The Glam Slam is now momentarily interrupted by this mysterious piece of music; mysterious, famously, because Simon has never actually said directly, to the public, who it is about. Oh, it’s about “men” in general she says at one time; then at another, it’s about one man, or three…but who it’s about doesn’t really concern me.
What interests me more than who it is? Why was it such an absolute hit in the first place (here because of good old Radio Luxembourg yet again)? A woman who was born into cultured wealth gets dumped by a man who moves in the same circles is not exactly hit song material, but if that was all the song was really about, then…but of course, it isn’t. This song is riding the crest of a mighty wave of feminism, particularly of the consciousness-raising variety, the kind that asks participants to speak out – to say what they have never said before, couldn’t even contemplate saying, that they have kept to themselves. To look at the bigger picture, and the small; the public and private intersecting – how men are, as well as how their relationships with men they know are.
The focus here is on the man and his vanity, as a symbol for men in general; the anger at this solipsism particularly comes in Simon’s growling of “sevv--veral years ago” and “blew your living up to Nova Scotia.” She was “quite naïve”, she was trusting; but now she is out there on the curb with whatever else he feels he doesn’t need anymore, her lovely dreams of his being loyal and their happy future adventures going up, vanishing like steam. The whole thing is a sham, because he is in love with himself. Why, even this song is about him, not her; even in her misery, her anger, he can only see himself reflected, and what a flattering reflection it is – to him*. He knows how to dance a gavotte! His horse won at Saratoga! All the girls dream about him, man. He is the man of mystery, hanging out with spies and friends’ wives. He is the stuff of gossip columns**, racy romance novels, you name it.
Simon could have kept this to herself, but something else was happening alongside feminism at this point, and that was the singer-songwriter movement, wherein women (primarily) could have their voices heard and express themselves – make the private public, and the public, private. Even if a woman didn’t know where the local consciousness-raising group was, if she had the latest albums by Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Dory Previn and Carly Simon – then she could hear something of her own life reflected in them. Ultimately who this song is about isn’t as important as the fact that it came hot on the heels of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (not a hit at all in the UK, but a US #1) and reflects that time, when women were stepping into rock, so to speak, with their own voices, their own views, their own experiences. (It didn’t hurt the song to have Mick Jagger appear on it either, and goodness knows it’s a better than anything on Goats Head Soup.)
This is a song for all women, and for that matter anyone who has been dumped (men like this song too, after all); there are few songs as righteously angry as this one, which has been covered and discussed and which still retains that mystery, which at its heart isn’t such a mystery, after all.
Next up: till the day you die? Really?
*Warren Beatty actually phoned Carly Simon to thank her for writing this song about him. I think this is, in its own way, proof that the song is indeed about him, whether it actually is or not. If he has realized the stupidity of this call yet, we may never know.
**Though not directly related to this song, I have to say that while gossip columns existed before the 70s, the 70s saw the rise of People magazine and celebrity-obsessed journalism, and this song reminds me of that Rona Barrett-dominated time, when the comings and goings of the famous became standard news, more or less.