Just a Song – Janis Ian, “At Seventeen”

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 17. 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