Pop-Folk songstress Janis Ian has sustained a long career, but is best known for two hits that established her as a writer unafraid to take on weighty subject matter. The first was “Society’s Child,” a controversial 1965 song about an interracial teen romance that was a hit when Ian was just 15, the second, released a decade later, was “At Seventeen,” a stark, intimate song narrating the experiences of an outcast, lovelorn teenager.
Born Janis Eddy Fink, Ian grew up in a socially conscious family in New Jersey, learning to play piano at two. Influenced by Folk singers like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Odetta, she wrote her first song at 12. She started hanging around Folk clubs in New York, where she periodically snagged opening sets. A music industry professional spotted her during one such appearance, which ultimately led her to her first recording contract at the tender age of 14.
Ian’s first single was “Society’s Child (I’ve Been Thinking),” a song she wrote after watching a young interracial couple on a bus. When the track became a hit in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the subject ignited an explosive response, and Ian was targeted with hate mail, death threats, booing, and heckling.
Despite the success she earned with the song and her eponymous debut album, Janis went broke in the years that followed, as her next few records failed to generate significant sales. Tagged a one-hit wonder, she announced her retirement from music and married a photojournalist she had met at a peace rally. Neither the marriage nor the retirement lasted long, and Ian found chart success again in 1975, with the record Between the Lines and its single “At Seventeen.” A heartstring-tugging first-person account of the realities of life for teenage “ugly duckling girls,” the song hit No. 3, won a Grammy, and brought Ian new fans around the world.
The next period in Ian’s life was full of hardships. Her next few releases were slow sellers and by 1981 she was without a record label. A second marriage ended after she alleged physical abuse and she suffered health and financial problems. Once again she dropped out of the music world.
She returned in 1993 with Breaking Silence, which coincided with her coming out as a lesbian and marrying her longtime partner. Reenergized, she recorded a series of independently released albums with songs that unflinchingly explored tough themes like domestic violence, prostitution, and homelessness. Ian continues to write and tour, playing to a devoted fan base. She’s also written a good deal of prose, including science-fiction stories and a memoir, Society’s Child.