Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2010

Last week I heard Melissa Block and Michele Norris on NPR, talking about Carly Simon’s 1973 hit “You’re So Vain”. In case you haven’t heard the song, here it is:

Every now and then over the years I’ve read something somewhere about who inspired the song. Apparently, it’s a persistent unsolved mystery of pop music, and in her recently released re-recording of the song, Simon supposedly whispers a clue as to the identity of this vain person. NPR had done a story on this the week before, and when I tuned in, they were reading a letter from a listener in response to it. Here’s what Melissa Block said:

A different mystery about Carly Simon’s song haunts Gerald Pollock of North Haven, Connecticut. He muses, “What I don’t get is the line ‘you probably think this song is about you’. But the song is about the vainee, whoever he may be. So why would she write that line?” Mr. Pollock continues, “That’s been bothering me for 37 years.”

“Vainee”? Well, that’s another blog post. However, I am sympathetic to Pollock’s question. I remember having the same reaction when I heard the song as a kid (except for the word vainee). One possibility I considered was that the song is not about Mr. Vain, but about some larger issue, and Mr. Vain is too vain to realize it. I even wondered if maybe Simon was trying to break through the fourth wall (if songs can be said to have a fourth wall), so that when the listener hears “you”, they are to interpret it not as some third party that Simon is addressing, but as themself. In other words, Simon is telling me (me!), “Hey, you! That’s right! You, Neal, sitting there in the car! You’re so vain that you probably think this song is about you!” But since I never went to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun, that possibility was out.

Then there’s the other possibility I considered. To wit: The song really is about Mr. Vain, but that’s not Simon’s point. The point is that he’s so very vain that he’s naturally just going to think this song is about him, whether it actually is or not.

I wondered why possibility #3 is so easily dismissed. I never was too confident about it, and if Mr. Pollock considered it, it didn’t make it into his letter. By saying, “You probably think this song is about you,” is Carly Simon saying that it’s not? No; she could easily go on to say, “… and it is about you.” My dad makes just such a rhetorical move in his latest blog post, when he writes

You might even begin to suspect that something other than slop oil was in the tank. You would be right.

Notice, however, the slight jarring when, instead of saying, “But in fact, something completely different was going on,” Dad says, “You would be right.”

The same thing happens in the very brief lyrics to “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends” (a silly poem set to a small segment of “Stars and Stripes Forever”). Take a listen, as this family of complete strangers to me cracks themselves up singing it:

In case you didn’t bother to watch the video, here’s how the lyrics go:

Be kind to your web-footed friends / for a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Be kind to your friends in the swamp / Where the weather is always damp.
You may think that this is the end. / Well, it is!

Of course, the humor comes from the violated expectation that this isn’t the end. This expectation comes from several factors, including the shortness of the lyrics, the unresolved feeling of the chord progression, the odd number of measures, but also from the signal sent by “You may think….”

In contrast, when Ric Ocasek sings, “You might think I’m crazy,” it’s no surprise at all when he follows it with, “but baby, it’s untrue.”

So again, why does saying, “You may think X” or “You probably think X” suggest so strongly that X is false? Two reasons: Relevance and Quantity.

The Maxim of Relevance (also referred to as the R-Principle) is that a cooperative speaker doesn’t say things that are irrelevant to the topic at hand. It can also be thought of as saying as little as you can get away with while still conveying the information you want to convey. Now if Carly Simon’s audience is hearing her sing about how vain someone is, you can expect the audience to conclude that the song is about that someone. That being the case, there’s no need for Simon to mention it explicitly. Since she does mention it explicitly, she seems to be violating Relevance, and the question is why. Is it because she thinks it’s unclear who the song is about? If that’s the case, then why does she say that you probably do think the song is about Mr. Vain, instead of that you probably don’t?

So from here you move on to other possible reasons for saying “You probably think this song is about you.” One thing the line does is acknowledge a thought that the audience might be having. Since a common rhetorical technique is to acknowledge an opponent’s point of view before arguing against it, maybe that’s what’s going on: Simon is getting ready to tell us that the song isn’t really about Mr. Vain. And there the confusion begins in earnest, since all she does is go on to the next verse.

The Maxim of Quantity (also referred to as the Q-Principle) is that the cooperative speaker should be as specific as possible. Of course, if you’re too specific you violate Relevance, so saying anything is a balancing act between Q and R. So now suppose the line had been

You probably know this song is about you.

Unlike think, the verb know presupposes that the clause that follows it (in this case this song is about you) is true. (In semanticists’ terms, know is a factive verb.) If you think X, X might or might not be true. If you know X, that means you think X and furthermore that X is actually true. (Assuming that you’re telling the truth, that is. If you say, “I know Fred stole my gum!” and it turns out that Fred didn’t do it, then you’ve simply made a factually incorrect assertion, because I know Fred stole my gum! was not the truth.) Knowing X is more specific than thinking X. For that reason, if you want to respect Quantity, you shouldn’t say think when you have enough information to say know.

So when Simon, who knows who the song is about, says, “You probably think this song is about you” instead of “You probably know this song is about you,” it’s probably because she knows that the song really isn’t about you — the same conclusion that Relevance is pushing us toward.

Of course, if Simon had said, “You probably know this song is about you,” that would have violated Relevance as much as “You probably think is song is about you,” but given the semantics of know, the song would still have to be about Mr. Vain. Instead of wondering who the song was really about, puzzled listeners would just be wondering why Simon included that line when it was obvious that the song was about whoever you referred to.

All in all, I’d say the continuing speculation over Mr. Vain’s identity is probably due in no small part to Carly Simon’s seeming violation of both Quantity and Relevance in the “Vain” refrain. Without it, the song is like any other song I about someone who did done the singer wrong, but most of them don’t inspire repeated public discussions of who (if anybody) inspired them. I haven’t heard of it happening with “You’re No Good” or “Insensitive”. The mystery is probably also fueled by the fact that “You’re So Vain” is written and performed by the same person, unlike the others I mentioned. Personally, what I’m more curious about is the significance of clouds in one’s coffee — though now that I’ve checked out Carly Simon’s answer on, I can’t say I’m much more enlightened than I was before.

7 Responses to “You Probably Think This Song Is About You”

  1. Glen said

    Well, now both Whitman brothers have blogged about “You’re So Vain.” But I beat you by about 5 years!

  2. kip said

    There’s lot of speculation about who inspired “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette. (The most commonly cited answer is Dave Coulier, a.k.a. Uncle Joey from Full House). I don’t think there are any violated maxims in the lyrics (though I haven’t really studied these things).

  3. I think a lot of kids spent their time pondering this song when they first heard it in childhood. Eventually, I came up with this interpretation:

    It’s Ironic. Specifically:

    1.”You are a vain person – for example, you think that I am obsessed with you”.
    2.”Writing a song criticising you for being vain is in fact only going to add to your vanity, since it adds to your perception that I am obsessed with you”.
    3.”Nevertheless, self-deprecatingly, I will acknowledge that I am obsessed with you (specifically your vanity), because I want to point this vanity out. You may think this song is about you (it reflects my obsession with you) – and in fact, you’re right, but not in the way you would think (it reflects your own vanity)”.

  4. The Ridger said

    Funny. I never had any trouble decoding that to mean “you are so vain that even though I mention no names you think this song – and any song I sing, in fact – is about you”. In fact, I never even wondered about it. It would have been stronger had she put a different name in (let’s say, Rod) when it was about (let’s say) Mick, and was accusing Mick of being so vain that even though she *said* it was about Rod Mick just knew it was about him. But it still always made perfect sense to me; so much so that I never gave it a second thought.

    Now, I kinda like Monkeytypist’s view …

  5. Ran said

    Late-breaking: Simon has now stated that the song is about three different men; she didn’t identify all three, but she did say that the second verse is about Warren Beatty, and that he “thinks the whole thing is about him”.

    How does that affect the song’s violations of Grice’s maxims? Is Simon off the hook now?

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