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Book Review: Society’s Child: My Autobiography by Janis Ian

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In his book of “the 52 most depressing songs you’ve ever heard,” I Hate Myself and Want to Die, Tom Reynolds describes Janis Ian’s hit “At 17” as a “self-loathing lounge song that tempted a whole generation of teenage girls to shove their heads into a trash compactor.” In fact, Ian learned the truth at a considerably younger age, and in far uglier fashion than her hit conveys. While Reynolds’ snarky observations are often hilarious, the singer’s history is far more tragic than merely feeling alienated as a teenager.

Anyone depressed by the lyrics to “At 17” should be grateful Ian didn’t write about her life “At 11,” when she was molested by the family dentist; “At 15,” being “spit at in the street” over her first hit record; or “At Twenty-Something,” when a ménage a trois ultimately leads to an epically ill-advised marriage and the moment when a battered Janis is staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by her drunken, mentally unbalanced husband. The autobiographical songs she could have written might send any listener with an ounce of humanity, trash compactor-bound. Regardless of one’s attitude toward her music, it is hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved — even inspired — by Janis Ian’s Society’s Child: My Autobiography.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone sensitive and observant enough to express both her outrage and her hopefulness over an interracial love affair as effectively as Ian did with “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” at such a young age, would be capable of chronicling such a difficult life as her own with such candor and dignity. Although the song — which Ian calls “a song everyone hates you for” — provoked hate mail and other abuse from offended segregationists, experiencing this indefensible intolerance at a young age undoubtedly steeled Ian for the trials to come later in her life.

As much as music seems to have been Ian’s destiny, activism and controversy also seemed to come naturally. She began playing piano at age 2, by which time her family was under FBI observation as suspected communists, the result of her father’s involvement in a discussion of pricing among local farmers. Her personal tastes in music drew her toward folk and soul, music with substance and a message. Smokey Robinson was her hero, and she felt that, “White pop music was something Republicans listened to, not people like us.”

There is a recurring theme in Society’s Child, one common to stories of child stars, of missing out on childhood, from feeling that “there was already a fair amount of female visible” on her at age 11, and the subsequent molestation, to signing her first record deal at 14. While Janis Ian the entertainer was featured alongside Brian Wilson and Jim McGuinn on Leonard Berstein’s memorable 1967 TV special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, she was also the kid who had recently used her first check from Elektra Records to buy a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic adolescent novel, A Wrinkle in Time.

Ian is far more accomplished than her “two-hit wonder” status in pop music history, and she touches on resume highlights that include Grammy nominations and international success in the 1970s, appearing on the very first presentation of Saturday Night Live (hosted by George Carlin), and founding her own record label in the 1990s. While she is tactful about namedropping, glimpses of other celebrities place Ian’s story in the rarified world she’s intermittently lived in. She deserves to be recognized as a hero, if for no other reason than standing up to a domineering Barbara Streisand, and consequently losing her chance to write songs for Streisand’s remake of A Star Is Born.

For all the misfortune and misadventure in Janis Ian’s life, she never indulges in self-pity or undue bitterness, but seems to have become more determined and resilient with each setback. She chronicles these episode — the catastrophes and the triumphs — with an unflinching honesty that makes her story compelling and sympathetic. Given her personal history, Ian could have rightfully titled her book, Live through This.

Descriptive terms like candid, courageous, and conversational are overused to the point of cliché in describing autobiographies, but they all apply to Society’s Child. Highly readable, deeply moving, and ultimately uplifting, Janis Ian’s is easily one of the best contemporary musician’s biographies not written by Peter Guralnick.

[The “Society’s Child” lyrics and WAV/MP3 are available from Project Gutenburg, the free e-book site, at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3001]
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About James A. Gardner