In our interview with Janis Ian
, she explained that this song is about feeling alienated while growing up. It was more about Janis' life between the ages of 12-14, but "17" fit better into the lyrics.
Janis was 15 when she had her first hit song, "Society's Child
," and had been on the road for two years by the time she was 17. Although her childhood was not typical, she knew what it felt like to feel out of place at a young age.
Speaking about crafting this story, Janis explained in our interview: "I never went to a prom, but I did go to my 6th grade dance. That's the trick, it's just like acting. How many people are playing Hamlet whose father is a king? You take your own experience, find something similar in it and draw on that. Even though I didn't go to the prom, I knew what it was like not to get asked to the dance."
This song came at an opportune time for Ian. She told us: "I had to move back into my mom's house because I was broke and I couldn't make any money on the road. I was sitting at the kitchen table with a guitar one day, and I was reading a New York Times article about a debutante, and the opening line was 'I learned the truth at 18.' I was playing that little samba figure, and that line struck me for some reason. The whole article was about how she learned being a debutante didn't mean that much. I changed it to 17 because 18 didn't scan."
Janis wrote the first verse quickly, finding it flowed in a logical pattern: "I leaned the truth at 17," what did you learn... "that love what meant for beauty queens," and who else... "and high school girls with clear skinned smiles," what do we not like about that... "who married young and then retired." The chorus was a lot harder to write. Janis explains that at some point you don't have a lot of control over a song. You can control the craft, but not the inspiration.
Janis told us: "I wrote the first verse and chorus and it was so brutally honest. It's hard to imagine now but people weren't writing that type of song then. I was coming out of listening to people like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, who did write those kind of songs, but pop music and folk music really didn't. I remember thinking I couldn't blow this because it really was going to be a good song. I put it away for three weeks and it took about three months to write the whole thing. I couldn't figure out the ending, I couldn't figure out what to do with her, then I thought I would recap it, bring myself into it and bring it into the past."
When she went to record this, Janis knew it was going to be a hit and wanted to make sure it came out right. She kicked the lead guitarist out of the session because he wasn't trying very hard to capture the feel of the song, replacing him with a young kid who was "so scared you could smell his sweat across the room." This made the other musicians in the room pay attention, and helped capture the feeling of confusion and adolescence Janis was going for.
Janis Ian: "To me it's never been a depressing song. It says 'ugly duckling girls like me,' and to me the ugly duckling always turns into a swan. It offers hope that there is a world out there of people who understand."
Getting this on the radio was no easy task. Not only was it packed with lyrics, but at 3:56, it was about a minute longer than most songs radio stations were playing. Janis and her management decided to market it to women, and because radio stations were dominated by men, they had to get creative. They sent copies of the song to the program director's wives, then put Janis on every daytime TV show they could. It was six months of exhausting, grassroots promotion, which paid off when they got a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This pushed the song over the top and it became a hit.
This was nominated for five Grammy Awards, the most any female artist had ever been nominated for at the time. It won for Best Female Pop Vocal.
Ian performed this song on the first episode of Saturday Night Live