Janis Ian Recounts Her Renegade Teen Years Janis Ian wrote "Society's Child," a song about an interracial couple in the 1960s, when she was 15 years old, a song that she says everyone hated her for. In a new memoir, Ian recounts her life as an activist and musician.
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Janis Ian Recounts Her Renegade Teen Years

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Janis Ian Recounts Her Renegade Teen Years

Janis Ian Recounts Her Renegade Teen Years

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The more attentive listeners among you know that we're running an occasional series among, I admit, a great many series that we're running nowadays, a series called "Echoes of 1968." I take a special interest in it because, unlike most of my colleagues on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I actually remember 1968.

But evidently, I don't remember it very clearly. I recently saw a new book that I thought was an echo of 1968. Its cover says, "Society's Child: My Autobiography" by Janis Ian.

(Soundbite of song "Society's Child)

Ms. JANIS IAN (Singer/Author): (Singing) Come to my door, baby. Face is clean and shining black as night. My mother went to answer you know that you looked so fine.

SIEGEL: Actually, I figured wrong. Janis Ian's revolutionary hit record "Society's Child" is actually an echo of 1966. She was all of 15 when she wrote it, a rock song in the voice of a white teenage girl addressing her black teenage boyfriend. I think of it as revolutionary because it was a pop music hit, electric instruments and all, taking on a serious social theme. That didn't happen much in 1966. Well, several years later in the 1970s, Janis Ian wrote and recorded another very memorable song, an anthem of the adolescent outsider.

(Soundbite of song "At Seventeen")

Ms. IAN: (Singing) I learned the truth at 17 that love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles who married...

SIEGEL: Janis Ian was born in 1951. So, when she was 17, it was 1968.

Ms. IAN: To me, 1968 was the beginning of the end. It might as well have been 1969 because it sort of wrapped up everything that had begun in the '60s. And I think for those of us who had been active in civil rights and been active in the Vietnam War protests, it really became a very clear indicator that we had totally underestimated the powers that be.

I think all of us thought that by the '70s - at the latest, the '80s, all the world's problems would be solved and everyone would be getting along fine. And instead, we saw that Martin Luther King was assassinated that year, Robert F. Kennedy died. We saw that it was going to be a lot more difficult that I think we had thought.

SIEGEL: Where do you think that extraordinary sense of possibility came from among young people in 1968? It seems to have crossed borders all over the world and popped up in different continents, young people believing that, clearly, everything was about to change.

Ms. IAN: I think it was just time. The world had come through the two big wars. And there was that incredible mood in America in the '50s that anything was possible. And my whole generation was raised on that mood, that we could be anything, we had the right to be anything, the women's movement had started, the gay rights movement had started. There was just freedom in the air, Robert, it was just an incredibly heady time.

SIEGEL: Well, you were incredibly precocious. "Society's Child," the song that you wrote, you were famous for it by the time you were 15 years old.

Ms. IAN: That's right. That's a tough way to start with the song that a lot of people hate you for.

SIEGEL: It's a song about interracial dating. I mean, to the adult Readers Digest (unintelligible) you here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And it was something that you wouldn't have imagined Teresa Brewer recording a song about interracial dating. You would have assumed folk musicians did that sort of thing, not pop music that lots of teenagers would listen to.

Ms. IAN: But I think that was the other very cool thing that started happening in '67, '68. There was a real push to blend the genres and to let the genres talk to each other. And there were promoters like Bill Graham who would insist on blending genres in the show. So, New York's Village Theater, at one point, if you wanted to see Janis Ian, me, you also had to sit through B.B. King, and you had to sit through Taj Mahal and The Doors, and vice versa with any of the others.

There was a wonderful cross-fertilization on all fronts, on the clothing front, on the music front, even on books and radio. And because of that, I think you saw this incredible flowering of creativity where folk singers were recording with pop in the background, and pop singers were trying to record folk songs, and classical people like Bernstein were actually listening to people like me.

SIEGEL: The idea - this may be completely uneventful to any person in America today, but the idea that a song about a black boyfriend appearing at his white girlfriend's house, that there would be electronic instruments behind that...

Ms. IAN: Hmm.

SIEGEL: ...was in some way utterly jarring in 1966. That was something, if anyone sang about it, it was with, as we now say, an acoustic guitar and not much else.

Ms. IAN: And it certainly wasn't about to be a national hit like "Society's Child" became. You know, when I sat down to write this autobiography, I started going through the old press clippings. And I had forgotten just how volatile it was, how in PTA meetings, they would be bringing up the song and opening up the subject for discussion. The amount of hate mail that I got, the amount of sheer - being spit at in the street, things like that, that I had conveniently misplaced in my memory, came rushing back.

SIEGEL: I want you to recall when the idea for such a song came to you.

Ms. IAN: I was sitting on a bus, either going to school or from school in East Orange, New Jersey, where we were living at the time. I was 14, and I was one of, I think four, maybe five Caucasian kids in an all-black school and neighborhood, very middle-class, very upwardly mobile neighborhood. But still, I was definitely the outsider.

And I was on the bus watching a young couple. He was black and she was white. And they were young, and they were holding hands. And they were just oblivious to the way people were glaring at them, not just white people, I mean, everyone was glaring at them but me. And I started thinking about how hard that was going to be and wondering whether their parents even knew that they were dating, and if their parents didn't know, whether anybody on the bus was going to tell on them.

And it sort of started evolving into the song where I wondered whether the girl would be able to take the pressure. And in the end, I thought, she probably wouldn't. It probably wouldn't last. And that was too bad, but it made for a good song.

SIEGEL: So, the girl in the song, far from being a young, romantic Joan of Arc here, she gives in. She says, well, I can't see you anymore. Maybe when we're older, maybe times will change, she says. She cops out.

Ms. IAN: She does cop out. And that was part of why I found it so odd that people would get so upset over "Society's Child" because to me, the song had the ending that the conservatives or the people who didn't believe in mixing races wanted. So, I didn't understand why everybody was so bothered and making threats against me and threats against radio stations and what not.

SIEGEL: Maybe it was the album-cut length, that some people just didn't get to the end of the song and didn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: ...and didn't hear the end of the lyric.

Ms. IAN: That was an argument. And I remember the record company wanting to know, couldn't we cut out the second verse? And I said, well, it won't make any sense. Sure, but it really won't make any sense. That was pretty funny.

SIEGEL: Janis Ian, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms IAN: Robert, an honor and a privilege.

(Soundbite of song "Society's Child")

Ms. IAN: (Singing) Baby, I'm only society's child. When we're older things may change. But for now, this is the way they must remain. I say I can't...

SIEGEL: Janis Ian now lives in Nashville with her wife. Her book is called "Society's Child: My Autobiography."

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