Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Carly Simon as Mistress of Schlock

The first time I heard Carly Simon's "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be" I almost stopped the car to cheer. In the wake of that stark opening, hooking as effectively as the catchiest guitar riff--"My father sits at night with no lights on"--the calculated drama of the song would probably have grabbed me in any context. The married people the lyrics described sounded like friends and acquaintances whose suffering belied pop music's wedding-bell clichés, and the persona singing the lyrics was any number of women I knew. But that wasn't why I was excited. I was excited because they were all on the radio.

It was relatively unimportant that a truth I knew had been articulated. In the subculture to which that truth applies, articulation is commonplace. In fact, it is frequently a cop-out, a substitute for doing something more concrete--like proffering support to isolated fellow spirits over the radio, for instance, or promulgating a new image of woman. A man spurning marriage because love ties you down, babe, is one thing. A woman questioning marriage because marriage so often destroys love is another. I liked the nonethnic directness of Simon's vocal stance, neither phony funky nor sweetly sickening. Good propaganda, I thought.

That was late fall of 1970. I heard the song a few more times, but it wasn't a hit, and when I got the album, I was disappointed. That nonethnic accent turned out to be pure ruling-class honk--Carly was from a ritzy publishing family--and her brother had contributed some high-tone cover photos that did as much for the image of woman as an issue of Vogue. More important, only two songs on the album really came through: "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be," with lyrics not by Simon but by Jacob Brackman, and another Brackman song that I knew (and liked better) in an earlier version by Fred Gardner. Listening again as I write, I feel sure I was right. Except for "One More Time," Simon's compositions still sound stiff and overperformed, typical rock-as-art jive. At the time I closed my ears and hoped she would go away.

Instead, the album got good reviews--mostly because its sociocultural milieu was so familiar to reviewer types, I suspect, although the distinctiveness of Simon's singing style can't be denied. Many months passed before the single finally hit and the pressure of radio exposure blew it apart. "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be" is in the noble tradition of "Leader of the Pack" and "Society's Child." In all three a young woman's challenge to the social limitations of romance is milked for melodrama, and in all three, realistically enough, she capitulates. Of course, Simon's song comes on more sophisticated, although it's worth noting that "Society's Child" seemed equally sophisticated five or six years ago. In any case, sophistication ruins Simon's song. Only in such a painstakingly precise song would the hazy outline of its persona--who talks like a recent college graduate yet claims that her college friends have already alienated their children, a process that normally takes ten years or so--be so noticeable. And only in such a wordy song would the basic principles of schlock pop-melodrama production be flouted so arrogantly. Its shock absorbed, the song was simply no fun to hear. I can only assume that those who bought it would rather contemplate a record than listen to it.

As her career progressed, I liked her less. It seemed to me that she epitomized women's lib as an upper-middle-class movement. Girls and young women empathized with her problems and her projected independence without understanding that her independence was primarily a function of economic privilege. Boys and young men found her attractive because she was autonomous in theory and dependent in practice, the ideal combination. Then she married James Taylor, which I took as a cross between Julie Nixon marrying David Eisenhower and Warner Bros. merging with Elektra.

And then there was "You're So Vain," a record so wondrously good-bad that it eventually overcame every one of my prejudices. Verbally, it is so overblown that I can only assume Simon is parodying her own hubris. Why else would she rhyme "yacht" (in a simile that shilly-shallies instead of specifying), "apricot" (in one of the song's numerous syntactical awkwardnesses), and "gavotte" (a dance that has been dead for two hundred years) or stick in impossibly clumsy qualifiers like "strategically" and "naturally"? What does "clouds in my coffee" mean? Why does she transgress against colloquial speech rhythms at every opportunity? And who cares?

Not me, because the song is recorded the way I always thought "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be" should be. Since "You're So Vain" is such a name-dropper's delight anyway, it is worth mentioning that its producer, Richard Perry, is married to the daughter of George Goldner, who in conjunction with producer Shadow Morton was responsible for both "Leader of the Pack" and "Society's Child." Perry has specialized in bringing performers as diverse as Captain Beefheart, Tiny Tim, Theodore Bikel, and Barbra Streisand into the pop mainstream, and he's done just the same for Carly Simon. From the unmistakably eerie percussion that introduces the track right through Mick Jagger's off-harmonies on the final chorus, the song is a schlock masterpiece. It puts Ms. Simon exactly in her place.

In the name of honesty, in the name of what is fair, I have to admit that Simon's third album, No Secrets, is much superior to the first two. This time it is the Brackman lyrics that sound forced, while most of Simon's own songs are likable enough. Significantly, "Embrace Me You Child," a song about how good her own family was for her, works best. Simon's independent pose is crumbling fast, and that's just as well--the task of redefining the female image can be left to stronger, braver women. It is appropriate that the song that establishes Simon's stardom more or less permanently, "You're So Vain," is about the aristocracy of pop decadence in which she moves so easily, albeit with all the usual easy misgivings. I'm so vain that I know the song isn't about me, and I hope everyone who feels the same is as glad about that as I am.

Newsday, Jan. 1973
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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