Janis Ian: “At Seventeen”

MAY 1975 (37 YEARS AGO)
Janis Ian: “At Seventeen” b/w “Stars” (Columbia 3-10154) 45 single is released in the US.
“At Seventeen” is a song by Janis Ian, released in 1975 on Between the Lines (her seventh studio album) and as a single. Ian’s most successful recording, the song is a commentary on adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, as reflected upon from the maturity of adulthood. It is told from the point of view of a woman who was an “ugly duckling” as a girl and ignored in high school while the popular (albeit shallow) girls got all of the attention.
Janis Ian, then 22, wrote “At Seventeen” in 1973 at her mother’s house over the course of three months. In her autobiography Society’s Child, Ian says that the song was inspired by a newspaper article about a former teenage debutante who learned the hard way that being popular did not solve all her problems. The article included the quote, “I learned the truth at eighteen”; Ian found that the word “seventeen” worked better than “eighteen” when she tried to put this lyric with the Bossa Nova-style melody she had been composing on guitar. She also says she initially did not want to record or perform the song because she felt it was far too personal to share, but eventually changed her mind after adding the song’s final verse (“To those of us who knew the pain/Of Valentines that never came…”).
Promoting the song was challenging, as it was longer than most radio hits and packed with lyrics. Along with the promotions team at her record company, Ian decided that their best chance to market the song was to promote it to women, which was no easy task when so many radio stations were controlled by men. Ian did a grueling series of daytime talk shows for six months before she was granted an appearance on The Tonight Show where she performed the song and it took off.
“At Seventeen,” released as the second single from Between the Lines, became Ian’s first national hit single since her first hit “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” in 1967. The single version omitted the longer instrumental verse and chorus because it was considered too long and it was feared that the radio stations would refuse to play it. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and at #3 on the Pop Singles chart in September 1975. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1976, beating out the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, and Helen Reddy and was nominated for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year”.

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