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Feature Thu Sep 01 2011
Quick quiz: Which musician spoke of this auspicious start to her career in music? "A radio station in Atlanta dared to put [my song] in rotation, and someone burned the station down. Strangers walked up to me in restaurants and spit in my food... one [fan] letter would thank me for speaking out, the next would have razor blades taped to the envelope so I'd shred my fingers opening it... People threatened to burn down the venues I worked in, to run me over in the street, to shoot me while I was on stage."
Hint: she was only 15 at the time.
Janis Ian (Photo by Peter Cunningham)
Janis Ian's "Society's Child" brought heat from all directions. Stations bold enough to play it were rewarded with equal doses of accolade and venom from listeners. A sensitively wrought portrait of a doomed interracial relationship, "Society's Child" is compelling enough on its own merits, but in a culturally abraded year like 1965, it was spark applied to powder. Read that first paragraph again: Razorblades. Fire. Guns. This isn't cowardly internet dweebs railing against Rebecca Black's auto-tuning; "Society's Child" brought out primal conflicts in the hearts of people who felt that the civil rights struggles throughout the U.S. represented the end of civilization as we know it, and they pushed back with all the violence and bile they could muster.
To no avail. "Society's Child" was a bona-fide radio hit, gaining country-wide acceptance following a glowing review of her music on Leonard Bernstein's one-hour TV special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. The respected orchestral composer's stamp of approval made Ian's music safe for timid radio programmers - KRLA in Los Angeles even took out a full-page ad apologizing to Ian for previously blacklisting her music. Far from a time-capsule piece that requires historical context, "Society's Child" still retains its literary and emotional power to this day, and it made Janis Ian a star at 15.
Janis Ian on The Tonight Show, 1967. (Photo by Gilbert.)
Though she continued to release music of equal quality, by the time of her underrated fifth album, 1971's Present Company, Ian had been dropped from her record company due to lack of radio hits. 1974's Stars returned Ian to the radio waves with the beautiful title track, a sweet ode to the performing life written after hearing Don McLean's "Vincent" for the first time, but her next hit is the one you probably know the best. 1975's "At Seventeen" sent Ian rocketing back to the top of the charts for the first time in a decade. Her observations on loss, betrayal, loneliness, and eventual relief and redemption caught the public imagination, and the Between the Lines album sold over a million copies. (Bonus hip cred: "At Seventeen" was the first song performed on a struggling TV program no one remembers now called "Saturday Night Live.")
By the time of 1993's Breaking Silence, and with nearly two decades of middling sales and record label hostility, Ian was picking up recording time in fits and starts as money allowed, and with no record label behind her, she believed that this might be her last record. Ian bared her soul in full on Breaking Silence, covering topics including incest, spousal abuse and the Holocaust, while also making the difficult decision to come out publicly as a lesbian. Breaking Silence sold only 35,000 copies, and she and the Morgan Creek label split soon after, but the energy was out in the universe, and it came back to her with new opportunities; the album was nominated for a Grammy, and glowing reviews brought renewed interest in Ian's music.
After a short period on new age label Windham Hill, Ian took her business career in her own hands and started Rude Girl Music, named for a stinging remark made against her by an interviewer in the late '60s. Her 2002 essay "The Internet Debacle" won her new tech-savvy fans (your author included) with its passionate, nuanced defense of filesharing as a useful tool for artists whose work was left to languish by record label A&R eager only for the next multi-platinum hit. At a time when the recording industry pushed against the encroachment of new technology, "The Internet Debacle" and its follow-up essay again made her new allies and plenty of furious enemies. Of course, she accurately predicted the rise of iTunes and other legal MP3s-for-sale sites that allow musicians to target select audiences while giving listeners more customized buying options for music. (Greatest Hits packages with one new unreleased song, your time is up.)
Meanwhile, Ian's frank discussion of her sexuality has made her a lively guest on programs like The Howard Stern Show, while her regular column for The Advocate was ironically terminated for being too provocative (in part, she suspects, because of her passionate defense of Stern and his show). Collaborations with Ani DiFranco have introduced her songs to a new generation of guitar-rattling troubadours, and her 2006 album, Folk Is the New Black (again released on Rude Girl), is one of her most topical and risk-taking yet, comparable in its social and political viscera to Neil Young's Living With War.
Recently, Ian spoke before the Metro School Librarians in Nashville about the crucial role that reading played in her early life and on the life of the country. "It is difficult to subdue a fully literate people," she said. "They are exposed to too many different trains of thought. They are taught to question, to challenge, to argue. In our respect for literacy, as in so many other things, we artists have a great deal in common with you." Ian's passion for science fiction inspired a 2004 anthology entitled Stars: Original Stories Based On the Songs of Janis Ian, featuring stories by John Varley, Mercedes Lackey, Orson Scott Card, and Ian herself. (You can hear her ode to the sci-fi authors that changed her life, "Welcome Home," on her free MP3 page.)
In addition, Ian has also begun teaching what she calls "Master Classes," talking to local performers and writers about her experiences and her working methods. When I spoke to her on the phone, Ms. Ian said that she felt that even non-performers could benefit, and that through the classes, she hopes to "show the nobility of the artist in society." (A recent master class was pressed as a limited edition 2CD set and sold on the Janis Ian website.)
Whether you've been with her since the Gaslight folk club scene in the '60s or you just discovered her on the internet, Janis Ian welcomes you to the live experience. It can bring laughter (check out the sweetly tart "Married In London" on her free MP3 page) or tears (especially mine if she plays "Lover's Lullaby"!). It's the ache of being aware mixed with the joy of being alive. And rude.
Janis Ian performs at SPACE in Evanston (1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston) on Friday, Sept. 9, at 8pm. Tickets range from $25-$40. Her autobiography, Society's Child, is available at fine bookstores everywhere, as well as on the author's website.