The Teenage Dreams of Janis Ian

janisJanis Ian was not the stereotypical thirteen year old girl. Having already mastered five musical instruments, she had been writing songs since she was a child. Her parents, summer camp directors who were frequently under FBI surveillance due to their leftist political views, did what they could to encourage her. This included sending Janis to a performing arts high school in New York City, where her talent caught the eye of music industry insiders. Just barely in her teens, she was given the chance to record a song she had written: “Society’s Child”. The record label took one listen and refused to release the song, fearing controversy. It took three releases of the recording on other labels, over the next three years, for the song to catch on with radio listeners. In 1966, at age 16, Janis had a top 20 hit. There was just one problem: “Society’s Child”, which told the story of an interracial romance, was too much for some people to handle during the firestorm of the civil rights movement. Janis received hate mail and death threats, and some radio stations refused to play it. She proudly continued to play it anyway, as in this clip from 1966:

janis2After the minefield of “Society’s Child”, Janis fell off the pop charts, although she continued to record. In 1975, almost ten years after her only hit to date, Janis released a song called “At Seventeen”. Though she was no longer a teenager, Janis clearly remembered those years with a mixture of humor and rancor. At age 24, her reflection on her teenage years paid off, and Janis’ new song eventually reached #3 on the charts. She was the musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, where she performed “At Seventeen” to a rapt audience. Though she never had another hit on the pop charts, Janis’ name would become synonymous with adolescent angst, with Tina Fey naming a character after her in the screenplay for Mean Girls.

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