Janis Ian At Seventeen Analysis Essay

For the Hong Kong girl band, see At17.

"At Seventeen" is a song by Janis Ian, released in 1975 on Between the Lines (her seventh studio album) and as a single. Ian's most successful recording, the song is a commentary on society's beauty standards, adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, as reflected upon from the maturity of adulthood. It is told from the point of view of a woman who was an "ugly duckling" as a girl and ignored in high school while the popular girls got all the attention.


Janis Ian, then 22, wrote "At Seventeen" in 1973 at her mother's house over the course of three months.[2] In her autobiography Society's Child, Ian says that the song was inspired by a newspaper article about a former teenage debutante who learned the hard way that being popular did not solve all her problems. The article included the quote, "I learned the truth at eighteen"; Ian found that the word "seventeen" worked better than "eighteen" when she tried to put this lyric with the bossa nova-style melody she had been composing on guitar. She also says she initially did not want to record or perform the song because she felt it was far too personal to share, but eventually changed her mind after adding the song's final verse ("To those of us who knew the pain/Of Valentines that never came...").

Promoting the song was challenging, as it was longer than most radio hits and packed with lyrics. Along with the promotions team at her record company, Ian decided that their best chance to market the song was to promote it to women, which was no easy task when so many radio stations were controlled by men. Ian did a grueling series of daytime talk shows for six months before she was granted an appearance on The Tonight Show where she performed the song and it took off.

"At Seventeen", released as the second single from Between the Lines, became Ian's first national hit single since her first hit "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)" in 1967. The single version omitted the longer instrumental verse and chorus because it was considered too long and it was feared that the radio stations would refuse to play it. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and at #3 on the Pop Singles chart in September 1975.[3][4]Billboard ranked it as the No. 19 song for 1975,[5] and as the No. 2 Adult Contemporary hit of the year behind only Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue." It also won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1976, beating out the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, and Helen Reddy[6] and was nominated for "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year".

Ian performed "At Seventeen" as a musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in October 1975.[7][8] She also performed the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976, when she held the number one spots on the US album and single charts.[9]

The song's parent album, Between the Lines, also hit #1 and earned a platinum certification for sales of one million copies. Another measure of her success is anecdotal — on Valentine's Day 1977, Ian received 461 Valentine cards, having indicated in the lyrics to "At Seventeen" that she never received any as a teenager.[10]

Chart history[edit]

In films and television programs[edit]

"At Seventeen" is featured in the movie Scotland, Pa. (2001) and can also be heard playing in the background in one scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. The movie, which features a character named "Janis Ian", addresses the topic of teenage cruelty and alienation. "At Seventeen" is also mentioned in Jeffrey Eugenides's 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, where the song is used by four girls imprisoned in their own home and essentially cut off from normal adolescent experiences to communicate with the narrator and his friends. The song is featured in The Simpsons episodes "A Streetcar Named Marge", "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)", and "Chief of Hearts". In the 30 Rock episode "The Break-Up", Tina Fey's character sings "At Seventeen" at a karaoke club. Julia Sawalha's character Saffy sings the song in a bar populated by empathetic drag queens who join in singing in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie and recorded a studio version for the film soundtrack album. The song is also featured in the television series The End of the F***ing World (2017) as the female protagonist runs away from home.


Studio albums[edit]

  • Hong Kong singer Rowena Cortes covered the song in her 1976 debut album Rowena Cortes (PHLP7616, House Records).
  • Canadian singer Tara MacLean covered the song on the soundtrack of the 1999 movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
  • French Canadian Marie-Denise Pelletier coverered the French version "17 ans" on album Survivre (1989).
  • Dutch singer Astrid Nijgh recorded a Dutch version of the song, titled "Zeventien" ("Seventeen") in 1976, translated by Herman Pieter de Boer.
  • David Sanborn recorded an instrumental version of the song in 1977.
  • French singer Claude Francois recorded a French version of the song, titled "17 ans" in 1977.
  • Taiwanese singer Chyi covered the song in her 1999 English album C'est La Vie.
  • New Zealand singer Amber Claire released a cover of the song for her debut album Love and Such by Sony BMG New Zealand. This single went to No. 6 on the New Zealand charts in 2004.
  • Irish singer Aoife Ní Fhearraigh covered the song on her album The Turning of the Tide, released in 2003.[21]
  • Canadian pop singer Jann Arden covered the song as the second single from her 2007 album Uncover Me.
  • Finnish singer Virve "Vicky" Rosti recorded a version titled "Kun nuori on" in 1975 with Finnish lyrics by Juha "Junnu" Vainio.
  • Danish singer songwriter Pia Raug recorded a Danish language version of the song, titled "Seksten år" (16 years), on her 1978 album Hej lille drøm. She wrote the Danish language lyrics herself.
  • German musician, DJ and producer Justus Köhncke covered the song in his 1999 debut album Spiralen Der Erinnerung.
  • Japanese electropop singer Chocolat covered it on her 1999 album, Hamster. (ショコラ Chocolat Hamusutaa ハムスタ).
  • Taiwan singer 齐豫 Chyi Yu covered it on her 1999 album, C'est la vie.
  • Filipino bossa nova singer Sitti Navarro covered it on her 2006 debut album Café Bossa.
  • Anita Kerr covered the song on her 1975 RCA album, The Anita Kerr Singers. It was also released as a single. Anita multi-tracked her own voice on the second and third bridges of the song to create harmony vocals.
  • Canadian singer Celine Dion covered the song on her 2013 studio album Loved Me Back to Life. The cover was produced by musician Babyface. Steve Morse of the Boston Globe claimed the cover to be the best song on Dion's album, stating "Dion gives it a light Brazilian feel and sends shudders through your heart."[22]Stephen Erlewine of Allmusic called the cover "thoroughly colorless adult contemporary."[23] Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine stated the cover "comes off less like a lament for childhood dreams that didn't come to pass and more like a lilting word of advice from someone old enough to know better, which is precisely the zone where the album excels: when Dion drops the act and embraces her manic, Hallmark card-brandishing guru of schmaltz."[24] Caroline Sullivan of The Guardian stated, "Dion navigates with heartfelt sensitivity" on the cover.[25]
  • British band Whistler covered the song in a light rock style, with some lyrics rotated, on their 1999 EP Intermission.
  • Belgian band DHT covered the song on their 2005 album Listen to Your Heart.
  • The British actress Julia Sawalha, who plays Saffy, covers the song on the 2016 Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie soundtrack.
  • Ingrid James (Australian jazz singer) and The Global Collective covered the song on their 2011 album Pangaea released by Newmarket Music (Australia)

Live performances[edit]

  • French-Canadian singer Céline Dion covered the song for the first time live for the tribute to Janis Ian on the 2008 Grammy Nominations TV special. In 2011, Dion included the song as part of her Las Vegas residency show, Céline. The song is also included in her Loved Me Back to Life album.
  • Carly Rae Jepsen performed the song during her season of Canadian Idol.


Ian appeared on The Howard Stern Radio Show in 1993 and performed the song albeit with different lyrics to poke fun at the May–December romance of Jerry Seinfeld and Shoshanna Lonstein.


At17, a Hong Kong music group, is named after the song. The girl-duo also covered the song in Cantonese on their first album Meow Meow Meow in 2002.


  1. ^Strong, Martin C. (2004). The Great Rock Discography. Canongate Books. p. 722. ISBN 1-84195-615-5. 
  2. ^Pat, Browne (2001). The Guide to United States Popular Culture. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 424. ISBN 0-87972-821-3. 
  3. ^"Between the Lines > Charts & Awards > Billboard Singles". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  4. ^"At Seventeen". Super Seventies RockSite!. 
  5. ^Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1975
  6. ^Eskow, Gary (June 1, 2005). "Janis Ian's "At Seventeen"". Mix. Archived from the original on 5 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  7. ^"Saturday Night Live Episode Guide". TV.com. Archived from the original on 2008-07-05. 
  8. ^Benarde, Scott R. (2003). Stars of David: Rock'n'roll's Jewish Stories. University Press of New England. p. 138. ISBN 1-58465-303-5. 
  9. ^Harris, Bob (2006). The Old Grey Whistle Test Vol. 3 (DVD). BBC Video. 
  10. ^Rees, Dafydd; Luke Crampton (1996). Encyclopedia of Rock Stars. DK Publishing. ISBN 0-7894-1263-2. 
  11. ^Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970-1992. St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6. 
  12. ^"Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  13. ^"Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  14. ^Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990 - ISBN 0-89820-089-X
  15. ^Whitburn, Joel (1993). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–1993. Record Research. p. 115. 
  16. ^Cash Box Top 100 Singles, September 20, 1975
  17. ^"Forum - 1970 (ARIA Charts: Special Occasion Charts)". Australian-charts.com. Archived from the original on 2016-10-20. Retrieved 2017-05-07. 
  18. ^"Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". collectionscanada.gc.ca. 
  19. ^Musicoutfitters.com
  20. ^Cash Box Year-End Charts: Top 100 Pop Singles, December 27, 1975
  21. ^"Aoife website". 
  22. ^Morse, Steve (4 November 2013). "Review: Celine Dion, 'Loved Me Back to Life'". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  23. ^Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Loved Me Back to Life - Celine Dion". AllMusic. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  24. ^Henderson, Eric (4 November 2013). "Celine Dion: Loved Me Back to Life - Album Review". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  25. ^Sullivan, Caroline. "Celine Dion: Loved Me Back to Life". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 

External links[edit]

Janis Ian 1951–

(Born Janis Fink) American songwriter, singer, and musician.

Ian is recognized as an important songwriter whose works are characterized by a deep feeling for humanity and a contempt for injustice. According to Ian, her pessimistic songs of teenage dilemmas reflect not her own circumstances but the confusion and rebellion felt by many teenagers during the mid-sixties. In a straightforward, concrete manner, Ian confronts such contemporary problems as prostitution, loneliness, interracial love, and religious corruption. Ian's lyrics are praised for their poetic quality, and her false rhyme scheme has been compared to that of Emily Dickinson. At the age of twenty, after four years of trying to cope with success in a world where the more experienced considered her a child, Ian dropped out of the music scene. Four years later, however, she began recording new material. Ian views her return not as a comeback, but as a separate life, for now she feels she is better able to handle the life of a pop star. The lyrics of these works convey Ian's matured outlook and satisfaction in her new role.

Ian's first hit single, "Society's Child," concerns a love affair between a white girl and a black boy. Ian not only attacks the adults who disapprove of the relationship, but also the girl, who relents under society's pressure and rejects her love. Banned by radio stations across the United States until Leonard Bernstein introduced Ian on a television special, the song eventually rose to number one on the charts. Ian's early albums were moderately successful, inspiring a small but strong following.

Ian's lyrics had mellowed somewhat by the time she recorded Stars, her first album after returning to the popular music business. The songs on Stars still discuss teenage problems, but the anger of her earlier work is conspicuously absent. Her next effort, Between the Lines, reestablished her reputation as an important songwriter. It has received mixed reviews, but there is at least one outstanding song, "At Seventeen," in which Ian explores the "ugly duckling" syndrome many teenage girls face. Ian's subsequent albums have also received mixed reviews, and her confirmed followers remain comparatively small. However, her observations on contemporary issues and society present a stark and revealing message.

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