“At Seventeen”

“At Seventeen”

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song

Janis Ian
“At Seventeen”

Written and Recorded by Janis Ian

I was 23 when I wrote “At Seventeen.” I’d had to move back in with my mother because I couldn’t afford to keep an apartment while I was on the road. I wasn’t making much money, but I was career-building, opening for acts like Loggins and Messina and America. My previous album, Star (CBS Records), got critical acclaim but sold nothing. I didn’t have a “career song” yet.

I’ve always thought that artists are outsiders by nature. One morning I was sitting at my mother’s kitchen table reading a New York Times Magazine article entitled “I Learned the Truth At Eighteen,” written by a former debutante. I’d been sitting with a guitar in my lap, playing that samba figure you hear at the beginning of the song, and I tried to work the first line in. “Eighteen” didn’t scan, 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, everything would be perfect — she’d have a boy who loved her, a white picket fence, 2.5 children. But once it was over, all she felt was flat. Instead of it being the beginning of the rest of her life, it was the end of her former life — and now she had to decide what came next.

And high school girls with clear skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired

Since I’d dropped out of school at 16, I had no such experience. I didn’t go to a prom… but I knew what it was like to go to bed and wait for the magic moment when I’d wake up and be head-turning beautiful, and I knew what the morning let-down was like, when I woke, looked in the mirror, and realized you are what you are. I remembered that vividly as I wrote this song.

I wrote what came to me, then re-thought each line. I wondered if I could be this brutally honest. The alternative was a fluff piece that ended with the girl not caring what she looked like and meeting the man of her dreams. I couldn’t do that. Instead, I followed with:

The valentines I never knew

The Friday night charades of youth

Were spent on one more beautiful

At seventeen I learned the truth…

It took three months to write this song. When I finished, I decided I was never going to play it for anyone — it was too humiliating. Still, one day I played it for my mom, who was a beautiful woman, and she wept! When I asked her why, she said, “Don’t you understand, honey? That’s my song!” What a revelation!

“At Seventeen” has taught me so much. It was a real learning curve. Even cheerleaders and captains of football teams have a hard time. And the beautiful girls have a whole different set of problems — I’d never thought about that! And I thought it was easy for guys because they were the ones who got to ask girls out for dates — what I didn’t think about was the fact that they’re also the ones who have to face the rejection when they’re turned down and humiliated.

The song was only a hit in the United States but somehow it still endures. Now, when I tour in Japan or Europe, everyone seems to know it. It’s used as a conversation topic, to bridge the gap between mothers and daughters and granddaughters. How incredible… as songwriters, we can only dream of writing a song that has that kind of universal impact.

“At Seventeen”

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 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 dance with me

and murmur vague obscenities

at ugly girls like me, at seventeen.

Words and Music by Janis Ian. © 1975 (Renewed 2003) MINE MUSIC LTD. All Rights Reserved for the U.S.A. and Canada Controlled and Administered by EMI APRIL MUSIC INC. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.

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