May 10, 2009
Not A Rock Song for Mother’s Day
“You’re So Vain”
1972 | Electra
In honor of Mother’s Day, and as a gift for my mom (since I’m poor), I wanted to feature the work of someone she loves. I wanted to find a record that, when I heard it, instantly brought Mom to mind. But, of course, it also had to be something decidedly “un-rock” – that is, something without a driving back beat, a distorted electric guitar, or anything resembling grit. So I decided to cover a song that is as limp-dick as you can get, and, yet, is a song that I totally love despite itself (and despite it reminding me of my mom’s less than progressive tastes in music).
Say hello to me covering Carly Simon. I never thought this day would come.
“You’re So Vain” is clearly the most well-known song by the former Mrs. James Taylor (more mom-related trivia: my mom was at their show at Carnegie Hall the night they got married), as well as one of the 70s-pop radio staples that you can still hear 10 times a day if you select your radio stations carefully enough. Its ubiquity, and its mind-numbingly catchy chorus, make it a song that has not found its indie-rock “so lame its cool” half-ironic street cred. Maybe that’s because its lyrics and melody really are top notch, with some interesting and vivid imagery. Plus, the question has been raging, with some honest interest in finding the answer, for years: who is the song about?
This question is one of the great pop culture song mysteries of all time, along with the “Cranberry Sauce/I buried Paul” debate. It is of such importance to both the song’s popularity, as well as Simon’s celebrity, that her official website has a whole page with various radio/print/television interview excerpts about its inspiration. Some say Kris Kristoferson, some say Warren Beatty, others say Cat Stevens or Mick Jagger (who adds distinctive backing vocals on the later choruses). Whoever it is about, the lyrics paint a clear picture of a colossal prick of his age – apricot scarf, floppy hat, checking himself out in the mirror (a mirror, undoubtedly, just used to snort a line of coke) and thinking he’s the life of the party.
But here’s the best part of the song – he is.
The titular character may be vain, he may think this song is about him, but it is. He clearly lights up the room when he walks in – Simon’s narrator is a spurned ex-lover who still seems attractive to this brute, as does every other girl in the room. Are you vain if the song really is about you?
Part of the reason this song has yet to be covered by some underground darling like Will Oldham is that really only Simon’s voice fits with the chorus melody – her range is impressive and powerful, she OWNS the tune. In fact, on the Mountain Goats’ cover, the chorus is never sung – perhaps because it has already been done as well as it could ever be sung.
But to me, the verses are where it’s at. The lyrics are funny in the first verse, heartbreaking in the second, and bitter in the third, the melody soaring above the uninteresting arrangement. In fact, the only real memory I have of the instrumentation is the sound of the cheesy string section that comes in on the chorus. “I had some dreams/ they were clouds in my coffee” – I’m not exactly sure what that means, but its heartbreaking and beautiful and I wish to God I had written it.
The funny part about this being a song that reminds me of my mom is that she is such a low-key person who truly puts others before herself, and is as self-deprecating as they come. She is the antithesis of vain. And yet, whenever I hear this song, I picture myself in the backseat of my mom’s white Peugeot station wagon, in a bathing suit, leaving the Cresskill Swim Club, with my legs sticking to the faux-leather seats and the seatbelt burning my hands while buckling in. So Happy Mother’s Day, mom – this article’s about you.
by Brian Salvatore
Simon performing “You’re So Vain” on VH1’s “Greatest Hits Live”: