Two Songs That Ruined My Understanding of What Women Want: “You’re So Vain” and “The Sweater”

Posted on May 13, 2009


I humbly submit that two songs, one by Meryn Cadell and one by Carly Simon, are directly responsible for my lifelong misunderstanding of what most women really want and admire in a man. Perhaps, I should sue? If you were similarly damaged, maybe we could start a class action suit? I am sure these songs affected both boys and girls but I will give you my boy’s perspective. All other perspectives are welcome, as always, in the comments section.  

I grew up in the eighties and in the shadow of the boomers, as they led a life of constant and obsessive collective recollecting of their days gone by. Radio was my primary source of music and it was dominated by boomer retro-programming (W1310: Solid Gold Hits of the 50s, 60s, and 70s!). The music of my youth was more or less the youth-music of people who were a lot older than me. And a mainstay of Classic Hit Am Radio was — and probably still is — Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Here’s a Youtube clip of her playing it live: 

If the listener chooses to identify with the singer, the implication of the song is clear: this hyper-successful, confident guy, who gets all the girls is not what a woman really wants. Sure, she wanted him when she was young and naive, but now she is so totally over all that. Moreover, a mature sensible woman really shouldn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of guy. Based on this song, a young impressionable lad might also conclude: any man who wants a sensible, attractive, and talented woman better not aspire to be like the cool guy identified in the song. This resonated with my young brain and I internalized it: don’t be like the cool guy, don’t be like the cool guy, don’t be like cool guy.

Of course, at the time, I failed to understand some important nuances of the song. First, she is singing the narrative after she had been with Mr. Cool Guy and wanted him. Second, the song implies she was dumped or, at the very least, insufficiently cherished. Third, the easiest way for a person to make herself feel better about the loss of something which she wants is to pretend like she never really should have wanted it in the first place. So, the more sensible conclusion I should have drawn from this song is that the person addressed in it is exactly what most women want and that some women will pretend they don’t want it when they think they can’t have it. Sometimes, they will even try to convince others they shouldn’t want it either.   

Of course, the game Simon plays in this song is by no means gendered. Both boys and girls often mock or deride things which they themselves want but don’t have. Many a boy has mocked a friend for receiving the attentions of a girl precisely because he also desperately wanted the attention of the (any?) girl (um, sorry, young Wayne et al). For some, it makes more sense to scorn and mock that which is not possessed because, in doing so, the sense of lack might just disappear.

Curiously, our language facilitates this perverse strategy. We need only speak that which is desired with a particular tone and it immediately transforms into something that no sensible person could ever possibly desire. E.g. “Ice cream, who wants that?” “Who is Mr. / Ms. Popular now” (I feel confident we all know the tone implied by those italics). Moreover, there are a bunch of words which effectively identify the same behavior but cast it in a negative or positive light. Hello, virtues and vices, I’m looking in your direction. These features of language make me think we humans have been raining on each others parades for a long long time. 

Fast forward a few years. Do you remember when Muchmusic played music videos? in 1992, Meryn Cadell had a surprise Top 40 hit with “The Sweater”. I was young, impressionable, unduly influenced by the early writings of E. Hemingway, and doing my best not to be the popular guy (Thanks, Carly!). On reflection, it probably takes a lot more work not to be accepted by the tribe than it is to be accepted. At any rate, I watched a lot of music videos in between my moments of anti-hero solitary pathos (e.g. masturbation) and I often watched Cadell’s video. Here it is, in all it’s early nineties glory:

The key line which further reinforced and substantiated my total misunderstanding of what women really want: “And you know you are dealing with someone who is different. And different is not what you are looking for!”

Because the video is dripping with irony and largely poking fun at the “typical” teenage girl, my now technically adult brain concluded, “Aha! Girls should — and probably secretly prefer — someone who is different, unique, and very much like a snow flake: someone who is separate, stands away from the pack, tribe-less, etc. Teenager girls like hunky popular boys. Songwriting poetesses like alienated men: L’Etranger.  

In hindsight, I now know this to be hogwash. Girls do no want someone who is different. Girls want guys who are normal by the standards of the tribe with which she identifies. Guys can be different and desirable, so long as they are different exactly like everyone else in her tribe or whatever tribe she thinks (even secretly sometimes) is her tribe. Guys who are different and have no clear membership in any tribe are the lowest of the low. In other words, Cadell totally lied to me via her irony. Thanks a lot. 

Again, the unattractiveness of difference is not strictly-speaking a uniquely female trait. Most guys pretty much want a girl who accords with the standards of the tribe with which he identifies. Although I think there may be an asymmetry here best captured by our social conventions in fashion and especially formal wear. Women need to present difference, whereas guys blend in. Women dress to stand out in formal wear; male formal wear effectively makes all men look alike. Guys, I think, are more likely to admire and desire difference in women, especially if it is built on a foundation of sexual availability. 

At any rate, these songs, and a whole host of cultural forces of which they are symptomatic, are directly responsible for a massive misunderstanding on my part for the vast majority of my life. My misunderstanding: most women really want a man who is different, not especially admired by other people (especially women), and who is not especially aware of his status within the group with which she identifies. Reality: most women really want a man who accords with the norms of the tribe with which she identifies, is admired by lots of other people in that tribe, and acts in accord with that admiration. Ah well, live and learn.

Any one know a good lawyer?

For more post like this, click here.