Longtime Nashville resident Janis Ian is headed back to the Grammys this weekend. Over her career, the singer-songwriter has racked up 11 nominations for folk, jazz, even children’s music. This time, the audiobook of her memoir is up for an award. And tucked inside that story of Janis Ian’s life is how she wrote the song that lead to her greatest Grammy triumph.
Janis Ian tells it, she stumbled onto “At Seventeen.” She was just hanging around home one day, playing a rhythm on the guitar and reading an article about debutantes. The opening line struck her. “I learned the truth at 18.” She tried to fit it to the samba rhythm she’d been playing. That didn’t work, but tweak the age and the first four lines of a song fell into place.
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
Right away, Ian started to have her doubts. She stared at the paper, thinking, h”ow could I write about high school girls or prom nights and homecoming queens? I hadn’t had any of those experiences.”
The teenage Janis Ian spent more time playing gigs than going to class. She had a hit song before she could drive. Her adolescence was far from normal, but it wasn’t charmed, either.
She knew what it was like to never be asked out on a date, and “the sinking feeling when everyone else in class came into find a valentine on their desk and yours was empty.”
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
She was the girl who got hate mail and death threats because her song, Society’s Child, was about an interracial couple. She’d been a teenager attracted to other girls, but not ready to act on those feelings. All that on top of being the short kid with frizzy hair.
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
“I couldn’t see facing an audience, singing that line and watching them search my face for pimples and scars.”
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems
She took her time, trying to perfect lyrics that felt as painful as they were honest. It took two months to finish the second verse, and when she did Ian decided she wouldn’t sing it in public. “It was just too humiliating. I was sure no one else felt that way.”
Still, she wrote an ending that assumed at least one other person would understand. And she added a line calling herself an “ugly duckling,” since that meant maybe she’d turn out to be a swan.
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me
Something about that turn gave Ian the confidence to record “At Seventeen.” It hit the top of the charts. And in 1976, host Andy Williams introduced her at the Grammys.
Ian has said she’s come to treasure the audience response to “At Seventeen,” the way crowds all over the world sing along, embracing every word about being the one who doesn’t belong, about feeling unloved.
We all play the game and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
They call and say, “Come on, dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me
Her audience at the Grammys sat perfectly silent until the last chord sounded. But then they exploded. If you listen closely, you can hear whoops and hollers within the applause which went on for nearly a minute.
When she won the Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance just minutes later, they sprang to their feet.
For a song that nobody was supposed to hear, “At Seventeen” sure got a lot of play. Ian sang it as the first ever musical guest on Saturday Night Live. It’s been covered in French, Danish, Finnish and German. And in 2008, the Recording Academy added the song to the Grammy Hall of Fame.