It’s a few weeks since Rosalind Adam blogged about song lyrics and how they stick in the brain so readily, and ever since I’ve been going through songs in my head, wondering what makes them special to me. In the end I came up with the idea that my favourite lyrics mostly tell a story, not just the obvious story of a love affair ( although I like lots of those songs for other reasons!) but those that have a real narrative drive. The most obvious examples are traditional ballads. So I admit to having liked ‘The Crookit Bawbee’ (decipher the Scots and you’ll find a great tale of recognition!) even before I found Fairport Convention’s Matty Groves or The Corries’ Killiecrankie. But there are lots of examples in pop songs too, songs with strong characters and great stories, like Lennon & McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, Paul Simon’s The Boxer, or that old chestnut from Peter Saarsted Where Do You Go to My Lovely? – irresistible!
But if Kirstie Young were to come along with the offer of a desert island, the one I think I would choose to take along is Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, a story I never seem to tire of hearing, because it’s so well told. Think of the first verse, you walked in to a party like you were walking into a yacht ...’ by the time we’ve got to gavotte, we’re completely in the picture: here’s someone who well and truly fancies himself. But there’s more than description, there’s attitude too. All the girls might want to be his partner – but not this one – not any more. We just know the singer doesn’t like him much, an excellent example of ‘show not tell’!
The second verse is back story – just enough to fill in the history between these two. Okay, the singer was dumped, but it was a while ago. what’s her problem. Maybe just a case of a woman scorned?
The third verse is classic. Back to the present day – the celebrity lifestyle, the ‘see and be seen’ events But then comes the sting in the tail.
‘You’re where you should be all the time,
And when you’re not your with some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend,
wife of a close friend…’
So now we have it. Ex-lover didn’t just dump her, he’s also a liar and a cheat, someone who lets down his friends. So the villain is denounced and our heroine has claimed the moral high ground – just where we need her to be. We can picture the lover slinking off with his tail between his legs. Cue backing track, cue chorus – with gusto!
The lesson is obvious. A good story needs passion, a heroine, a villain. It needs to keep us interested and make us care what happened to both of them.
A decent tune and fantastic backing helps!
I’m kind of hoping someone will turn up with more suggestions for lyrics. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of the song in question. Not much of Carly in this version, but the words say it all.