Janis Ian released her first song, "Society's Child," in 1967 when she was 15. The famous record producer Shadow Morton wasn't interested until Janis set fire to his newspaper, but after getting his attention, she became a star.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Please tell me about "Society's Child."
Janis Ian: I started it at the guidance counselor's office and I worked on it in the school bus. I think the major things about that song that I remember were that originally the title was "Baby, I've Been Thinking," which obviously had no connection with the song at all. And that title got changed when we cut it. Shadow Morton really felt like "Society's Child" would be a better title. I think in retrospect he was absolutely right. It didn't make much difference to me, so I said "sure." I don't think I knew where I was going when I started it, but then when I hit the second line, "Faces clean and shining, black as night," it was obvious where the song was going. I was living in East Orange at the time, I was 14, 13. It was an all-black neighborhood, I think there were five white kids in the school. So I was seeing it from both ends, I was seeing it from the end of a lot of the civil rights stuff going on on television and on the radio, of white parents being incensed when their daughters would date black men, and I was seeing it around me when black parents were worried about their daughters or sons dating white girls or boys. You know, I don't think I made a conscious decision to have the girl cop out in the end, it just seemed like that would be the logical thing at my age, because how can you buck school and society and your parents? You'd make yourself an outcast forever.
I remember I was pleased with the chorus, because I had just discovered how to play an F-sharp minor chord, and I thought that was really cool. And I had no idea that it was unusual to have the chorus slow down, but that became a real problem when we went to cut it. I wrote that and I guess about eight other songs. I had my first song here, "Spun Gold," published in Broadside the year before when I turned 13. And I got to sing it at a Village Gate hootenanny Broadside magazine was holding. And it got a huge reaction; they kept asking me back. So "Society's Child" became one of the songs that I did as part of that.
Then the way we got it cut was I was hanging around with the Reverend Gary Davis, and trying to learn guitar from him, and his wife took a liking to me and told the owner of the Gaslight Café, Clarence Hood, that she needed me to open for Reverend Gary. And Mr. Hood, after some annoyance, said, "All right." And I did. And this guy came running backstage and said, "Kid, I'm going to make you a star." Which was such a cliché. And I was very into, "I'm a folk singer, I don't need to be a star." Plus at 14 you don't need to earn a living, so you don't care. So I said, "You and what army?" And he said, "No, I'll meet you tomorrow." And I said, "Well, I have school." So he said, "Well, I'll meet you after school." So I met him after school and he took me up to this lawyer, Johanna Bagota. Johanna took me up to Shadow Morton's office. And Shadow was in one of his periodic funks, he was going to leave the music business. So he was sitting there with his cowboy boots on the desk, and sunglasses and hat pulled over his head, reading the New York Times, and he said, "Yeah, right, go on." So I sang him some songs. Then I realized he wasn't listening. So apparently – although I don't remember it – I took out a cigarette lighter and lit his newspaper, and left. And he says that he realized a couple of minutes later that his newspaper was burning, so he put the fire out in the ashcan, and then thought, "Jesus, what am I walking away from here?" Caught up to me as the elevator hit the ground floor and pulled me back and actually listened. And for some reason he said, "That's the one we'll cut." And a week later we were in the studio cutting.
It was interesting cutting it because those kind of protest songs were being written among the people I listened to, you know, Phil Ochs and people like that. They weren't on pop radio, and we all kind of turned up our noses at pop radio. I mean, we thought it was tacky. I thought it was cool because Bob Dylan was playing "Like A Rolling Stone" on it. But most of the folkies I knew just thought he'd sold out. So when we got into the studio and it was six guys, I think, and we worked for two and a half hours on the song, which at the time – you're talking 1965 – you do a whole album in three hours. We worked for two and a half hours, nobody was getting anywhere, and I was starting to get sick to my stomach, which is what always happens to me when things don't go well in the studio. And the guys were great to me. I mean, one of them said, "Here's how to write a chart," and one of them said, "Here's where you sit." And finally George Duvivier, the bass player, and to this day I don't know who brought him on, because George was a black upright jazz player. It was a real curveball for a pop session. But George finally looked up and said, "Gentlemen, let's listen to the song once." And I think he'd been the only one listening to the lyric. He listened down once, took it, the next take we were done.
Songfacts: So you needed a little help when you were that young.
Janis: I don't think it was that I was that young. It was that musicians at the time, unless they were jazz players - because jazz traditionally you work with the vocalist - they were just playing hits. It didn't matter what the lyrics were, nobody thought lyrics were very important. "Da Doo Ron Ron," I mean, Phil Spector heard that song, said, "We gotta cut it," and Ellie said, "We haven't finished the chorus." And he said, "That's okay, just sing what you were just singing." So lyrics and pop music really were not a big issue until Dylan, and he was thought of as kind of a fluke.
So the musicians, they were the A-team players. They played three sessions a day and they made three-to-six hits a day. Didn't occur to them to listen.
Songfacts: So you didn't write the song about anybody in particular?
Janis: No, I mean my parents were the complete opposite of the parents in that song. They wouldn't have cared if I'd married a Martian, so long as I was happy. And because it was an all-black neighborhood, most of my good friends, Deborah Keeno, Connie – this boy that I just adored, who was just a sweetheart – they were all black, because the white kids, frankly, were kind of that snotty, white, middle-class… the girls always had the current clothing. And I thought the black chicks – they dressed better, they listened to better music. I mean, if you put Fabian next to the Supremes and the Four Tops, it's not really a contest. There was a big Newark station that was almost exclusively R&B, and then there was one folk music program on a week. And that was all I listened to for years. So I didn't hear rock and roll 'til I was 13 or 14, and then I heard the Beach Boys, and then the Beatles.
Songfacts: When you write a song like this, I imagine a lot of people must have thought it was about an actual person, or about your life.
Janis: Oh, sure. People always do.
Songfacts: And did they then speculate? How did you deal with that?
Janis: I just kept saying it wasn't my parents. I felt bad for my folks, because there's my dad being stuck, people thinking he's a racist. I mean, I think it's one of the hallmarks of folk music in general, that any kind of song that's not a directly political song is going to – hopefully – let people identify with it and accept that it's true, because they believe that it's about you. I mean, "At Seventeen," which is about me, wouldn't have that kind of universality if it wasn't. Remember, "Society's Child" was only my tenth or twelfth song, I mean, I hadn't been writing very long. As I got older I realized how important it was to have that universality in a song, to have something that everyone could connect with. Because people use music and song, I think, in large part to keep chaos at bay. We take people's fears and experiences and dreams and things that they're afraid to talk about, or that they're uncomfortable talking about, and we put them into a form that they can use as a mirror to see themselves at a distance, where it's a little safer.
The thing that surprises me now about "Society's Child" – I mean, it's a cool record; the harpsichord intro and then outro, it's very striking – is that there were about ten years there where nobody wanted to hear it and I didn't have to sing it. And then about five years ago, people started just calling for it. And I realized that there was a whole generation – two generations – that had grown up on it from the age of five to 25, who were suddenly coming to my shows. A lot of Vietnam vets, because even though it was banned here they played the crap on it on radio-free Europe and all the air force and the army bases. So now it's part of the set, it's gotta be in there.
Songfacts: What were some of the rumors that you got a kick out of that you heard about when you wrote this song?
Janis: Oh, that my parents had written it. That was a big one. That I was actually black. I heard that. I just heard from a Brazilian who was surprised I wasn't. There weren't that many. It wasn't as rumor driven then as it is now. You didn't have People magazine and stuff.
Songfacts: So how did this song become a hit? What made it all of the sudden break out?
Janis: Well, it didn't. I mean, they released it once. We cut it for Atlantic, they passed, gave it back to us. We took it to 22 record companies, Shadow took it, and his people, they all passed. And finally MGM formed a new company called Verve Forecast, and they took it as a tax loss. They signed everybody, me, Richie Havens, Laura Nyro, they figured we'd all lose the money. And they believed in it, though. It got stunning reviews, and in the Gavin sheet said this was a great, great record, too bad it would never see the light of day. And it got isolated play, Flint, Michigan, New York City. Luckily for me it coincided with the rise of FM radio and people started playing it in protest. But even then we released it once, and then we released it six months later, and then six months after that. And Leonard Bernstein – I was playing the Gaslight, and his producer saw me and heard the story of the record and brought it to his attention. And Bernstein had a show coming up on a Sunday night at eight, which was prime, prime time. And he featured it for almost 15 minutes. And the record company was smart enough to take advantage of it, and the next day there were big ads in the trades with apologies from radio stations, and they started playing it. Never went #1, because they would start playing it in one area, and then the next area would get just brave enough a month later. So it was a slow process. But because of that it lasted a long time.
Songfacts: So Leonard Bernstein played it with his orchestra?
Janis: No, I played it on his show and he discussed it, and he kind of yelled at radio for not playing it.
Songfacts: Tremendous exposure.
Janis: Huge exposure. Especially then. I mean there were what? – seven TV channels. There was nothing to watch, and there was so little music on. And he was also the stamp of approval. And part of the reason he did the show was because everybody was so snotty about pop music. I mean, we were the ones making all the money, but the New York Times couldn't be bothered putting us in there. Even now it's pretty rare. And Bob Shelton, the music critic at the New York Times, was the one who contacted Bernstein's producer.
Songfacts: How about "At Seventeen"?
Janis: Well, "17"'s a different story. By then I was actually a writer. I'd written "Society's Child," I'd written "Jessie," "Stars" had come out I'd toured behind that. I'd had to move back into my mom's house because I was broke, and I couldn't make any money on the road. And I was just sitting around with the guitar at the kitchen table 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." And I was playing that little samba figure – (sings a few notes) – and the line struck me for some reason. The whole article was about how she learned that being a debutante really didn't mean that much. And I changed it to "17" because "18" didn't scan. And if I'm remembering right I wrote the first verse pretty quickly. To me it's a very logical song. "I learned the truth at 17," – what did you learn? "That love was meant for beauty queens," – and who else? "And high school girls with clear skin smiles," – well, what do we not like about that? "Who married young and then retired." You know, if I dissect the song now, it makes a lot of sense. But at the time I remember I tried to write a chorus and it just didn't want a chorus. It's hard to explain to people who don't write songs, but there's a point where you don't have that much control. I mean, you have a lot of control over the craft, but not over the inspiration. And I wrote the first verse and chorus, and it was so brutally honest. It's hard to imagine now, but people just weren't writing that kind of song. I was coming out of listening to people like Billie Holliday, and Nina Simone, who did write those kind of songs. But pop music and folk music really didn't.
So I thought, "I can't blow this song. This is really going to be a good song." And I put it away for three weeks. 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. And then I thought, Well, I'll just recap it and bring myself right into it, and say it's in the past. To me it's never been a depressing song, because it says "ugly duckling girls like me," and to me the ugly duckling always turns into a swan. It's like that Billie Holliday line, somebody said, "Why are your songs so sad?" And she said, "They all have hope, honey." To me, "17" offers hope. It offers hope that there is a world out there of people who understand.
And I think by then I'd learned stuff that I did instinctively. I always tell classes when I lecture that you can teach somebody focus and entrance and exit and energy, but you can't teach somebody talent. You can't teach somebody the instinct to be a good songwriter. I mean, you can study all the books you want, you still won't have it. There's an instinct that made me lift the chorus in "Society's Child," or lift the bridges in "At 17," or leave space where it needed to be, and that's just instinct. That's nothing that I ever question or study.
Songfacts: So when you wrote that song, were your experiences at the age of 17 really the basis for this?
Janis: More like 14, 13, 12. But 17 scans. And I was so ahead of the curve. I mean, by the time I was 17 I had been on the road for two years. So I never went to a prom, it was not even a question. But I did go to my sixth-grade dance. That's the trick, see, it's just like acting. I mean, you can't play Hamlet because how many people are playing Hamlet as father, as a king? But you take your own experience and find something similar in it and draw on that. So even though I didn't go to the prom, I knew what it was like not to be at the dance. Not to be asked to the dance, and have to go alone. I knew what it was like not to get Valentines. All those things – hand-me-downs, I wore hand-me-downs. Dylan once said every song ultimately is about the writer, and I think that's probably real true.
Songfacts: It seems like it was about the high school experience, which seems pretty much universal.
Janis: Yeah, it crosses all boundaries, all lines. Even people who don't have high school. I mean, adolescence is just miserable. It's horrible. Everybody has a horrible adolescence, even the football kings and the beauty queens have a horrible adolescence. Everybody's an alien at that age.
Songfacts: Well, it's a time when everything is magnified. And problems that seem so inconsequential now – oh, no, I have bad hair; or my car isn't looking right; my mom is on my case – just is the weight of the world when you're in high school.
Janis: It's raging hormones. It's their itch factor.
Songfacts: And it's one of these topics that just, through the decades, has been written about time and time again. Pearl Jam's writing songs about high school experience.
Janis: Sure. It surprised me, because I thought it was a pretty wordy song – it still is. It's pretty intellectual, here are words like ventures, qualities, dubious integrity. You don't expect the large demographic to get that. And I didn't think they would. But I also knew when I finished it, I remember I called my manager and I said, "I think I've just written my first hit." And she came over and said, "Yeah, that's a hit record." Then I remember when we were in the studio I was so desperate for it to have the feeling of confusion and of adolescence under it that I actually hired a kid who had never done a session before, he was a real good guitarist, but he was just a kid, and brought him in, and I kicked the lead guitarist out of the session because I said, "You're not taking this seriously. You don't understand what I'm trying to do here. I'm trying to make a record that speaks to everyone, and you're just playing licks." And he said, "Well, why did you hire me?" And I said, "You're right, I was wrong. Get out of my studio." Because this kid was so scared you could smell his sweat across the room. Because of that, every other musician in the room paid attention. And that was really important to that song. It needed people to pay attention and to relate to it. I hate the kind of metaphysical way this sounds, but to draw on their own wellspring of experience and adolescence and as geeky kids. The only people maybe who are more geeky than musicians are writers. So they really needed to understand that this needed to be treated tenderly, but with some balls, because the girl does survive.
And it really shocked me that it became such a widespread hit. It still shocks me. I mean, I'll play it in factory towns, steel mill towns, strip mining towns, and it'll mean just as much to those folks. I don't even know if they know what those words are, but it means a lot to them. It's saying someday it will be over, someday it will be okay.
Songfacts: It must have struck a chord with a lot of people if they were willing to listen to it despite these words that they might not understand.
Janis: I think it's just the first and the third verse to that, just to boldly say I learned that love was only meant for the pretty, not for the likes of me.
Songfacts: Do you think it's one of these songs that you listen to it once and you get a pretty good idea of what it's about, but you can listen to it many more times before you really understand it?
Janis: So I'm told. I think you understand it at first. I mean, you know, what does any good song do? Any good song or any good record makes you feel something, even if it's just tapping your foot. It makes you feel. There's a visceral reaction. If you can take a lyric like "At 17" and couple it with a pretty melody so that it sneaks in before they know what they're hearing, then by the time you get to that third verse you've already got 'em.
Songfacts: Was there any problem in getting a song that was so lyrically intensive on the radio?
Janis: (Laughs) Not to mention it was so long – it was a minute over the norm. I think it ran 4:36 or something like that. Yeah, CBS, bless their hearts, and Herb Gart, who was in charge of the production company, and Brooks Arthur and me, we worked our asses off on that record. I mean literally went out for six months worth of tour with 6 a.m. TV shows. Herb and CBS figured out that what we would need would be to get the women to listen. And at the time radio was so much a male function. Alison Steele was the only female disc jockey I was aware of in New York. So they sent copies of it to all the program directors' wives. And then the put me on every daytime TV show they could get me on. At the end of those six months the only way to wake me up was to throw a wet washcloth in my face, because I couldn't get up, I was so tired. But we'd hit the town the night before, grab four hours' sleep, and then get up at 5, do the 6 a.m., do the 8 a.m., try and get on the 9 a.m. news, try and do the noon news, meet with the rack jobbers at 1, have quick lunch, go to the venue, do some press, hope that the cameras would be there for that. It was very grass roots. It was very much glad handing and appealing to women. And then when it started to become a hit, I finally got a shot on the Tonight Show and that pushed it over the edge.
Songfacts: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at the time?
Janis: Uh-huh. And I'd done that with "Society's Child," so to go back was pretty cool. They were always real good to me, I had a pretty open invite. I think I did it eight or nine times all told.
Songfacts: Was Carson the host the first time you went on?
Songfacts: That must have been interesting.
Janis: I don't remember much of it. I remember Look magazine was doing a profile on me, and I've got a bunch of pictures at home of it. But I didn't think about it much.
Songfacts: One thing I want to clear up: when you said "it doesn't scan," does that mean it doesn't fit into that lyric?
Janis: It rhythmically doesn't fit. You know, it doesn't work to say, "I learned the truth at 18," it just doesn't have the same lilt. Again, that's instinct. I don't know why I picked that. But 17 worked and 18 didn't. In retrospect a very smart choice. Stella Adler, my acting teacher, always said, "Your talent lies in your choices." And I think that's very true. Your talent dictates what you'll write about, how you'll approach it. Your craft can guide you, but it's the talent that leads you. At least one hopes so.
Songfacts: Anything else about the songwriting process or the recording process or promotion of that song that you think is interesting?
Janis: It's got too many chords (laughs). If I was writing it again I'd have less chords. I was talking with some poor girl last night who said she'd been trying to learn it for eight years, and I said, "Buy the songbook. You know, we sell the songbook, I did the transcription so that it's easy." And she said, "I never thought of that." And I thought, Oh my God, you've been trying to play it all these years, God, all those A-flats. Too many chords. It does work, you know, it's very resilient. It's interesting to me that the song still gets the amount of airplay and sales that it gets. And that's a really long time in pop music for what's essentially a ballad to survive. It's a pretty cool thing to see a mother bringing a 17-year-old daughter, who she's just given "Between The Lines" to. I guess that's what you hope for as a songwriter. I mean, periodically they update the obituary columns and I get a bunch of calls saying, "How do you want to be remembered when you're dead?" You know, really – thank you very much. But I don't care. On my assumption it was always that my work would be good for about ten years, and wouldn't that be a great ride. So to have it last this long means that it hit a universality that is really universal. It's not tied to the times at all, or to the culture. Because it's the same reaction in Japan or in France or in England. And that's a great thing as a songwriter, because that's what you're striving to hit, that universal button that reaches a common humanity we've all got lurking somewhere.
This interview took place in March, 2003. There were no iPods, Free (and usually illegal) MP3s were all the rage, and we weren't sure if American Idol was going to be a big deal. What follows are Janis' remarkably prescient thoughts on the music industry.Songfacts: Do you think artists should put MP3s for free on the Web?
Janis: I think it depends on the artist. I certainly shouldn't, my merchandise is still 200%. So it's been good for me. I think if anybody should have the choice it should be the artist. It shouldn't be somebody stealing tapes out of a studio, like the Dave Matthews, and deciding to disseminate them. We don't all spend that much time making our records and spend that much of our own money, ultimately, making records so that somebody can put out a half-finished product. I think it's a great tool, but I think that ultimately it's got to be up to the individual.
Songfacts: If you were starting out today as a very talented young singer/songwriter, and you're starting your career, what would you do? Would you go to a major label and try to get a record deal?
Janis: I don't know, because I wanted to be famous, and the only way to get really famous still is through a major label. So yeah, I would probably go for that first.
Songfacts: Even knowing what you know now?
Janis: I still wouldn't have the financial backing. I mean, my Web site alone, with the amount of space we run and the amount of space the MP3s take up, costs $500 a month. We have enormous amounts of stuff posted there. So there's no way I could afford to do what I do as a starting-out artist. So yeah, I think I would probably hope for a major label contract. But I would certainly also explore getting signed by somebody like Ani's label, or the Indigo Girls' label, one of the smaller independents around. The DIY route is very difficult. It's very regional. We looked at it for my next two records and decided to go with Oh Boy, if for nothing else because I can't afford the infrastructure to publicize a record. I have two people on staff, that's it. So how many people can I have on the phone all day talking to rack jobbers and trying to get me positioned and stuff like that, making sure that it's in the stores when I'm playing in town. I broke it all down in an article called "From The Majors To The Minors." There's pluses and minuses in all three of them, in the DIY and the independent label and in the major labels. I don't necessarily think any one's better than the other. It's just what the artist wants. A Britney Spears really needs a major label. Nothing against her – there's not enough sheer talent there to carry it with a do-it-yourself. And Ani DiFranco doesn't. She's got Scott, her manager. And between the two of them they're a formidable business team.
Songfacts: Ten years from now how do you think it's going to change?
Janis: Oh, God. I think within the next five years we'll see a technology change that'll make pretty much everything we're doing obsolete.
Songfacts: CDs even?
Janis: Oh yeah, yeah. They have to become obsolete. It's going to be a long, hard haul, because getting rid of stores, you're basically cutting out the middleman. There's technologies coming that do a much better job of duplicating sound, and they'll supplant the CD. And as people want everything to be more and more mobile they're going to have to come up with ways you'll not have to carry around jewel boxes and CD holders and CD players and speakers and all of that. I think it's going to be just like when CDs happened. Somewhere out there there's an R&D group that's developing something that'll blow everything else out of the water.
Songfacts: Do you think the record companies will ever get it right?
Janis: No. Why should they? They have too much invested in getting it wrong. No. The LP was only developed because the single was developed, and somebody, came out with the long-play and patented that. The only reason technology in most businesses is developed is because there's competition. And that's why we have the RICO act. That's why we give tax incentives to people who develop oil wells and new technologies. And somewhere out there in a garage somewhere there's some kid who's the new Steve Jobs or Wozniak, or Kevin Mitnick for that matter, who's developing something that's just going to blow all this out of the water. And if the Internet can stay relatively free, as Blue Tooth becomes more and more viable, as WiFi becomes more and more viable, as satellites become more dependable, as price goes down and the whole world is connected, it's going to become a whole different world. I don't think I'll recognize it in 20 years.
Songfacts: Do you think it'll be better or worse for the music industry over all?
Janis: I think it's already better for the smaller artists. It's a lot rougher to make it huge than it was when I was a kid, because there are so many artists now, so many people want to be famous. In America everybody wants to be famous. When I was a kid people thought you were weird if you wanted to be famous. But everybody seems to think they've got a shot, even if they're completely talent-less. So that's the downside of it. But I think the upside is that it does allow people to have smaller but viable careers. So it kind of brings it back to the '60s when everybody would have been very happy playing to 90 seats a night five nights a week, and making a living.
Songfacts: So if you don't want to be famous, it seems like you can produce your own stuff, get it in these digital formats, promote it yourself, play a lot of clubs, and have a very viable career. We've seen lots of people doing it.
Janis: If you don't want to be super-famous, yeah. The problem with being an artist is that I've never yet met an artist who wants to create in a vacuum. Once you've done it, you want it heard or seen. So you need an audience. And of most of us the bigger the audience, the better, because that many more people are hearing it, or seeing it, or whatever. But I think there's a savvy now among younger acts where they measure the cost of a Dixie Chicks' success, say, or Britney Spears, against what you've got to give up, and find that they're not willing to give that up, even at 15. I wasn't. There were a lot of things that I would not do that would have ensured my becoming a lot more famous. But coming out of folk, I didn't really want to do them. And I think that's much more prevalent today, as they are better educated. I mean, when I was a kid there weren't even any music schools to go to unless it was classical. If you found a guitar teacher you were lucky. There weren't music magazines, Crawdaddy was the first one I saw, and then Rolling Stone. But there really weren't any magazines that took folk or pop seriously, but for Sing Out and Broadside. That's all changed now. Now it's a huge business.
Songfacts: Just have to watch American Idol to see that. Seems like everybody wants to be famous now.
Janis Everybody does. It's the American disease.
Songfacts: Not only that, it's the whole process thing. They don't seem to mind being packaged by a major label.
Janis: Well, they never did. They never did. Even in the '30s. Look at the pictures of Lena Horne with her skin lightened. I mean, sure, they minded. But that was the price. There's always a price, it's just are you willing to pay it?
Songfacts: What would be compelling questions to ask people – disc jockeys, record industry execs – about how to make the music industry better?
Janis: That's a good question. That's a good question overall: "How do we make it better?" How can we make radio better, how can we make stores better, how can we make stores somewhere that people are comfortable going into again? Forget about making music better, that's the artist's job.
Janis continues to be a vibrant force in Folk music. We spoke with her on March 14, 2003. Her website is janisian.com.
More Songwriter Interviews