'You're So Vain' Is About David Geffen, Or Maybe Not: It Doesn't Matter : Monkey See Carly Simon whispers "David" backwards, and conclusions are jumped to about the origins of "You're So Vain," and none of them are really important, if you understand what the song is driving at.
NPR logo 'You're So Vain' Is About David Geffen, Or Maybe Not: It Doesn't Matter

'You're So Vain' Is About David Geffen, Or Maybe Not: It Doesn't Matter

Well, the Sun says, and the Daily Mail says that "You're So Vain," which Carly Simon has spoken about only coyly for almost 40 years, is about record producer David Geffen, who was running her label back in 1972, when the track came out. This is now being reported in terms such as "Carly Simon has announced" that the song is about David Geffen.

Here, I have two thoughts.

A. This seems like an enormous leap, based on the available evidence.

B. Who cares?

This entire theory is apparently based on the fact that she can be heard whispering "David" backwards during a new version of "You're So Vain" that's on her upcoming album Never Been Gone. Note that she does not say "David Geffen, record producer."

Doubts, and why it doesn't make any difference, after the jump.

There is indeed, if you listen to the backwards part of the clip posted on the Sun story, a whispering voice that appears to say "David." She said in an interview that this whisper would be a clue to who the song was about. So she's asserting that the solution to the mystery -- which she has repeatedly said she could never share -- is the word "David."

That's it? She says "David," and Geffen is the only David she could possibly have been talking about? I mean, if she said "Arsenio," that would be one thing, but ... "David"?

The Telegraph suggests others -- David Cassidy! David Bowie! David Crosby! -- but The Sun and The Daily Mail have arrived at Geffen, and their conclusion has been repeated far and wide. But Entertainment Weekly (whose writer comes down in about the same place I do) has a statement from her rep, who says, "It's just a clue. There are lots of Davids."

No kidding.

Carly Simon performs in May 2008. Noel Vasquez/Getty Images hide caption

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Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

It's critical to note that Carly Simon has been gleefully yanking people's chains about this forever. Her own web site has a list of all the hints she's dropped, including that the name has an "R" in it. Now, Geffen's middle name is apparently Lawrence, but if she's including middle names, then she's engaging in quite a feat of misdirection, and whispering "David" backwards would be no more misleading than that. How they're jumping from "she whispers 'David' backwards" to "the mystery is solved, and it's David Geffen!" is sort of baffling. Unless there's something here they're not sharing, it seems like rather a flimsy argument. Maybe "David" was a pet name. Maybe "David" was the name of the guy's dog. She said it was "the answer to the puzzle," not the name of the guy.

In any event, who cares?

The entire point of the song is that the song is not about who it's about, right? That's what makes it such a cutting, spot-on shot at vanity in the first place. "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you." Because you're vain; that's why you think it's about you.

Sure, the verses are descriptive of someone, but she's already said it's kind of a composite of guys, and that makes perfect sense. She is drawing a picture of a general vain jerk, and saying, "This goes out to all the vain jerks who are such vain jerks that they assume any song about a vain jerk is about them specifically, because they are just that vain." It's a Mobius strip of delusion, where if it were really about you, it wouldn't be so vain of you to think it was.

In that sense, it's quite brilliant, and it gets at the frustrating experience of dealing with vanity in a way that's far, far more clever than this guessing-game business gives it credit for. Trying to narrow it down to a specific person it is actually "about," rather than recognizing it as a witty exercise that goes so far as to get Mick Jagger to sing backing vocals as a tease (come on now, that was genius, having a notoriously vain guy spitting out "so vaaaain" behind her) misses the entire point.

The Chicago Sun-Times had this to say: "Warren Beatty, you're off the hook. The song wasn't about you."

Not so fast, there, Warren.

If indeed the details of the song -- or more specifically the verses -- are based on David Geffen -- or David Cassidy, or David Bowie, or David Crosby, or David The Guy Who Works At The Sizzler -- and then the chorus of the song says, "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you," then if Warren Beatty immediately assumed the song was about him, it both was and was not -- that's the joke.

In fact, Simon once said of Warren Beatty, "He certainly thought it was about him." Remember the words? "You prob'ly think this song is about you"? Compare that to "he certainly thought it was about him." She's a writer; that's not an accident. To me, she's saying, "He's sure the guy in the chorus, whether or not he's the guy in the verses."

It's about Warren Beatty and it's not about Warren Beatty; it's about a sort of Everydude, who hears words like "you had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte, and all the girls dreamed that they'd be your partner," and thinks, "Well, that's clearly about my wonderful self." The details are specific to a guy, or some guys, but the song is about narcissists, and how they frustrate you and you find yourself thinking about them even when you know better -- whether or not the details of Saratoga and Lear jets are specific to David Geffen or anybody else.