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At Seventeen by Janis Ian

Album: Between The LinesReleased: 1975Charted:
3
  • 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 in 1975. (thanks, Michael - Mountain View, CA)
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Comments: 27

'Wallflower' boys can certainly identify with this song as well.Esskayess - Dallas, Tx
This song had always resonated with me: "The brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs whose name I never could pronounce" and "To those of us who knew the pain of Valentines that never came, and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball"...that was me in school. There was even a teacher who would refuse to pronounce my name correctly. I finally found a way to contact Janis Ian to thank her for the song, and she actually wrote back!Karen - Manchester, Nh
This song is poetry set to music. Even now, over 30 years later, the lyrics amaze me. I was 17 when it was popular. It spoke of all those frustrations a teenage girl with no support system has when she sees the pretty, socially adjusted and well-connected girls in her world enjoy their position in life. I'm not gay; the words to this song apply to a myriad of misfit girls. I learned how to create a better life for myself as I grew into adulthood, but sometimes that slight social-outcast part of me still surfaces. The tone of this song, it is so laid back, not accusing, simply stating, that this is how things are.....perfect to get the point across.Camille - Toronto, Oh
I too was 18 when this came out stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC A 1/504 82nd Airborne, it was what kept me going. I always thought of the girl in the song and the beautiful singer/songwriter, if someone as lovely as this had it as bad as me and could still sing so beautifully in life so could I be in life.Michael Scott - Punta Gorda, Fl
I first heard "At Seventeen" while I was on "hold" for an office appointment. I am 75 and it struck me hard. I knew it was a "girls" song, I felt it left the male side unexposed and unappreciated. It took two days, but I have created a "response" for all those guys who may have felt awkward and different. I can hear this sung by a man who could deliver the same, subtle message that Janice wrote. Any interest out there? I'm wading in uncharted waters here. JimJames - Lincoln, Ca. 95648, Ca
This was the first and only song that I heard while at Parris Island, S.C....from June to Sept 1975......it brought me back down to Earth and I felt like there was hope....of getting thru Marine Corps boot camp. I was only 17 when I signed up for the US Marines....and was 18 when i heard it.Rick - Belfast, Me
Being a Gay teenager was tough for me, and despite the social progress that's been made since this song was first a hit, it probably always will be rough going for Gay youth. Anyway, Janis' song really touched me, and I remember feeling this sense of vindication and validation when she won her Grammy for it. Musicians with Janis' talent help to reinforce my sometimes-shaky faith in humankind.Paul - Washington Dc, Dc
I was 8 when this song came out and I remember listening to it over and over and over... The song perfectly describes growing up in small town Texas. My family was upper middle class, but I was brutally harassed and bullied; girls fought in gym class over which team would NOT get me; never, ever had a date- until college and had to hide my sexuality and spirituality until I was able to move at least 100 miles away. My Honor Society, jock brother swore he would beat me until I was "normal," but even severe bruising could not make me fit in. I would have done just about anything to fit in and belong, but nothing worked. I'm lucky I survived. It took forever, but eventually, I found people who looked deeper and found me.Serra - Santa Fe, Nm
Great song....I like Janis if for no other reason then the parody of this song she did with Howard Stern about Jerry Seinfeld. She seemed mortified doing it at the time, but was laughing the entire time she was doing the duet with Howard.Mike - Matawan, Nj
This song was also featured on an early episode of the Simspsons, in which Lisa enters a local beauty pageant.Carrie - Roanoke, Va
I first heard the song 25/30 years ago and was blown away by it, the words, the voice and the simplicity of it. Not many songs move me like that, Eva Cassidy's over the rainbow, Harry Belafonte's Scarlet Ribbons. Its a real rights of passage song.Jimmy - Salford, United Kingdom
I forgot to add that Janis mentioning that it is ultimately an upbeat song because of the reference to the ugly duckling becoming a swan.
Take a look at her performing this on the BBC "Old Grey Whistle Test" show clip on YouTube, and you will see an absolutely gorgeous Janis.
Ugly, she is not!
Oldpink - New Castle, In
There are songs about trivial matters, other about love, and there are others about drugs, then there are songs such as this, with something universal, profound, and timeless.
I still have sitting on my DVR's hard drive the first episode of Saturday Night Live with her performance of this fantastic song.
It also turns out that Janis is a very nice person who has not let her success go to her head, a very rare thing indeed.
In fact, I wrote her a lengthy thank you e-mail in November, and she wrote a return thanks for the recognition.
Janis is truly a class act!
Oldpink - New Castle, In
Even as a guy, I always appreciated the hell out of this song when it came out. Then I had a girlfriend in the late 70s who TOTALLY related to this song--said it was about her. Funny, because she was absolutely the cutest girl in the room! She said she was a late bloomer.

I wonder if Janis met the late great George Carlin when she performed this on the first Saturday Night Live, which he hosted. Anyway, thank you Janis Ian, for expressing the angst and anger so many of us feel during those growing years!
Guy - Woodinville, Wa
I remember this song when it first came out.Absolutely beautiful song.Im listening to it now.t/y janis for the memories.6/13/08James - Yucaipa, Ca
I have known this song for over thirty years now and it is as it deserves to be a classic,Though it did not get to no one,neither did Mccleans Vincent about Van Gogh.Thank you Janis for your masterpiece.John - Brisbane, United States
Anna, since I look for the best in people, even those I haven't met, I'll assume you're being ironic, sardonic or simply silly.







This song will always be special to me. It became popular during my senior year in high school (OK, you can do the math and figure out my age!)and I understood how she felt: awkward and unattractive, unloved and unlovable by anyone but herself. Perhaps this song was her first step in loving herself.






I can remember thinking, even before the rumors started, that it had something to do with her being a lesbian, or at least not heterosexual. You see, I was in the closet--back then, I had been an altar boy, boy scout and almost anything else with "boy" in it--and I felt that the prom (which I helped to plan and organize but didn't attend)was for people who were what I wasn't and who therefore were having and celebrating relationships I could never have had. And believe me, I tried: I spent decades living as a man, and was even married to a woman.







Anyway, there are other songs I prefer musically, although this one is quite good. But possibly the only songs that have affected me as much as "At Seventeen" are Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and "Coming In From the Cold" and Pink Floyd's "Hey You" and "Comfortably Numb."
Musicmama - New York, Ny
Anyone who thinks this song is hilarious has absolutely no feelings, and was probably one of those jerks in high school that didn't care about other's feelings. Especially people that were different.Mary - Yuma, Az
How is this song "hilarious?" It's ironic and maybe sarcastic, but not funny at all to the many, many people who identified with it. This song hit home when I was younger and if anything it's more painful now. The musical gracefullness sort of smooths over the brutal lyrics of "At 17," and the same is true for much of what Ian did when she was at the top of her game on "Between the Lines" and its follow-up, "Aftertones." I was a rocker back then, but I had those two folk/jazz/blues albums and they could really move me. Still can.Michael - Boulder, Co
I was a very shy teenager, and we didn't have much money. So the part, "a brown eyed girl in hand me downs, whose name I never could pronouce" (I also had a hard to pronounce German name)hit me like a ton of bricks. And I was about 17 or so when I first heard it. I felt it was about me and it was almost scary. I've always loved this song. You usually like songs you can relate to.Mary - Yuma, Az
This is the only song I know to use a metaphor from accountancy. "The small town eyes will gaze at you. In dull surprise when payment due. Exceeds accounts received...". If the poor ugly girl dares to suggest that some consideration might be due to her: But we didn't receive a bill!Neil - Melbourne, Australia
A song about what its like to be all messed up at this age, but one that probably too many of us can identify with. A nice samba-esque number that kind of recalls "The Girl from Ipanema" to an extent.Phil - Brooklyn, Ny
In the Lindsey Lohan vehicle "Mean Girls" her antiestablishment type friend is named Janis Ian who is several times referred to by her full name rather than just her first name like the other characters. It's obvious then that this song was something of an inspiration. BTW not only lesbians and other women like this song. I'm a guy and I appreciate it!Curtis - Cornwall On Hudson , Ny
I think I heard somewhere this song was written about her coming to terms with her sexuality and being a lesbian? Anyone else hear this?George - Richmond, Va
yeah right anna ,i can't stop laughingPete - Nowra, Australia
This song was marketed to women cause Janis knew her audience. She came out as a lesbian a few years ago, and I think she is now a gay rights activist.Matt - Charleston, Sc
this song is hilarious ! ...and murmur vague obsenities... its too true thoughAnna - Nyc, Ny