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#BornThisDay: Singer / Songwriter, Janis Ian

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1967, WNYC via YouTube

 

April 7, 1951Janis Eddy Fink:

“I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles, who married young and then retired.”

I purchased my first Janis Ian single, Society’s Child, at 14-years-old, brought to my attention by a high school friend.  It is a song about an interracial romance forbidden by a girl’s mother and frowned upon by her peers and teachers. It was released three times from 1965 to 1967, Society’s Child finally became a big hit on its third release after Leonard Bernstein featured on a television special  Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.

After the Bernstein’s show, Verve Records started heavily promoting Society’s Child and some radio stations started playing it. But just as many radio stations refused to play the song. Ian started to receive hate mail and death threats and a radio station in Atlanta that played it was a victim of arson. In the summer of 1967, Society’s Child reached Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the single sold a million copies. The single was in the Top 10 in many cities, but owing to resistance in many radio markets, it suffered the fate of several other controversial pop hits of the 1960s.

Ian grew up in East Orange, NJ, in a neighborhood predominantly populated by African-Americans and she was one of very few mixed-race kids in her school. Ian:

“I saw it from both ends. I was seeing it from the end of all the civil rights stuff on the television and radio, of white parents being incensed when their daughters would date black men, and I saw it around me when black parents were worried about their sons or daughters dating white girls or boys. I don’t think I knew where I was going when I started it, but when I hit the second line, ‘face is clean and shining black as night’, it was obvious where the song was going. I don’t think I made a conscious decision to have the girl cop out in the end, it just seemed like that would be the logical thing at my age, because how can you buck school and society and your parents, and make yourself an outcast forever?”

Her 1975 Grammy Award winning At Seventeen is a bittersweet commentary on teenage bullying. It sounds like it could have been written in our current era with its commentary on society’s beauty standards, adolescent cruelty, and the illusion of popularity. Listen to it again. It sounds fresh.

Ian wrote At Seventeen in 1973, she has said that the song was inspired by a newspaper article about a former teenage debutante who learned the hard way that being popular did not solve all her problems.

Promoting At Seventeen presented a challenge because at five minutes, it is longer than most radio hits and it is packed with lyrics. Columbia Records and Ian decided that their best chance at marketing the song was to promote it to women, which wasn’t easy with radio stations controlled by men. Ian did the daytime talk shows for a year before booking a gig on The Tonight Show. Her appearance with Johnny Carson and the performance of the song really helped it to take off.

At Seventeen was Ian’s first hit single since Society’s Child eight years earlier. The radio version omitted the instrumental verse and chorus because it was considered too long for radio stations to play it. It went to Number One on the Adult Contemporary chart and Number Three on the Pop Singles chart. It was the Number Two Adult Contemporary hit of 1975 behind only Midnight Blue by Melissa Manchester. It won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1976, beating out Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, and Helen Reddy and was nominated for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year.

Ian performed At Seventeen as a musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in October 1975.

The song’s album, Between The Lines, also went to Number One and it sold over one million copies. On Valentine’s Day 1976, Ian received hundreds of cards; sweet because in the lyrics to At Seventeen, she sings that she never received any as a teenager.

In the 30 Rock episode The Break-Up, Tina Fey‘s character sings At Seventeen at a karaoke club. It is also featured in Fey’s movie Mean Girls (2004). In Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016), Julia Sawalha‘s character Saffy sings the song in a bar full of empathetic drag queens who join in singing.

Her 2008 album, Billie’s Bone’s is a tribute to Billie Holiday with whom she shares a birthday today. The album is sparse and hauntingly sad. In an eerily melancholy slow jazz tune, Matthew, Ian pays tribute Matthew Shephard:

What makes a man a man?

It’s not who you love, but whether you can

What makes a man a man?

Ian had some tough going along the road of life, she grew-up African-American and Jewish and gay in the 1960s, it could not have been easy.

When she was just 16-years-old, Ian met the charming Bill Cosby backstage after performing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Since Ian was underage, she needed to be accompanied while touring by a chaperon. When Cosby met Ian, she had been sleeping with her head on the female chaperon’s lap. Cosby subsequently warned other television show producers that Ian was “a lesbo, not suitable family entertainment” and that she “shouldn’t be on television” because of her sexuality, attempting to blacklist her. Weird, because I had always heard that Cosby really liked girl-on-girl stuff.

I never chose a Janis Ian record in order to get the party started, but I listened intently to her thoughtful, yet forceful music when I felt like being alone in my room, worried about fitting in.

Ian is a musical icon who happens to be gay. For more than 50 years she’s been making very special music. I am friends with her on The Facebook, and she seems comfortable with herself after coming out of the closet in 1993. She has been with her wife since 1989 (married in Canada in Summer 2003). I can report that there is nothing sad in her life these days; Ian and her wife live in Nashville with a bunch of kids, grandkids and dogs.

Photo from PBS via YouTube

 

For more than 50 years she’s been making very special music. She continues to tour.

My favorite Janis Ian tune is Stars (1974), an especially sad song about seeking fame that has been covered by covered, including versions by Joan Baez, Shirley Bassey, Cher, Nina Simone and Barbara Cook

STARS

I was never one for singing

What I really feel

Except tonight, I’m bringing

Everything I know that’s real

 

Stars, they come and go

They come fast or slow

They go like the last light

Of the sun, all in a blaze

And all you see is glory

But it gets lonely there

When there’s no one here to share

We can shake it away

If you’ll hear a story

 

People lust for fame

Like athletes in a game

We break our collarbones

And come up swinging

Some of us are downed

Some of us are crowned

And some are lost

And never found

But most have seen it all

They live their lives in

Sad cafes and music halls

They always have a story

 

Some make it when they’re young

Before the world has

Done its dirty job

And later on, someone will say

“You’ve had your day

You must make way”

But they’ll never know the pain

Of living with a name you never owned

Or the many years forgetting

What you know too well

 

The ones who gave the crown

Have been let down

You try to make amends

Without defending

 

Perhaps pretending

You never saw the eyes

Of grown men of twenty five

That followed as you walked

And asked for autographs

Or kissed you on the cheek

And you never could believe

They really loved you

 

Some make it when they’re old

(Perhaps they have a soul

They’re not afraid to bare

Or perhaps there’s nothing there)

 

Some women have a body

Men will want to see

So they put it on display

Some people play a fine guitar

I could listen to them

Play all day

Some ladies really

Move across a stage

And gee, they sure can dance

I guess I could learn how

If I have it half a chance

 

But I always feel so funny

When my body tries to soar

And I seem to always worry

About missing the next chord

 

I guess there isn’t anything

To put up on display

Except the tunes

And whatever else I say

Anyway, that isn’t really

What I meant to say

I meant to tell a story

I live from day to day

 

Stars, they come and go

They come fast or slow

They go like the last light

Of the sun, all in a blaze

And all you see is glory

But those who’ve seen it all

They live their lives

In sad cafes and music halls

We always have a story

 

So if you don’t lose patience

With my fumbling around

I’ll come up singing for you

Even when I’m down

 


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