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Christa Lawler column: Off-roading into the cultural wilds

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We started out by Googling the ingredients for an El Presidente. We got distracted and instead searched for the filmography of a certain child star.

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Eventually we had completely lost the original mission. We found ourselves deep in the chronicle of a mysterious man’s hubris — events that occurred before either of us were born.

“I’ve always thought she’s talking about James Taylor,” he said.

I didn’t even have a guess. Not yet, at least.

I call this “off-roading.” When a Cuban drink leads to 1980s children’s programming leads to a fresh re-fascination with Carly Simon’s song “You’re So Vain.”

We could never retrace this route, but here we are and we’re staying.

Not all Wikipedia pages are created equal, but the one for this song is a gripping read. It doesn’t even matter if it’s 100 percent true. The story spun on this page of the Internet is lousy with intrigue and befits one of the Greatest Unsolved Pop Culture Mysteries of Our Time.

For those without a reverence for 40-year-old gossip, here’s a quick summary: Carly Simon writes a song with a punch-line twist. Her muse is an apricot scarf-wearing, Learjet-flying, ponies-playing man who is “so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.”

So who is it about? Carly isn’t publicly saying. Not in 1972 when it was released; probably not today.

But within the Wikipedia entry, plenty of names are proposed and dismissed: Mick Jagger, Nick Nolte, James Taylor, Warren Beatty, David Bowie, David Cassidy. And every so often, Simon makes a public proclamation: It’s a mix of men! It’s one man and his name contains the letters A, E and R!

One of the ultimate disses in all of this is that Simon’s ex-husband Jim Hart says the song isn’t about anyone famous. So if the subject chooses to believe this song is about him — and the subject would, Carly bets — then he must also believe that his stock has since plummeted into that “not-a-celebrity” place.

Every once in a while Simon reveals the secret to someone. A TV exec bought the answer for $50,000 at a charity auction in 2003. Simon told Taylor Swift when the two performed the song as a duet in 2013.

I like to imagine Swift, all ponytail and Keds, receiving this information. Her lipsticked mouth forming a perfect Target logo as Simon whispers the name into her ear.

Swift responding: “Ohhh, really? Wait. Warren who?”

Truthfully, in the case of this song, knowing will never be as fun as not knowing.

Some have blindly believed for years that the answer was clear.

“Everyone knows it’s Mick Jagger,” my mom tells me.

And, frankly, she’s a little unsteady because finally, finally we’re talking about a piece of pop culture that is in her wheelhouse.

“Anyway,” she says. “You should definitely download her ‘Tapestry’ album. It’s just fantastic.”

I’m sure it is. Except that’s not Carly Simon, that’s Carole King. So here we go off-roading again.

Christa Lawler is the News Tribune’s Arts & Entertainment reporter.

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Christa Lawler
(218) 279-5536
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