Janis Ian, “At Seventeen” and The Fate of the Ugly Duckling

One of the pitfalls of writing a bit of an “uncool” post around here, is that for the next few days, the title appears in all its glory on the sidebars of the blogs whose hosts have been kind enough to create a link to our own. My last post was a “moon-related” one, as the March full moon appeared in our skies on Wednesday night. Although I love all those old movie songs sung by people like Doris Day, they are not the staple of the blogging community, so best to move on to another a featured song perhaps.

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As I am heading off shortly to meet a cousin who only in the last few years returned to live in Scotland after over 40 years of living abroad, the song I’m going to chose is Janis Ian’s heart-rending At Seventeen. Having just referred to the long list of “posts pending” in my trusted blogging notebook (which hasn’t been referred to for quite some time as it turns out), it was the most obvious choice, as the aforementioned cousin set sail for a new life in South Africa at that very age, 17. I was a mere 13-year-old back then, so she seemed really grown up to me, and ready for it, but looking back that was a really brave thing to do. She was going to live with an aunt and uncle for a start, so not totally entering the unknown, but back in the early 1970s the world was a much bigger place, and for most of the next 40 years all we exchanged was the occasional letter.

But back to Janis’ song. In 1970s Scotland, most 17-year-old girls were not doing brave things like leaving their families to head off for a new life on the other side of the world. Oh no, most of us were instead having massive crises of confidence, and having our hearts broken, just like the girl in this song.

At Seventeen by Janis Ian:

The song was a big hit for Janis in the US in 1975, and although it never appeared in the UK charts, it soon became a staple of the airwaves. The song is about a girl who is somewhat of a social outcast in high school, and so it became a kind of anthem. She was inspired to write the single after reading a newspaper article about a young woman who believed her life would improve after a debutante ball, and her subsequent disappointment when it did not.

All these years later nothing has changed, and with social media to muddy the waters, if anything, things have got worse. I remember the year my daughter and her friends turned 17 and were experiencing the kind of anxieties as recounted in the song. I got them to listen to this song, as I think it summed up how they were feeling. Many nights were spent bemoaning the fact they were not one of The Populars, that group of girls with “clear skinned smiles” who always seem to get the boy.

I would argue that my daughter and her friends may well have been the ugly ducklings at school, but a few years on, they have now emerged as swans (but I would say that wouldn’t I). Janis Ian herself was even quoted as saying: “To me it’s never been a depressing song. It says ‘ugly duckling girls like me,’ and to me the ugly duckling always turns into a swan. It offers hope that there is a world out there of people who understand.”

Before I go, I feel I should add this second version of the more mature Janis perform the song. In a lovely preamble she tells the audience how blessed she feels that she has written a song that truly resonates with so many people, from all genders, races and cultures. One song, one time, that touches everyone who hears it, and they make it their own – Has made it a life worth living.

Until next time….

At Seventeen Lyrics
(Song by Janis Ian)

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say come dance with me
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems
At seventeen

A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said, “Pity please the ones who serve,
They only get what they deserve”
The rich relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly

Remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality
And dubious integrity
Their small town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received
At seventeen

To those of us who know the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say, come dance with me
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me
At seventeen

Postscript:

Incidentally, the reason this song appeared on the “posts pending” section of my blogging notebook in the first place, was because it very aptly put in an appearance on the soundtrack of the excellent but very dark comedy-drama The End of the F***ing World, which Mr WIAA and myself binge-watched in one evening last year. The episodes were all under half an hour in length so although we are not usually prone to such behaviour we got hooked in and just kept going.

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The song At Seventeen was an obvious contender for the show as the storyline follows James, a 17-year-old who believes himself to be a psychopath, and Alyssa, his rebellious classmate. We watched it on Netflix but I think it can be found elsewhere too. I hear a second series is due to come out later on this year – One to look out for.

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team Bacharach and David - The opening line to that song was "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

26 thoughts on “Janis Ian, “At Seventeen” and The Fate of the Ugly Duckling”

  1. As brave as it was of your cousin to leave the country at 17, I reckon that it’s equally (or possibly even more) brave of her to return after so many years away. When young, we often follow our noses with no thoughts for the long term, but with age comes doubt, indecision and uncertainty. Or perhaps that’s just me thinking out loud.
    I hope that she’s enjoying life back in Scotland and that you both have a lovely catch-up today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, there was a 100 mile round trip for both of us (we met half-way) but yes we had a lovely catch-up.

      I know what you are saying about the decision to come home again but it was kind of made for her as her brother was diagnosed as having MND in 2015 and her 83-year-old mum, my aunt, has been looking after him throughout as yet again, the social care is just no longer there. It’s all very sad. She misses her home in South Africa very much but after her husband died it was a no brainer she would return to Scotland as she couldn’t have lived with herself had she not. Life throws some real curve balls at you sometimes, and this has been a massive one.

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    1. Hi there – There was another clip I could have chosen where the more mature Janis performed the song with a long preamble beforehand. I may go back and include it now as it was also very good.

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  2. Yes, a superbly crafted song and one which resonates with so many – we could do with an equivalent now becoming a best seller and sending a message out to a mainstream audience of insecure young women. I was certainly an ugly ducking, from being a chubby-cheeked toddler, I then became awkward and pasty-faced and thought myself not at all pretty, just pretty ugly. Then punk came along and gave me the confidence to turn myself into… okay, certainly not a swan! – maybe a Ruddy Duck or a Barnacle Goose! Either way you sort of grow into your features I think, and learn to appreciate the quirky bits both physical and personality-wise. I find it so sad to see these young girls taking desperate measures to clone themselves into generic plastic mannequins, in the belief that somehow it will improve their lives and make them more popular and supposedly attractive to men. If a man wanted me just for that, he certainly wouldn’t be the right man for me.
    I’m sure your cousin was so pleased to see you, especially after all the sadness and difficulties life has thrown at her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there – Yes it’s funny that we end up joining different social groups often because of how we perceive ourselves. Those girls who are born with “clear-skinned smiles” etc often end up in a clique of “populars” but their lives don’t necessarily pan out any better than anyone else’s. If we are less than perfect at 17, we end up joining the alternative cliques and in your case punk came along just at the right time. I think I was just in the swotty clique at 17 but I know DD was part of an eclectic clique of misfits who have now mostly gone on to great things – One of them is getting married at the weekend and another of their group is flying in from Tokyo were he bagged a prestige job after University (he is also the “bridesmaid” but that’s a whole other story!). Important just to be true to yourself and not change for anyone, but seems to be tough for the youngsters of today (and expensive).

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  3. PS Lovely to see you’ve picked an Ugly Duckling book cover on the left illustrated by one of my contemporaries, the incredibly talented Polona Lovsin (far more talented than me, she does the most amazing fine art too). We had the same agent a few years ago and were often offered each other’s work when one of us wasn’t available!

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    1. Isn’t that funny – There were so many to choose from and I tried a few, but decided I liked that ugly duckling best. Sad little face and not a cartoonised version. Of course this begs the question, have you ever had to illustrate any ugly ducklings, but I know you keep your work life and blogging persona separate, so don’t expect you to answer that! One day.

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    1. Well I agree, Phillip, but wonder if perhaps those teenage girls who might benefit most from the sentiments expressed are also going to be the ones least likely to listen to/like a song that is probably older than their parents…

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    2. Yes, as C has just said, a great message there, but unlikely to be heard by today’s young women. They consume music in a totally different way nowadays and would be unlikely to listen to the kind of radio stations it might pop up on. Pity really.

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    3. The two previous answers illustrate my point. Something has been said, and said well, and the young generation ignores it. Not something to be encourage. Like remakes of classic films with an actor who currently has his 15 minutes of fame. What is the point?

      With YouTube and so on, more good, old music than one could listen to in a lifetime is available, in a medium familiar to the younger generation. It they don’t benefit from it and would rather get makeup tips from a Kardashian, then my sympathy is limited.

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      1. A lot of artists of today however write songs that empower women, it’s just that I don’t really listen to them, so unfamiliar to me. They don’t all watch Kardashian make-up tips, but even those that do are just being drawn into a world that has been created for them, with unrealistic expectations. I feel sorry for them.

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        1. I think also we have to remember that part of being young is about being very much rooted in the present, as one only has one’s own experience of what we’re born into. ‘Old’ stuff seems irrelevant, no matter how good it was to those for whom it was new at the time. I would suggest that very few of us would have engaged with anything that was a lot older than us when we were teenagers, e.g. I was 17 in 1980 and in the Janis Ian example it would have equated to me listening and appreciating something from 1936! It wasn’t going to happen!

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          1. I disagree. One can’t just take any period of 40 years. There is more reason for someone today to listen to music from the 70s than for someone 40 years ago to listen to music from the 30s (unless one thinks that all music is equally good). Yes, some people are partial to the music they heard while growing up. I was born in 1964, and though I came late to rock and pop music, I was 16 at the height of disco and punk. No wonder that I first got interested in rock music after hearing a Beatles cover band at an amusement park.

            I was recently at a concert by Uli Roth, who is almost 65. There were a couple of girls who at least looked younger than 20 standing next to me—and they knew all the words to all the songs.

            And don’t forget that there are young people who listen to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.

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              1. It is! And I agree with Phillip about the changes in various periods of years, and how a lot of young people are much more open and also far more exposed to older music – also much more welcoming to bands/artists who’ve been around for a long time too than we ever were, the lines are more blurred, that’s so true. I guess the point I was first making is that a song with a message like At Seventeen could have a wider impact on a greater number of teenage girls (especially the kind who are already feeling pressurised to be a certain way and by the very nature of that may not be so open-minded about the past or even anything very left-field) if it were made by someone whom they considered relevant and who was popular, young and truly influential to them now. Someone they could really relate to on a number of levels. And that is probably just very wishful thinking on my part!

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Yes, I know what you mean – I was being a little facetious actually, as I did listen to quite a lot of music from the 1930s when I was a teenager being a big fan of old movies and specifically Fred Astaire ones. I’ll have to ask DD what she thinks. She is a great fan of music but I never hear any of it as all listened to via her phone/Spotify.

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            1. You will be pleased to hear Phillip that when I was away at the weekend with my college class of mainly late teen/early twenty-somethings, I was drawn to the dining area where a few of them were having a jamming session/singalong. What were they playing? White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane!

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    1. Yes I think that was the point of it but I didn’t see it that way before. I think it’s the way she sings it – Always brings a tear to my eye too.

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