Janis Ian Was More Than Just A Teenager

Jan 15, 2020
Originally published on January 15, 2020 4:29 pm

Morning Edition's series called One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs focuses on musicians or bands whose careers in the United States are defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalogs have much more to offer.

In this installment, NPR Music's Ann Powers argues that Janis Ian, who won the Grammy for best pop vocal performance in 1975 for "At Seventeen," pioneered what we now consider the adult contemporary genre. Read Ann in her own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.


Janis Ian has had one of the most fascinating career trajectories in pop music. She was a child prodigy in the '60s and she was known for provocative protest songs, including "Society's Child," which was the story of an interracial relationship — which did chart. But then she dropped out of the music business for a few years and came back with a totally different sound.

"At Seventeen" is such a powerful and honest confrontation with the feelings of inadequacy that so many girls and boys feel: that's why it became a ballad for ugly ducklings. Janis Ian's willingness to confront the beauty myth and her own struggles with it — Ian was never a convention glamour girl, at all. She's very androgynous, she just didn't look like a golden California babe, and that was certainly what was common among singer-songwriters in the '70s.

"At Seventeen" had such an overwhelming impact on so many people that it's kind of overshadowed a lot of Janis Ian's other work, but she has so many great songs, and one in particular is just as much a classic: It's called "Jesse."

Janis Ian wrote "Jesse" from the perspective of the loved one of a Vietnam veteran, and we don't really know whether the soldier is still at war or if maybe he's come back or she's come back and is struggling ... It's mysterious, but at the center of the song is incredible ache, this loneliness that you know will never be resolved.

It's so clean and clear and sad, and this is what Janis Ian is so good at: she writes character studies, she confronts societal issues, but in a very personal and relatable way. It's just one of many that Janis Ian wrote and gave us, and I hope people explore her catalog.

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(SOUNDBITE OF JANIS IAN SONG, "AT SEVENTEEN")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The pains of being a teenager were achingly captured in this song back in 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT SEVENTEEN")

JANIS IAN: (Singing) I learned the truth at 17 that love was meant for beauty queens.

GREENE: That is Janis Ian with "At Seventeen," a Grammy-winner that went to No. 3 on the pop charts. But she would never again have that kind of chart success. For our series One-Hit Wonders, Second-Best Songs, Ann Powers of NPR Music makes the case that Janis Ian deserved a lot more attention.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Janis Ian has had one of the most fascinating career trajectories in pop music. She was a child prodigy in the '60s, and she was known for really provocative protest songs, including "Society's Child," which was the story of an interracial relationship, which did chart. But then she dropped out of the music biz for a few years and came back with a totally different sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT SEVENTEEN")

IAN: (Singing) And those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces...

POWERS: "At Seventeen" is such a powerful and honest confrontation with the feelings of inadequacy that so many girls and boys feel. You know, that's why it became a ballad for ugly ducklings - Janis Ian's willingness to confront the beauty myth and her own struggles with it. You know, Ian was never a conventional glamour girl at all. She's very androgynous. She just didn't look like a golden California babe, and that was certainly what was common among singer-songwriters in the '70s.

So "At Seventeen" had such an overwhelming impact on so many people that it's kind of overshadowed a lot of Janis Ian's other work. But she has so many great songs, and one in particular is just as much a classic. It's called "Jesse."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE")

IAN: (Singing) Jesse, come home. There's a hole in the bed where we slept. Now it's growing cold.

POWERS: Janis Ian wrote "Jesse" from the perspective of the loved one of a Vietnam veteran. And we don't really know whether the soldier is still at war or if maybe he's come back or she's come back and, you know, is struggling and has kind of disappeared. It's mysterious. But at the center of the song is this incredible ache, this loneliness that just you know will never be resolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE")

IAN: (Singing) No, I'm not scared. I wait for you. Jesse, I'm lonely. Come home.

POWERS: It's so clean and clear and sad. And this is what Janis Ian is so good at, you know. She writes character studies. She confronts societal issues but in a very personal and relatable way. And it's just one of many that Janis Ian wrote and gave us, and I hope people explore her catalog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE")

IAN: (Singing) And shaded in gray.

GREENE: That was Ann Powers talking about the song "Jesse" from Janis Ian, Ann's choice for our series One-Hit Wonders, Second-Best Songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE")

IAN: (Singing) And I'm leaving a light... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.