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
Never has a more damning indictment of young love and the rigged system of society been written. ‘At Seventeen’ is an anthem for outcasts, for those who weren’t blessed in the genetic lottery, for those who never got an early chance to learn all the particulars of dating and mating and all the rest. Of course, this is the majority of us, but when you are a teenager, surrounded by whispered tales of “Friday night charades of youth”, you believe that you must be the only one who doesn’t know the dance yet.
Janis Ian was 22 when she was able to separate herself from those tortured teenage years enough to write with such outstanding clarity – it’s amazing how easily one can call bullshit on something when removed from the boiler room for even a few years. Ian surveyed her teenage pain, and was able to split the difference between reporter and victim in a way where the fundamental truths of the song remain timeless/timely, and also severely personal.
The sad thing is these fundamental issues don’t change throughout the decades. I haven’t been a teenage girl, but I would bet money that one attending school in 2016, negotiating the twin minefields of hormones and technology, would still relate to this song in a deep and personal way.
Those without real world romances to cling to would find comfort in pretense: the invention of teenage lovers, with even their imagined phone conversations sloppily sketched – her lack of real world romantic experience means she is only able to muster “vague obscenities” even from fantasy suitors. The self-delusion is rife: “We all play the game, and when we dare, we cheat ourselves at solitaire.” The irony that this song is in the style of a boss nova she never would have been asked to dance to is also fairly devastating.
Despite being firmly on the side of the outcast, Ian also shares some empathy for those who are given an early social advantage, knowing that this too is fleeting and in itself a trap. She warns that those who “win the game” only appear to. “Their small-town eyes will gape at you in dull surprise when payment due exceeds accounts received, at seventeen.” Peaking early is as much a curse as suffering through teenage years with “ravaged faces.” The game is rigged for all who play.
The song was written in 1973, recorded in 1974, released in 1975, and took six months of TV appearances to hit. The usual superficial concerns were raised by radio stations: it was too long, had too many lyrics, and was perceived as being aimed at women – as if this wasn’t the case for most popular music ever. Regardless of these petty issues, the song was a hit, reaching #3 in late ’75, and winning a Grammy.
Ian has since become inescapably linked to the plight of the “ugly duckling”; Tina Fey even wrote an unpopular character named Janis Ian into ‘Mean Girls’, itself the sharpest commentary on teenage popularity and cruelty since this song.
The story has a heart-warming ending. On Valentine’s Day in 1977, Ian received close to 500 cards from admirers and fans , each new suitor hoping to make up for those Valentines she never received as a youth.