Possums are the only marsupials native to North America. Newborn possums are about the size of honeybees, and many don’t survive the trip to their mother’s pouch. Those that do must locate one of thirteen nipples, arrayed in a circle with one in the middle. As soon as a baby possum starts to suckle, the nipple swells in its mouth, effectively trapping it in place until it has grown big enough to free itself. Once out of the pouch, the baby possum, along with its littermates, will hitch a ride by clinging to its mother’s back. This Friday Flashback post that I made on September 25, 2018 actually had little to do with opossums, as it was mostly about a Janis Ian song, but the title of Does An Opossum Have 13 Nipples?, got me many views. In the spirit of the way that Kevin Bacon can make connections, I will try to connect the title my post to Janis. In August 2016, Janis was put in Facebook Jail when she published a cartoon for a friend’s birthday that showed an old woman whose entire body was sagging, although she featured incongruously ridiculously upright perky breasts while she was standing naked in front of a mirror with her nipples showing and the caption below said, “Beauty fades, but implants last forever.”
American possums are actually called opossums and the Virginia Opossum usually has 13 nipples, but they may be as many as 17 nipples, which brings us to today’s song ‘At Seventeen’ written by Janis Ian. At the age of three, Janis was already a prodigy on the piano. By the time she was in fourth grade she had taught herself to play the guitar and written her first song. Janis Ian was born Janis Eddy Fink, but in 1964, she legally changed her name to Janis Ian, taking her brother Eric’s middle name as her new surname. She appeared at a Greenwich Village hootenanny at the age of 14, and after that Ian was offered her first recording contract from Elektra records. Her seventh album Between The Lines sold 1.9 million copies, catapulting it to #1 on the Billboard Charts and also earning it 5 Grammy nominations, ultimately winning two ‘Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female-At Seventeen’, and Best Engineered Album. Janis performed her song ‘At Seventeen’ which went to number 3 spot at the Billboard Hot 100 on the first episode of Saturday Night Live.
Janis was 15 when she had her first hit song, ‘Society’s Child’, she dropped out of school at 16 and had been on the road for two years by the time she was 17. Ian says she was inspired to write the song, during a time when freedom was in the air and anything was possible for her generation. The gay rights and women’s rights movements had started, and FM radio connected young people coast to coast, but in 1969 the migration took off when the clandestine gay club Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village started to allow dancing and they welcomed drag queens. Although her childhood was not typical, she knew what it felt like to feel out of place at a young age. She said that she never went to a prom, but she did go to her 6th grade dance, and she knew what it was like not to get asked to the dance. The pressures of the music industry and her troubled family life drove Ian to a nervous breakdown at the age of 19. Janis had to move back in with her mother because she couldn’t afford to keep an apartment while she was on the road. She wasn’t making much money, but she was starting to concentrate on her career by opening for acts like Loggins and Messina and America. Her previous album, Star (CBS Records), got critical acclaim, but sold nothing. She didn’t have a career song yet and many people that that she was going to be just a one hit wonder.
In 1973, the 22-year-old Janis Ian wrote this quintessential angst-ridden adolescent ballad while staying at her mother’s house over the course of three months. One morning while sitting at her mother’s kitchen table she started reading a New York Times Magazine article entitled “I Learned the Truth At Eighteen.” This article was written by a former debutante. Janis had her guitar in her lap and started playing that samba figure (Brazilian jazz tune with a fast rhythm) you hear at the beginning of the song. She tried to work the first line in, but ‘eighteen’ didn’t sound good to her, so it became ‘seventeen’. The first lines came easily, “I learned the truth at seventeen That love was meant for beauty queens.” In the article, the girl said she thought that once she had her coming out ball, she thought that everything would be perfect, that she’d have a boy who loved her, a white picket fence and 2.5 children. But once it was over, all she felt was lifeless. Instead of this being the ‘perfect marriage’ filled with sweet vibrations, it was just the beginning of the rest of her life, and it became the end of her former life and now she had to decide what came next.
Janis knew that first verse and chorus was brutally honest and she thought this song was really going to be a good. She put it away for three weeks because she couldn’t figure out the ending, not knowing exactly what to do with this seventeen-year-old girl that learned the truth. Then she decided to make it about herself and she used her life experiences that she had between the ages of 12-14, as she grew up quicker than most other girls. As a teen, Janis knew what it was like to go to bed and wait for the magic moment when she would wake up and be head-turning beautiful. However, the next morning was always a let-down, as she woke, looked in the minor, and realized what she really was. Janis wanted to maintain this brutal honesty throughout the song and not turn this into a fluff piece that ended with the girl not caring what she looked like and meeting the man of her dreams. When she finished, she decided that she was never going to play it for anyone because it was too humiliating. However, one day she played it for her mom, who was a beautiful woman, and she wept! Janis asked her mother why she was crying and she said, “Don’t you understand, honey? That’s my song!”
This song is about feeling alienated while growing up and it carries a message that things will get better after High School. Janis sings about the social struggles of the downtrodden high school student, reflecting on the chasm between “beauty queens” and “ugly ducklings”. The pressures of complicated reputations, unrequited crushes and clique clashes that almost everyone encounters during their youth is transformed into poetry, as she mentions “ravaged faces” versus those with “clears skinned smiles”. The song says that being popular will not solve all your problems. It is a story about a girl who doesn’t consider herself to be very pretty and she is bitter at the beautiful girls who are out on dates with the football stars. This girl who’s not so popular describes her experiences at age seventeen. This song stereotypes love and romance to be only for beautiful girls in social groups, and those who see themselves as ugly will need to “invent lovers on the phone”, so they can enjoy their fantasies that will never come true and they will have to live off of that, since they aren’t beautiful enough for real romance. It’s about those awkward teenage years when you have so much self-doubt that you are desperately trying to fit in and become popular and you always compare yourself to beautiful rich girls and feel like a nobody.
Beauty is superficial and understanding that sometimes the beautiful people will choose goods looks and money over true love. This song became a rubric for any teenager who felt like they didn’t fit an accepted ideal of beauty and they had to be alone and unloved, and they were able to find wisdom in the words of Janis who was an outsider to give them dreams and help them to compensate. The beauty queens marry young, probably to a rich man who she isn’t in love with just for financial security start their families, and fall into roles defined by the expectations of their families and community. Those who are less popular think she has an ideal life and they envy it, and Janis says that there is nothing wrong with being envious as most likely this girl isn’t going to get far in life because she needs to rely on the rich man that she married. People are constantly trying to fit in and have perfect hair, clear skin and the latest fashion, but the most important thing in life is being true to yourself. After high school popularity is nothing as you are basically starting a new life on whatever path you take, which in most cases doesn’t involve your friends or trying to impress people.
All girls make tradeoffs in search of happiness. The ugly ducklings will regret not experiencing the security and social acceptance that came so effortlessly to the beauty queens. Eventually these beauty queens will age and no longer fit the ideal of beauty and then they will regret their lack of independence, but ugly ducklings can grow into beautiful swans.
This song ‘At Seventeen’ was a revelation for Janis Ian and she said it taught her so much, as she learned that even cheerleaders and captains of football teams have a hard time. The beautiful girls had a whole different set of problems that she never knew. Janis always thought it was easy for guys, but she never was able to walk in their shoes, however her notion of guys was that they were the ones who got to ask girls out for dates and she never considered that they’re also the ones who have to face the rejection when they’re turned down and become humiliated.
Janis said that it was a very tense recording session and she kicked the lead guitarist out of the session because he wasn’t trying very hard to capture the feel of the song, replacing him with a young kid who was “so scared you could smell his sweat across the room.’ This made the other musicians pay attention, and helped capture the feeling of confusion and adolescence that Janis was going for. It was the first time she felt like she had written a hit. The melody sounded so familiar, she worried that she might have inadvertently lifted it from another song, so she called three of her musician friends, sang it and said, “Have you heard this before?” They all said no.
Her manager told her that she was ruining her chances of getting this song produced, because it was over three minutes long. But it was a great session and they finished what they thought was a killer take, then they realized that the ending wasn’t as strong as the beginning, so they did another and spliced its ending on to the previous take.
Ian said that she knew that she was gay at the age of nine and in the 70’s she started living with another woman. Ian married Portuguese filmmaker Tino Sargo the former boyfriend of her first girlfriend in 1978, but they divorced in 1983. In 1993, Ian came out publicly as a self-identified lesbian and in 2003 she married her partner Patricia Snyder in Toronto. Janis Ian filed suit against a New York-based record company alleging a violation of copyright infringement related to two decades-old live recordings that were made when she played at the Bottom Line.
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
So 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 knew 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
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me
We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say – come on, dance with me
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen
Written for Fandango’s Friday Flashback.