Monday, April 18, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Carly Simon

The first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought was dated December 10, 1981, and featured Carly Simon on the cover. I'm trying not to let that influence my vote.

THE SONG: “You’re So Vain” may not be the greatest pop single ever, but you’d be hard-pressed to definitively claim that anything was better. For one thing, the whole meta concept of having Mick Jagger – anonymously – contribute backing vocals to a song celebrating vanity never fails to slay me. It was also a fluke: There was already a male singer harmonizing with Carly Simon on the choruses as she recorded "You're So Vain" that night in London in 1972, before Jagger dropped by the studio. But once Jagger started singing too, Harry Nilsson realized he was a third wheel and gracefully bowed out.

In addition, the greatest single employment of a word in an American pop song may well be the word "apricot": "Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/Your scarf it was apricot." Never has a single world so quickly defined its subject; the song could have ended right there, and we'd have gotten the point. "Apricot" is as pungent and distinctive a word as "gavotte," with which it is rhymed, but apricot has the virtue of being immediately understandable, whereas most people probably still don't know what "gavotte" means, and think they are mishearing that lyric.

It's not just that Carly is singing about a man who would wear a scarf that is the color apricot --which is some kind of mixture of salmon and orange, I guess, although I haven't seen the inside of a lot of apricots lately -- but that the gentleman in question would describe said scarf as being apricot. If I had a scarf that was apricot, and someone asked me what color it was, I'd probably say, "I dunno, something halfway between salmon and orange." This scarf was certainly bought from some ultra-chic boutique on Madison Avenue, and cost upwards of three figures, no doubt. 

THE CASE FOR: Is writing and recording "You're So Vain" enough to qualify you for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe, maybe not. Carly has a track record beyond that, though, with 12 other Top Ten hits and a serious resurrection in the 1980s with her soundtrack work for Heartburn and Working Girl, which won her a Best Song Oscar for "Let the River Run." To my ears, "Nobody Does It Better" is also the best James Bond theme - I love the way she works the movie title in there. Gotta keep pushing that product! 

Carly has been a huge influence on so many young female singer-songwriters - Janet Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tori Amos, Olivia Rodrigo. "I was a poetry-obsessed preteen the first time I heard that incredibly genius kiss-off, ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,’" Taylor Swift said. "After hearing that, it was like a key had just unlocked this forbidden area of storytelling for me. You can say exactly what you feel, even if it’s bitter and brazen!”

THE CASE AGAINST: Simon has faced a surprising amount of critical nastiness in her career, most notably from Robert Christgau, who grudgingly allows that "You're So Vain" is "so wondrously good-bad" and a "schlock masterpiece." Thanks, Bob! She has had trouble hitting notes almost from the beginning of her career, and her Sarah Lawrence-dropout lyrics can be a little precious. 

Plus, it's always bugged me that when Simon agreed to appear on Saturday Night Live, she would do so only in a prerecorded segment that looked a lot to me like a standard music video. But I guess I should stop holding that grudge. It isn't healthy.

THE VERDICT: I started this essay leaning toward a yes vote, but the more research I did (yes, I research these things), the more it became obvious that Carly Simon belongs.  Half the acts in the Hall don't have a song as good as "You're So Vain,"  and that's not her only credential. Plus, she doesn't have one of the common strikes that are held against women artists, since she wrote most of these songs. Carly Simon is an obvious YES for the Hall of Fame.


  1. (Sorry if this comes through twice - tried it from work and didn't think it got through.)

    Her filmed SNL appearance featured former professional percussionist Chevy Chase playing cowbell (or pretending to) while wearing some approximation of an apricot scarf. A better use of him than his similar appearance in the "You Can Call Me Al" video, IMHO.

    I also give Simon credit for creating and slyly feeding the whole "who's the song really about?" thing, which endured for years and years. I think she influenced Taylor Swift in the thinly-veiled-celebrity-heartbreak-lyrics thing.

    Finally, I can't give CS credit for working the movie title into "Nobody Does It Better," since she didn't write it. I do think it's the best Bond theme of all time, though.

    1. I was going to add that Simon had the distinctive status of having written a Top Ten hit about her own romantic celebrity misadventures, and having someone else do the same.
      However, Wiki informs me that "Her Town Too" (a) fell just short of the Top Ten and (b) was actually inspired by the divorce of Peter Asher, Taylor's producer.
      (Though Carly probably thought the song was about her.)