Janis Ian Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.