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A singer/songwriter both celebrated and decried for her pointed handling of taboo topics, Janis Ian enjoyed one of the more remarkable second acts in music history. After first finding success as a teen, her career slumped, only to enter a commercial resurgence almost a decade later. Janis Eddy Fink was born on May 7, 1951, in New York City. The child of a music teacher, she studied piano as a child and, drawing influence from Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Odetta, wrote her first songs at the age of 12. She soon entered Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, where she began performing at school functions. After adopting the surname Ian (her brother's middle name), she quickly graduated to the New York folk circuit.
When she was just 15, she recorded her self-titled debut; the LP contained "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)," a meditation on interracial romance written by Ian while waiting to meet with her school guidance counselor. While banned by a few radio stations, the single failed to attract much notice until conductor Leonard Bernstein invited its writer to perform the song on his television special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. The ensuing publicity and furor over its subject matter pushed "Society's Child" into the upper rungs of the pop charts, and made Ian an overnight sensation.
Success did not agree with her, however, and she soon dropped out of high school. In rapid succession, Ian recorded three more LPs -- 1967's For All the Seasons of Your Mind, 1968's The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink, and 1969's Who Really Cares -- but gave away the money she earned to friends and charities. After meeting photojournalist Peter Cunningham at a peace rally, the couple married, and at age 20, she announced her retirement from the music business. The marriage failed, however, and she returned in 1971 with the poorly received Present Company. After moving to California to hone her writing skills in seclusion, Ian resurfaced three years later with Stars, which featured the song "Jesse," later a Top 30 hit for Roberta Flack.
With 1975's Between the Lines, Ian eclipsed all of her previous success; not only did the LP achieve platinum status, but the delicate single "At Seventeen" reached the Top Three and won a Grammy. While subsequent releases like 1977's Latin-influenced Miracle Row, 1979's Night Rains, and 1981's Restless Eyes earned acclaim, they sold poorly. Ian was dropped by her label and spent 12 years without a contract before emerging in 1993 with Breaking Silence (the title a reference to her recent admission of homosexuality), which pulled no punches in tackling material like domestic violence, frank eroticism, and the Holocaust. Similarly, 1995's Revenge explored prostitution and homelessness. Two years later Ian returned with Hunger; God & the FBI followed in the spring of 2000. A live set, Working Without a Net, appeared from Rude Girl Records in 2003, and a DVD, Live at Club Cafe, saw release in 2005. Folk Is the New Black appeared as a joint release from Rude Girl and Cooking Vinyl in 2006.
Janis Ian (born Janis Eddy Fink, May 7, 1951) is an American songwriter, singer, musician, columnist and science fiction author. Ian first entered the folk music scene while still a teenager in the mid-1960s. Most active musically in that decade and the 1970s, she has continued recording into the 21st century. She has won two Grammy Awards, the first in 1975 for her song "At Seventeen", and the second in 2013 for Best Spoken Word Album, for her autobiography, Society's Child (nearly 40 years later)."Janis Ian: A Life in Song" (PDF). Janis Ian Website. 2006. Archived from the original on May 7, 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
ContentsBiography1.1 Childhood1.2 Music career1.3 Criticism of the RIAA1.4 Writing and editing1.5 Personal life
Born to a Jewish family in New York City, she was primarily raised in New Jersey, initially on a farm, and attended East Orange High School in East Orange, New Jersey and the New York City High School of Music & Art. Her parents, Victor (a music teacher) and Pearl, ran a summer camp in upstate New York. In that Cold War era they were frequently under government surveillance because of their left-wing politics.
As a child she admired the work of folk pioneers such as Joan Baez and Odetta. Starting with piano lessons at the age of six or seven, Ian, by the time she entered her teens, had learned the organ, harpsichord, French horn, flute and guitar. At the age of 12, she wrote her first song, "Hair of Spun Gold," which was subsequently published in the folk publication Broadside and was later recorded for her debut album. In 1964, she legally changed her name to Janis Ian (her new last name being her brother Eric's middle name).
At the age of 13, Ian wrote and sang her first hit single, "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)", about an interracial romance forbidden by a girl's mother and frowned upon by her peers and teachers. Produced by George "Shadow" Morton and released three times from 1965 to 1967, "Society's Child" finally became a national hit upon its third release after Leonard Bernstein featured it in a CBS TV special titled Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.
The song's lyrical content was taboo for some radio stations, and they withdrew or banned it from their playlists accordingly; in her 2008 autobiography Society's Child, Ian recalls receiving hate mail and death threats as a response to the song, and mentions that a radio station in Atlanta that played it was burned down. In the summer of 1967, "Society's Child" reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, the single having sold 600,000 copies, and the album 350,000.
Ian relates on her website that, although the song was originally intended for Atlantic Records and the label paid for her recording session, the label subsequently returned the master to her and quietly refused to release it. Years later, Ian says, Atlantic's president at the time, Jerry Wexler, publicly apologized to her for this. The single and Ian's 1967 eponymous debut album were finally released on Verve Forecast; her album was also a hit, reaching #29. In 2001, "Society's Child" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors recordings considered timeless and important to music history. Her early music was compiled on a double CD entitled Society's Child: The Verve Recordings in 1995.
"Society's Child" stigmatized Ian as a one-hit wonder until her most successful single in the United States, "At Seventeen", a bittersweet commentary on adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, as reflected upon from the perspective of a 24-year-old, was released in 1975. "At Seventeen" was a major hit, receiving tremendous acclaim from critics and record buyers alike—it charted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It won the 1975 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance - Female beating out Linda Ronstadt, who was nominated for her Heart Like a Wheel album; Olivia Newton-John; and Helen Reddy. Ian performed "At Seventeen" as a musical guest on the debut of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975. The song's album, Between the Lines, was also a smash and hit #1 on Billboard's Album chart. It was quickly certified Gold and later earned a 'Platinum' certification for sales of over one million copies sold in the US. 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.
"Fly Too High" (1979), produced by disco producer Giorgio Moroder, was Ian's contribution to the soundtrack of the Jodie Foster film Foxes, also featured on Ian's 1979 album Night Rains. It earned her a Grammy nomination and became a hit single in many countries, including South Africa, Belgium. Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands. Another country where Ian has achieved a high level of popularity is Japan. Ian had two top 10 singles on the Japanese Oricon charts, "Love Is Blind" in 1976, and "You Are Love" in 1980.
Ian's album Aftertones topped Oricon's album chart in October 1976. "You Are Love (Toujours Gai Mon Cher)" is the theme song of Kinji Fukasaku's 1980 movie Virus. She cut several other singles specifically for the Japanese market, including 1998's "The Last Great Place". She reached the pop charts only once more after "At Seventeen" ("Under the Covers", #71 in 1981), though she had several more songs reach the Adult Contemporary singles chart through 1980 (all failing to make the Top 20, however). She walked away from her CBS contract in 1982 with three albums to go. She spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s without a record deal.
From 1982–92, Ian continued to write songs, often in collaboration with then-songwriting partner Kye Fleming, which have been covered by, among others, Amy Grant, Bette Midler and Marti Jones. Ian studied under acting coach Stella Adler and struck up a close friendship with her, which continued until the latter's death in 1992.
Ian finally became one of the first "indie artists", resurfacing in 1993, with the release of Breaking Silence and its title song about incest. She also came out as a lesbian at the time of the release of that album. On June 25, 1993, she appeared on The Howard Stern Show, where she performed a "new" version of "At Seventeen" about Jerry Seinfeld. Her album, Folk Is The New Black, was released jointly by the Rude Girl and Cooking Vinyl labels in 2006, the first in more than two decades; she did all the songwriting herself.
Other artists have recorded Ian's compositions, most notably Roberta Flack, who had a hit in 1973 with Ian's song "Jesse". Ian's own version is featured on her 1974 album Stars (the title song of which has also been oft-covered, including versions by Cher, Nina Simone and Barbara Cook). She continues to tour, with a round of concerts scheduled for the United Kingdom in 2014, and a series of appearances in the US after that.
Criticism of the RIAA
She is an outspoken critic of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a record industry organization which she sees as acting against the interests of musicians and consumers. As such, she has willingly released several of her songs for free download from her website. Along with science fiction authors Eric Flint and Cory Doctorow, she has argued that their experience provides conclusive evidence that free downloads dramatically increased hard-copy sales, contrary to the claims of RIAA and NARAS. Ian's signature tune "At Seventeen" sold over two million singles in the United States alone yet was never certified.
"I've been surprised at how few people are willing to get annoyed with me over it," she laughs. "There was a little backlash here and there. I was scheduled to appear on a panel somewhere and somebody from a record company said if I was there they would boycott it. But that's been pretty much it. In general the entire reaction has been favorable. I hear from a lot of people in my industry who don't want to be quoted, but say 'yeah, we're aware of this and we'd like to see a change too.'"
Writing and editing
In addition to being an award-winning singer-songwriter, Ian writes science fiction. A long-time reader of the genre, she got into science fiction fandom in 2001, attending the Millennium Philcon. Her short stories have been published in anthologies, and she co-edited, with Mike Resnick, the anthology Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, published in 2003 (ISBN 978-0-7564-0177-1). She occasionally attends science fiction conventions.
Ian has been a regular columnist for, and still contributes to the LGBT news magazine, The Advocate. She has a selection of her columns available on her website. She contributed a column to Performing Songwriter magazine from 1995–2003.
On July 24, 2008, Ian released her autobiography Society's Child (published by Penguin Tarcher) to much critical acclaim. An accompanying double CD, The Autobiography Collection, has been released with many of Ian's best loved songs.
Janis married Portuguese filmmaker Tino Sargo in 1978; they divorced in 1983. Details of Sargo's physical and emotional abuse were discussed in Ian's autobiography, Society's Child. After moving to Nashville, she met Patricia Snyder in 1989. Ian came out as a lesbian in 1993 with the worldwide release of her album Breaking Silence. Snyder and Ian married in Toronto on August 27, 2003. Ian has a stepdaughter and two grandchildren by Snyder.
Ian's mother, Pearl, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975. Ian and her brother convinced Pearl to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college. Pearl eventually enrolled in Goddard College's adult education program, ultimately graduating with a Master's degree. After Pearl's death, Ian decided to auction off merchandise and raise money to endow a scholarship at Goddard specifically for older continuing education students. This began what became the Pearl Foundation. To date, it has contributed over $700,000 in scholarship funds to various educational institutions, including Warren Wilson College.Ankeny, Jason (2003). Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; and Erlewine, Stephen Thomas, ed. All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-736-6. Nash, Margo. "JERSEY FOOTLIGHTS", The New York Times, March 16, 2003; accessed December 19, 2007. "Yet when Janis Ian went to East Orange High School, she was kicked out of the chorus." Life Magazine, October 27, 1967, p. 53 Life Magazine, October 27, 1967 p. 53 Wiser, Carl. "Janis Ian interview (March 14, 2003)". Songfacts. Retrieved September 27, 2012. Rees, Dafydd; Luke Crampton (1996). Encyclopedia of Rock Stars. Dk Pub. ISBN 0-7894-1263-2. "Janis Ian: On Tour". janisian.com. Retrieved January 20, 2014. Keehnen, Owen (March 24, 2005). "At 42: Lesbian Legend Janis Ian Comes Out". Queer Culture Center. Retrieved November 15, 2012. Wilson, David Bertrand. "Trying The Patience Of: Janis Ian". Wilson & Alroy's Record Reviews. Retrieved September 10, 2013. Ian, Janis (May 2002). "The Internet Debacle – An Alternative View". Performing Songwriter Magazine. Archived from the original on May 9, 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-09. Free Music Downloads on Janis Ian's official website Prime Palaver #11 – letter by Janis Ian to Baen librarian, Eric Flint, September 16, 2002 Vanderhorst, Jan (October 2002). "Janis Ian: Doing It From The Heart". Retrieved 2007-06-09. John Teehan. "Janis at Worldcon 2001". Sff.net. Retrieved 2013-12-05. "Revenge is sweet for Janis Ian" by Jeff Walsh, March 1, 1996 Ian, Janis. 2008. Society's Child: My Autobiography. New York City: Tarcher. "Ian profile". Glbtq.com. Retrieved 2013-12-05.