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How Badly Does It Suck to Be 17? Janis Ian Knows

Janis Ian
SourceGAB Archive/Redferns

How Badly Does It Suck to Be 17? Janis Ian Knows

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because if you're lucky, you only have to suffer being 17 once.

By Eugene S. Robinson

If you had never lived through rock radio in 1975, you’d never have believed rock radio in 1975. The ’70s, unofficially designated the Me Decade, was fueled by the twin engines of post-Vietnam War heaviness and disco-era excess. And the radio reflected this: The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power” back to back with Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”

But in the midst and middle of this, a radio dial was spun, and the world heard a woman’s voice, backed by an acoustic guitar just … singing. The song, a plaintive, downbeat rendering about what life was like for the almost-rans and never-was’s was called “At Seventeen.” And the singer was a 24-year-old nice Jewish girl from New Jersey: Janis Ian.

Back up, though, because while Ian was just 24 and it seems to serve an overnight sensation narrative, she had been famous well before 1975. And this is where things get strange. Her first big hit — No. 14 on the Billboard charts big — was a song called “Society’s Child.” It was about an interracial relationship, which in 1967 was enough to not only get your song banned from the radio but also hate mail and its handmaiden: death threats.

“At Seventeen” was a killer in capturing the zeitgeist of the forgotten. Exactly where she was after the Cosby smear job.

Ian was 16 at the time. And that’s not where the weirdness ends.

Would you be terribly surprised to learn that the next bit of weirdness involves convicted sexual offender Bill Cosby? You shouldn’t. Because backstage at a show, Cosby spied Ian napping with her head in the lap of an older female friend who was working as her chaperone that night. Which was enough for Cosby to lead an effort to get her blackballed from show biz on account of her not being “family” entertainment.

See, he suspected she might be a “lesbian.”

So despite the single having sold 600,000 copies and the album 350,000, Ian was officially washed up at 16. But because true talent always outs, eight years later Ian was back and “At Seventeen” was a killer in capturing the zeitgeist of the forgotten. Exactly where she was after the Cosby smear job.

Their small-town eyes will gaze at you / In dull surprise when payment due /
Exceeds accounts received / At seventeen / To those of us who knew the pain /
Of valentines that never came

Photo of Janis Ian

Source Getty

Which is right about when the world went nuts, again, for Ian. The song won her a Grammy the next year for Best Pop Vocal Performance. She was the first musical guest on the newly minted Saturday Night Live. She sold platinum numbers just in the U.S. And then the awwwww kicker: In 1977 she got 460 Valentine’s Day cards from well-wishers. A far cry from the death threats almost a decade earlier.

“Janis Ian is a great artist,” says Grammy Award–winning producer Joe Chiccarelli from his home in Los Angeles. “‘At Seventeen’ was important to every woman at the time, it seemed, and ‘Society’s Child’ was way ahead of its time: adolescent strife, bullying racism. Sadly, both songs still seem of timely relevance decades later.”

“I first heard of Janis Ian when I was in high school,” says Dawn Schaler Dill, a singer-songwriter in her own right. “She came out with ‘At Seventeen’ and … I …” There’s a pause, a weightily significant one before she shuts us down. “I used to sing it. I could play it.” See, it had become an anthem. Even for girls who never had had a hard time getting Valentine’s Day cards.

And if the story ended there, that would almost be enough but Ian, not believing at all that there were no second (or third or fourth) acts in American lives, started writing science fiction a few years after her autobiography, in which she writes about her marriage to an abusive man (and then her eventually coming out).

She also acts and still performs. And will play “At Seventeen” without even being begged very much.

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