In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The subliminal dis has been a crucial part of rap music for decades. Rappers talk shit about each other, but they generally do it without naming names, and that leaves fans to play connect-the-dots with whatever clues the rappers leave, using pure conjecture to put together these behind-the-scenes narratives that we all like to imagine happening. But the subliminal dis isn’t just limited to rap. Taylor Swift has been playing around with it for most of her career, using the tabloid storylines of her dating life to add intrigue to her songs and dropping cryptic clues into her lyric sheets. Lately, Ariana Grande has been using the form, too. And 46 years ago, Carly Simon may have perfected the artform with “You’re So Vain.”
For decades, Carly Simon has played coy about “You’re So Vain.” The song itself is a provocation and a challenge and a meta-commentary on itself: “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.” If she ever said who, exactly, the song was about, she’d defang its central message and give the song’s asshole target (or its asshole targets) the satisfaction of knowing. The song’s power comes from us not knowing who it’s about, and from us wanting to know.
So in the years since the song hit #1, Simon has been playing games with it. She’s ruled out possibilities, saying that the song definitely isn’t about Mick Jagger, who sings uncredited backup vocals on it, or about James Taylor, whom she married a few months before the song hit #1. (They divorced in 1983.) Simon has said that the person’s name includes a few particular letters. She’s given famous friends and well-wishers the answers in confidence, and none of those famous friends has spilled the beans. In 2003, she raised $50,000 for charity by auctioning off the identity of the song’s target. The TV executive Dick Ebersol paid that much just to know, since one of the conditions of the deal was that he couldn’t reveal it publicly.
Just a few years ago, Simon came out and said that the song is actually about three different dudes, and that the second verse — the “you had me several years ago, when I was still quite naïve” one — was about Warren Beatty, long one of the rumored targets of the song. (Other rumored targets: Kris Kristofferson, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, session guitarist Dan Armstrong.) Warren Beatty, meanwhile, has always said that the whole song is about him. But he would say that. He’s so vain.
It’s hard to imagine anyone better-suited to the early-’70s singer-songwriter moment than Carly Simon. Like a lot of her peers, she was glamorous in the old East Coast aristocratic way. She’d grown up in Riverdale, the rich Bronx enclave, with rich intellectual parents. (Her father co-founded the publishing house Simon & Schuster.) She was beautiful in a vivid and singular way. She was a willing participant in the Laurel Canyon soap opera, dating a few famous guys before marrying James Taylor. And she was a songwriter capable of writing something like “You’re So Vain,” which cannily seized on the public fascination with that whole soap opera while commenting on that fascination so cleverly that it remains an object of fascination itself, long after that scene has faded.
Simon and her sister Lucy had started recording folk music together in the early ’60s, when they were teenagers; their duo the Simon Sisters had some minor success. Carly Simon went solo in 1970 and released her self-titled debut a year later. It was an instant success. Simon went top-10 with the single “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” (peaked at #10, a 6), and she won the Best New Artist Grammy that year. But “You’re So Vain” was the moment she leveled up and became a star.
Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” as a folk song, but producer Richard Perry had the idea to crank it up and turn it into something bigger. And the song really does kick hard. It’s got the lush instrumentation of a lot of the era’s singer-songwriter stuff, but it also has that terse, mean bassline. There’s a percussive force to the song’s pianos, its strings, and its squawking guitar solo. And then there’s Mick Jagger’s voice, which becomes obvious the second you hear it. Harry Nilsson was originally slated to sing backup on the song, but Mick Jagger came to visit Simon in the London studio where she was recording, and Nilsson decided that Jagger was better for the song than he was.
But the song’s real power comes from Simon herself. The song is such an elegant skewering of a certain type of dude. It’s so full of extremely specific details: “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht / Your hat strategically dipped below one eye / Your scarf, it was apricot,” “Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga, and your horse naturally won / And then you flew your Lear up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.” No wonder people are still speculating about the song. That’s such a rich, vivid image of a particular man, and it’s only natural to want to know what famous man is this much of a peacocking dick in real life. (The answer, of course, is probably all of them.)
A funny thing about “You’re So Vain”: It’s not an angry song. Instead, it’s a protracted, theatrical eye-roll. Simon doesn’t hate the man (or men) of the song. She just finds them faintly ridiculous, even if she can admit that she’s been attracted to them, that she maybe still is. Simon also depicts these men as being terribly glamorous figures. And because she shows that she can see through all their bullshit, she makes herself more glamorous than them. It’s a power move.
Carly Simon would never get back to #1 after “You’re So Vain,” though she got close with her late-’70s Bond theme. But has had a pretty great career, cranking out texturally rich singer-songwriter tunes throughout the ’70s before contributing a whole lot of songs to a whole lot of movie soundtracks in the ’80s. (She won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for “Let The River Run,” her theme for the 1988 movie Working Girl.)
My favorite fun fact about Simon is that she was instrumental in getting John Forté, the formerly Fugees-affiliated rapper, out of prison. In 2000, Forté was arrested smuggling 31 pounts of liquid cocaine — more than a million dollars’ worth — through Newark International Airport, and he was sentenced to 14 years of prison time. But Forté was friends with Ben Taylor, Carly Simon and James Taylor’s son; Ben and Forté had gone to the fancy prep school Exeter together. And before he was sentenced, Forté released a song he’d recorded and co-written with Carly Simon. So Carly Simon reached out to another collaborator: the Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. (Simon had recorded “Are You Lonely Here With Me?,” a country song that Hatch had written.) And in 2008, just before he left office, George W. Bush commuted John Forté’s sentence. Carly Simon is so vain that she got George W. Bush to free a rapper who’d carried a giant bag of liquid cocaine through an airport.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Mountain Goats’ bare-bones boom-box-era cover of “You’re So Vain,” recorded for the never-released ’90s album Hail And Farewell, Gothenburg:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “Starfuckers, Inc.,” a song from the 1999 Nine Inch Nails double album The Fragile, Trent Reznor used the “You’re So Vain” hook to impale Marilyn Manson. Here’s the video:
(Speaking of Marilyn Manson, he recorded his own version of “You’re So Vain” in 2012, with Johnny Depp playing guitar and drums.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Janet Jackson sampled “You’re So Vain” on the 2000 Missy Elliott collaboration “Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You),” and Carly Simon sang backup vocals on it. “Son Of A Gun” became a single, and it peaked at #28. Here’s the video:
(Janet Jackson will, of course, appear in future editions of this column. But Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single to date is 2002’s “Work It,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)
THE 10S: Curtis Mayfield’s absurdly slick blaxploitation funk anthem “Superfly” peaked at #8 behind “You’re So Vain.” It’s a 10.