Society's Child Grows Up

The teenage one-hit wonder gets a third act with Billie's Bones

Janis Ian is no longer "Society's Child" and is decades past being "At Seventeen." Yet the artist who created such hit songs from the struggles and memories of youth is still, at 52 years old, brimming with artistic and personal vitality, unlike some of her peers and contemporaries.

"I certainly have bought my share of albums by people I really respect and admire and taken a listen and really regretted spending the money. And thought, 'I can't believe you're putting this out. Where's your brain?'" she says. "I really don't know what happens to those people. I think that a lot of it is just getting older. And I think part of it is being out of touch. I think a lot of people get insulated, especially if they're successful in this business."

Success has struck Ian twice in her career. The first time was in 1966, at the age of 15, when she became something of a poster child for the day's struggles with "Society's Child." Her hit song about teen interracial love landed the songwriter stories in Life Magazine, Time and Newsweek. But by the end of the decade, her star had faded, and Ian announced her retirement.

"When you've been doing the same thing since you were 15, it's really hard to keep an edge," says Janis Ian, the 52-year-old singer-songwriter who first hit at 15 with "Society's Child."
"When you've been doing the same thing since you were 15, it's really hard to keep an edge," says Janis Ian, the 52-year-old singer-songwriter who first hit at 15 with "Society's Child."

A few years later, she sought to re-enter the business and faced--though barely out of her teens--the perception that she was washed-up. But an Australian record company took a chance on Ian when American labels wouldn't. By 1975, she scored another major U.S. hit with "At Seventeen," which detailed the pain of being an "ugly duckling" in high school. As a result, Ian sold millions of records, won two Grammys and entered the pantheon of superstardom. She also disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald's maxim that American lives have no second acts.

In fact, Ian has done Fitzgerald one better with a third act that finds her financing her latest album, Billie's Bones, out of her own pocket and still offering cogent explorations of the emotional realm set to lovely and sophisticated melodies. It's a work of an artist who is comfortable in her own skin, and it is also flavored with the sounds of the ex-New Yorker's current home in Nashville (including a guest vocal by her friend Dolly Parton). Yet Ian continues to delve into life's travails and tragedies on the title tune, written about her star-crossed heroine Billie Holiday, as well as a song about gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard.

Ian is also unafraid to incorporate her social stances in her own life, such as last summer when she married her longtime companion, criminal defense attorney Patricia Snyder, in Canada. Though she now speaks through actions rather than perhaps the soapbox of her past, "On something like gay marriage, I obviously have very definite feelings on it. But those feelings were pretty much expressed by getting married."

Yet she does have definite thoughts on the burgeoning national controversy over gay marriage. "I really find it difficult to believe that most Americans worry more about who I am in bed with or who I marry than they do about taxes." And as she also notes, "Fear is always easier to sell than hope. And it's easier to rally people around fear."

Ian herself offers a certain hope and inspiration in demonstrating how an artist can do her best work after the spotlight has faded. For her the secret is not getting caught up in the trappings of fame and continuing to live a relatively regular existence. "Most of my friends have day jobs," she says. "I don't go to a lot of industry things. And the problems that I hear people talk about are things like their kids on dope. I think that keeps me a little more in touch."

She does observe how "it's easy to get distracted when you get older. When you're a kid and you're being an artist, you don't have a family to support, you don't have kids, you don't have day-to-day business, you certainly aren't carrying around 20 to 30 years' worth of luggage. I think there's a lot more RAM available, a lot more energy.

"And I think also people get weary. It's easy to get weary. When you've been doing the same thing since you were 15 or 16 years old or younger, it's really hard to keep an edge. I see it in myself. And I'm big on edge."

Ian is satisfied with a career where she is not "going for the brass ring," but her regrets about grabbing it in the past are few. "It was a great thing. Having a hit record is nothing to sneer at. If I hadn't had a bunch of them, I wouldn't be talking like this. It's great fun. And I think it's well worth the price if you're bent on that kind of career. I think also there's a time when everyone has to grow up."

Ian offers what wisdom she has gained as a regular columnist for Performing Songwriter magazine. "I wish somebody had been around to do that for me," she explains. One inspiration to write was the time she spent in the 1980s studying with noted acting teacher Stella Adler, where she learned "what it was to mentor within a group setting and realized what a terrible lack of that there is in my own industry. You really do need to give back something. In the long scheme of things, I've been treated really well as an artist worldwide, and to not try and pass some of that on is almost criminal."

So even though Ian grew up very much in public, she actually did in fact grow up. As she says now, "I'm too old to be self-conscious." Coming of age atop the record charts can certainly knock the self-consciousness out of you. "If you have any sense, it does. It can go one way or another. You're either like a Liza Minnelli, where you're so hyper-conscious of yourself all the time that you sort of defeat your own purpose. Or you take the route an Ani DiFranco takes or I take, which is, then I'll just be myself."

And ultimately, Ian has one final secret. "Just don't settle."

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