I very much enjoyed the deep thoughts about “You’re So Vain” in this post at the economics blog Cheap Talk, entitled “Carly Simon and Interactive Epistemology.” The gist is that the song sets vanity and humility into an endlessly recursive dialectic, like a set of M.C. Escher stairs.
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.
Really, if you write a pop song complaining about someone else’s vanity, aren’t you just feeding it? Don’t you become the problem then? It seems that the song sets out to condemn vanity but instead makes it seem pretty compelling and attractive. If you believe Simon, the song is about a composite of several men, each of whom falls into the vanity trap once they think it is exclusively about them. I was always under the impression the song was supposed to be about Warren Beatty, and also always thought it was genius to have Mick Jagger do “uncredited” backup vocals that stand out so prominently in the mix.
The Cheap Talk post barely scratches the surface of the song’s many conundrums. Consider, for example, this line: “You’re where you should be all the time and when you’re not you’re with some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend.” If he is where he should be all the time, how could he then not be? Is being with the underworld spy where he should or shouldn’t be? Is he in two places at once? Perhaps the point is to make the claim that he is a metaphysical contradiction. Are the wife and the spy the same person?
My best guess is that the incoherency of the lyrics make the song ring true as an expression of relationship frustration.