January 6 marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark song “You’re So Vain” going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Carly Simon‘s biggest hit of all-time. It’s often been regarded as the greatest mystery song to ever hit the charts, a song that’s been the subject of many a guess as to whom Simon is actually referring to; a man who is so vain that he thinks that the song is about him. In a bit of irony, the album it’s included on is called No Secrets, which also took a fast rise to the top. Maybe it was intentional. We’ll go through the clues later on in this post. First, the statistics.
The chart action on “Vain” was super fast and it was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. On Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, it debuted at #99 on the date of December 2, 1972, bolting to #60 the next week, and then to #37 on December 16. The week before Christmas, it soared all the way up to #8, a 29-spot leap, the fourth biggest climb within the top 40 of all-time. So, after a holiday break (when “Vain” rose to #4), it was no surprise that it stood at #1 beginning on that January 6, 1973 date and stayed there for three weeks. It was in the top ten through early March, but suddenly sank, from #11 to #26 to #49 and then out entirely, all before the month was over. It ranked as the #9 song of the year and the #29 song of the decade. Obviously, it’s very well-remembered today, more so than any of her other songs. This is all despite having other big hits after her only chart-topper, like “Mockingbird” with then-husband James Taylor and “Nobody Does It Better”.
The song itself was produced by Richard Perry, sometimes referred to as “The Hit Doctor” for reviving many careers of faded singers in the late 1970’s. This was one of his earlier numbers. Simon wasn’t in a rut career-wise, more of an up-and-comer. Lyrically, it tells of a man who goes to parties and is admired by women, saw a solar eclipse in Nova Scotia, and went to Saratoga Springs, where he bet on a horse and it won the race. He’s clearly a lucky guy, but once Simon’s poison pen struck the page, everyone was wondering who exactly it could be.
So, the suitors – which of them made Simon so frustrated that she had to write a song about them? Well, according to her, it’s a “composite of three men” from her days living in Los Angeles. Mick Jagger was initially suggested to be one of them; he does the background vocals on the song and Simon took a liking to him for a while. However, this was proven to be not true. James Taylor was also proposed as he was married to the singer; Simon denied it. Actor Warren Beatty has always been seen as one of the leading candidates and Simon has stated at least on one occasion that it’s partially inspired by him. The list goes on and on.
A number of letters found in the names of the men have been revealed over the years: A, E and R, not that it does much for the detective in us. There are also three names whispered backwards in the song: “Warren”, referring to Beatty, “David”, and one that can’t be clearly heard. The second name was initially thought to be referring to label head David Geffen, but Simon’s publicist said that the rumor was untrue. Singers David Bowie and David Cassidy have also been suggested to fill that slot; no word on whether one of them is indeed the “David”. There’s also been a suggestion of Dan Armstrong, a guitarist, as the name of the person that can’t be made out. He and Simon were together for quite some time before they both went onto other relationships.
Whoever it may or may not be, the song did exactly what Simon wanted: fostered a discussion that will likely never end. Maybe we don’t want to know who the song is about. It’s influenced thousands of other performers to write their own breakup songs without revealing the name of who it’s actually about. Some have one, some have too many. (Taylor Swift.) Yet, “Vain” is always going to be seen as the one that started it all, the perfect mix of great instrumentation and a heavy lyric that makes you think. Happy anniversary, Carly.