At Seventeen by Janis Ian (Columbia, 1975)

Janis Ian broke out in a big way in 1975. At Seventeen hit the Top 3 and Ian won a Grammy for best Female performance. It was selected to be in the Grammy Hall of Fame. She also has the distinction of performing the song on the first epiosde of Saturday Night Live. It helped propel her album Between The Lines to #1 and made her career. She’s been able to ride this song out for over 30 years. And, in my opinion, is the phoniest piece of bullshit ever recorded.

Now granted I don’t dislike the song musically. It’s a soft piece of folky jazz with a samba backbeat, the kind Joni Mitchell was doing earlier and better. But lyrically it was a maudlin, cheap tug at the heartstrings. Supposedly it was inspired by an article Ian read. But she sings it, yea, wears it like it was her life, trying to illicit sympathy from the public – ‘I had it so bad…boo hoo…didn’t you? I guess we’re the same. So now that we can relate, buy my album on LP or 8-track, now at Sam Goody’s”.

Wanna know what Janis was doing at seventeen outside cheating at solitaire? She was touring the country playing songs she’d recorded on Verve Forecast, like her hit Society’s Child. That’s right, she was a rock star, actually by sixteen. She already released her 2nd album by the time she was seventeen. Impressive, yes. But a far cry from hanging out at home and ‘inventing lovers on the phone’.

You see the song is a reflection oh how ugly ducking girls got dissed all through high school and all the hot ones got what they wanted. Ah but even then those girls don’t get what they want even though it seems that way. So for Janis, I guess all girls are fucked. Except her, cause instead of hanging out in gym class waiting to be shoot some hoop, she was making money playing music. And by the way I wouldn’t pick you for my basketball team anyway, Janis. You’re, like, 5’2″.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t know. But people took these songs to heart. And when you’re a folk singer, people have even more reason to believe since that whole genre is supposedly about bearing one’s soul. Hell, a few hundred people sent her a bunch of valentines one year since she sang about ‘ the valentines that I never knew’. Janis was already married by 19. It just feels like she took an easy theme of feeling out of place as a teenager and then twisted the knife as hard as she could. Awkward high school girls already uncomfortable with themselves are made to feel like image is the only thing that matters and they’ll never win. She refers to being ugly a few times as well as talks about the ‘winners’ being beautiful. Nice message, Janis. Get some self-confidence, why don’t you? Maybe don’t pass your self-image complex onto the impressionable, OK? But I guess if you can get away with smug and heavy-handed lyrics like:

Remember those who win the game lose the love they sought to gain.
In debentures of quality and dubious integrity.
Their small-town eyes will gape at you in dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen.

you may think you’re friggin’ Shakespeare. [Again this song is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Please explain why!]

And then there’s the anti-feminist vibe: Janis learns that the “truth” is love is for the hotties, loneliness is for the notties. But either way your life and its happiness will be dependent on whether a man likes you and marries you, so you can ‘retire’. And then I guess eat some Florida oranges with Anita Bryant.

So let’s recap: ugly chics: a lonely life of unhappiness. Hot chics: a life of unhappiness but you’re with someone. I’m surprised that Columbia Records didn’t put the royalty proceeds from this song into a anti-suicide hotline. This song really just comes down to someone whining about what others have that you don’t, like Jo complaining about Blair’s wavy blonde hair and designer clothes. When you get down to it, none of it matters. And had Janis just taken the good & the bad, she would have had a better understanding of The Facts of Life. Hold on a sec, Janis, let me get you Alan Thicke’s phone number.