Today's TMFW was written on a plane, and so it is a topic that is pretty straightforward and plane-writeable. It is the story of the (maybe) subjects of Carly Simon's big song "You're So Vain," and the one guy who knows for sure.
First, an observation (that upon Googling, has been observed by many other people too): the refrain of Ms. Simon's song taunts its subject, saying "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." But whoever it is that she is singing about, the song actually IS about them. So when that guy thinks the song is about him, he is totally right. That doesn't really make him vain so much as a correct observer of fact. Heavy stuff, man.
Okay, now to this week's entry. Carly Simon was 27 years old when she released "You're So Vain." It was the lead single off of her third album, and Simon's career was on the rise. She had won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1971, she had already had two top-20 songs – "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and "Anticipation" – and her second album Anticipation was on its way to being certified Gold. Just five weeks after its release in December, 1972, "You're So Vain" reached number 1 in the US, where it stayed for three weeks. The song also hit number 1 in Australia and Canada, and was top-5 in the UK and Ireland.
Shortly after the song's release, people started to speculate about its "so vain" subject. (For fellow Gen-Xers or younger readers – this was for a time a real thing that people talked about. Pop cultural literacy required one to at least know the candidates.) The lyrics are cryptic but suggest that the fellow is arrogant and philandering – the first verse describes him "walk[ing] into the party like [he was] walking onto a yacht" and "watch[ing himself] gavotte" in the mirror in an apricot scarf, the second notes that he "had [Ms. Simon] several years ago when [she] was still quite naïve," but that he "gave away the things [he] loved, and one of them was [her]," and the third accuses him of being with "some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend."
So who was the guy? There were two immediate front-runners: Warren Beatty (with whom Simon was briefly involved in 1971) and Mick Jagger (who sings uncredited background vocals on the record, who allegedly had a fling with Simon, and who was apparently interested in Angela Bowie, the "wife of [his] close friend" David Bowie). Other contenders were TMFWs 16 and 34 subject David Bowie himself, Cat Stevens (who Simon dated in the early 1970s and who inspired the song "Anticipation"), TMFW 42 subject David Geffen, her then-husband James Taylor, guitarist Dan Armstrong (whom she dated for more than two years and who was a cocky, "too cool for school" type of fellow), and even David Cassidy.
No doubt appreciating the commercial and publicity value of the debate, Carly Simon has embraced the mystery. She has alternatively obfuscated and hinted about it since the song came out. To that end, all of the various clues and denials and answers and un-answers about who "You're So Vain" is really about could be the subject of a TMFW all by itself. But it won't be – if you are so inclined, you can read about them all on this detailed Wikipedia entry for the song.
Instead, today's TMFW is that there's one guy who knows for absolutely positively sure who the song is about: the famous NBC television producer Dick Ebersol. In 2003, Simon agreed as part of a charity auction to reveal the subject's name to the highest bidder. Ebersol won, paying $50,000 for the answer. After he was sworn to secrecy, Simon played the song for him in a private performance, then whispered the name in his ear. Since then, Ebersol has honored his vow of silence, giving only the Carly Simon-approved and almost wholly unhelpful clue that the subject of the song has an "E" in his name.
So there's your TMFW for today: Carly Simon and Dick Ebersol turned a famously trivial (in all senses) question into a $50,000 charity donation. Credit to them.
(Oh, and it's totally Warren Beatty.)
BONUS FACT: At least two other people claim that Carly Simon told them the subject of "You're So Vain": radio DJ Howard Stern and…Taylor Swift. At first glance Ms. Swift's claim might seem strange – why would Carly Simon even be hanging out with Taylor Swift, much less telling her secrets? – but Swift is an avowed Carly Simon fan and has brought her out during a tour show to sing together. Here's an audience video of Simon and Swift singing "You're So Vain" together at Gillette Stadium near Boston; Swift's admiration for Simon is clear and it's a pretty decent cover. I am perhaps overly-sentimental, but it makes me happy that the World's Biggest Pop Star does stuff like singing duets (and sharing her bright spotlight) with the now-70-years-old Carly Simon.
BONUS FACT 2: Two of Ms. Simon's songs have been famously used in commercials. First, her 1971 hit "Anticipation" was the soundtrack of Heinz ketchup commercials in the late '70s that featured the stuff pouring out really slow and sexy-like. More recently, her Oscar/Grammy/Golden Globe winning song "Let The River Run" was used just after the 2001 anthrax scare in a really excellent U.S. Postal Service commercial.
BONUS THING ABOUT ME 2.5: No joke, I would someday like to be a letter carrier for the Postal Service.
BONUS FACT 3: Like the song-clue-sleuths who figured out Ice Cube's "Good Day" in TMFW 67 and (foreshadowing alert!) those who will be featured in next week's TMFW, some perceptive listeners clued in to Simon's lyric "you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun," and used astronomical data to figure out that the likely day Mr. Vain was up north was March 7, 1970. That is pointless and a waste of time and I love it.
BONUS FACT 4: Researching today's entry, I found this short CNBC clip where Simon talks about how she put the song together from three distinct parts. First, Simon thought of the phrase "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." She jotted it down in her ideas notebook, but had nothing to go along with it. Next, she was working on a song called "Bless You Ben," which created the melody, but with completely different words. Finally, she saw Mr. Vain come into a party and catch a glance at himself in the mirror as he walked through the room, and a friend commented to her that he had come into the party "like he was walking on to a yacht." Taking that as the first line, she stuck all of the parts together and the song was born.
CORRECTION: The title of last week’s Spinal Tap-themed TMFW suggested that Spinal Tap was “England’s loudest band.” In fact, the film makes clear that they are merely one of England’s loudest bands. TMFW did not mean to suggest Tap’s supremacy in this field; only its membership in the group. We regret the error.