When Janis Ian’s hit record, “Society’s Child,” hit the airwaves in the late 1960s it was like a shock wave. A young woman was singing out loud about an interracial romance between two teens that’s doomed because of the bigotry around them. At the height of the Civil Rights movement the song was a voice from the other side of the divide. Someone who was not Black felt the damage that was done by prejudice. And she was singing about it on national radio; which at that time was even more influential than the internet because rock and roll had a congregate or collective (not splintered) audience. Meaning the same songs I listened to on my eight-transistor radio under the covers late at night in Boston were being listened to by teens in Kansas and California.
Then later came another incisive song: “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…And those of us with ravaged faces/Lacking in the social graces/Desperately remained at home/Inventing lovers on the phone”
I was out of college when “At Seventeen” was released and living in New York City trying to be a grown up. But her words, which won her the first Grammy, cut into my façade and made me remember the terrors of youth, especially as a lesbian of color. They also let me see how much that anguish affected my attempt to make a meaningful and fulfilling adult life.
I love music and have always carried the tenderness of Janis Ian’s words with me. I thought about them as I tried to make a world safe for lesbian feminists in the face of the hypocritical “preachers of equality,” as Janis called them in “Society’s Child.” I remembered singing along to it and feeling comforted that someone else understood the bruises that we carried around with us.
Decades later I finally met Janis Ian and it’s so rare you get to say thank you to someone who’s meant so much but it was a rare delight to be introduced and get to say out loud that I probably represented one of millions who found courage in her music.
What was even more thrilling was to say how much I’ve loved the music she’s written since then much of which has been recorded by dozens of artists from Roberta Flack to Bette Midler. Her recent albums: “Billie’s Bones,” “Breaking Silence” and “Folk is the New Black,” all contain songs that reach into core places with extraordinary musicianship.
Then on top of it she’s a writer. Her autobiography, “Society’s Child,” won a Grammy for spoken word album and then she writes science fiction! Her evolution as a singer/songwriter/fiction writer inspire me to keep at the hard work. When she wrote and sang her first hit she was only thirteen. The harsh response she got might have stalled her. But along the way she just keeps creating.
It’s the lesson I need to remember…no matter the response the impulse to write must be obeyed. It’s hard for women to keep that in our hearts, but Janis is there to remind us. I’m thrilled that the Bay Area will get to hear her sing this month and be reminded what a treasure she is. Come and rock out with us: Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on March 29th, 8 PM! http://www.freightandsalvage.org/janis-ian