘Bless You, Ben’ which started off with the lines: “Bless you, Ben. You came in when nobody else left off.” The half-written song was shelved due to a lack of ideas until Simon heard a friend talking about a male guest at a party who walked in as if he was “walking onto a yacht.” This changed the dynamic of ‘Bless You, Ben’ encouraging Simon to complete the composition and change its name.
Simon said in a 1972 interview after the song became a hit single peaking at number one position in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, that it wasn’t about a specific “man” but “men” in general. But this vague answer didn’t satisfy the inquisitive souls who had already made a list containing the names of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, David Cassidy, Cat Stevens and so on.
The argument on Mick Jagger’s favour had some ground as he contributed to the uncredited backing vocals in the song. But Simon dismissed it by saying “The apricot scarf was worn by Nick [Delbanco]. Nothing in the words referred to Mick [Jagger].” With one robust competitor’s name being struck off the list, it left the public and media all the more restless.
Simon most likely enjoyed the way people invested and got attached to the song a lot. Soon she teased their imagination by dropping clues like letters of the subject’s name. In 2003 she promised to reveal the name to the highest bidder of the Possible Dreams charity auction of Martha’s Vineyard. Derek Ebersol, the then president of NCB Sports, turned out to be that lucky person. However, the knowledge came with a condition; He could not reveal the name. “Carly told me that I could offer up to the entire world a clue as to what she’ll tell me when we have this night in about two weeks. And the clue is: The letter ‘E’ is in the person’s name,” said Ebersol.
This game went on for a longer time than anyone could have imagined. On November 4th, 2009, during her WNYC interview, she claimed that the name was hidden in the new recording of the song. When the program crew came up with the answer ‘David’ the very next day, which they heard being whispered in the song, Simon contradicted it. She pulled the same mischievous stunt in again in 2010, leaving the people fanatical.
That said, one person who literally believed that the song was about him was Warren Beatty. During a 2007 interview, he said, “Let’s be honest. That song was about me.” Though Simon dodged the question earlier in 1983 saying “certainly thought it was about him—he called me and said thanks for the song,” she confirmed in 2015 during the promotion of her soon-to-be-published memoirs saying “I have confirmed that the second verse is Warren (Beatty)…Warren thinks the whole thing is about him.”
Just when people were about to find the answer to their decades-long question, Simon left them in an evermore tormenting position by revealing only one name, leaving out two or possibly three more as the song is said to have a fourth unrecorded stanza. One thing is for sure; Simon’s PR skills are unparalleled. People orbited around the song as tirelessly as planets go around the sun. All the while, Simon stood at the centre stage like a magician, with the spotlight on her, ready to reveal the cloaked mystery, bringing the audience to the edge of their seats.