Janis Ian Essay - Critical Essays

Ian, Janis


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.


[Janis Ian] is a national phenomenon, a composer and singer who makes bitter poetry of teen-age dilemmas. Her most successful record, entitled Society's Child, detailed the woes of interracial dating…. Her first album, [Janis Ian, touched] heavily on prostitution, corrupted religion and children…. The second album, [For All the Seasons of Your Mind], explores such subjects as suicide and loneliness. Her folk songs, tinged with funereal dissonances, tear up the old folks at home. Their lyrics are outbursts at squaredom, declarations of independence from contemporary U.S. society. Yet, despite the refractory content of her music, she is that society's child. (p. 53)

Parents who finesse their parental responsibilities rank high on Janis Ian's long list of things bad….

Janis doesn't have much use for false gods either….

Just what exactly has happened to this girl to provoke such [disillusioned] lines?

"I saw all the hypocrisy up front, and I devised ways of getting around it. Love is groovy." She pauses. "Hate is the ultimate insanity."

Not altogether clear perhaps, but it is talk which makes perfect sense to a generation weaned on Dylan, Donovan and the Beatles, a generation which pays as much attention to the words as the music. (p. 56)

"I Am Society's Child," in Life (courtesy of Life Magazine; © 1967 Time Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 63, No. 17, October 27, 1967, pp. 53, 56.


The youth movement in the music biz was given a tremendous boost [recently] when Janis Ian made her concert bow to a near-capacity audience. Only 16 years old, Miss Ian stunned her peers and her elders with the power of the material…. Miss Ian's celebrated number about an inter-racial love affair, "Society's Child," was only a partial tipoff on the calibre of this girl's compositional talents. She can write blues, rock and folk on any topic, from prostitution, old age homes, masochism, suicide, self-pity to the Vietnam war. As remarkable as the material, even more striking was the absence of precocity or self-consciousness.

"Janis Ian, 16-Year-Old Folksinger, Whams House at Philharmonic Hall, N.Y.," in Variety (copyright 1967, by Variety, Inc.) December 13, 1967, p. 45.

Hank Fox

Sixteen-year-old Janis Ian has a message. But whether its content is reality or fantasy, one theme is predominant—disintegration of the mind, leading to mental destruction of society….

[In a recent live performance, the] recording artist methodically and unemotionally spelled out her message in song. With her crisp voice, she soared to the heights while dousing her audience with her macabre incantations. Insanity, frustration and apathy, Vietnam, poverty and loneliness—she sang them all—each with the same pessimistic view towards destruction. She sang of love, yet the air was fraught with death. She laughed, but there was a morbid echo….

[It] is hoped that she doesn't take all her lyrics to heart. She has the makings of one of this generation's greatest poets.

Hank Fox, "Janis Ian's Messages: How to Succeed by Being Grim," in Billboard (© copyright 1967 by Billboard Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 79, No. 51, December 23, 1967, p. 16.

Alan Heineman

[Among contemporary lyricists, Janis Ian] is second as a poet only to John Lennon (certainly) and Dylan and the Airplane's Slick-Kantner-Balin combination (maybe). She does not indulge in the obscurantist, free-associational quasi-poetry that passes for profundity among many of her contemporaries—and elders. She has, instead, the rather quaint notion that words are designed for meaningful communication. Which does not mean that she is simplistic or obvious—merely that most of her songs mean something, and mean it in an original, striking, but understandable way.

Janis deals, in her songs, with real contemporary problems in a concrete manner: dishonesty, lack of communication, the suicidal impulse. And just when you think she's taking the facile, kids-under-25-against-the-world hard line, she turns on her own world (and herself) and deflates it: Honey D'Ya Think deals with the phonily hip, Shady Acres with the irresponsibility of kids toward parents, and Society's Child—the most famous instance—with not only the bigotry of the older generation but the sheeplike, albeit unwilling, imitation of that bigotry by the younger.

She is the first to admit that many—too many—of her first songs concern problems considered (sometimes wrongly) exclusively adolescent. (p. 16)

Yet her songs are a sensitive delineation of adolescence….

I have referred to her...

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Alan Heineman

[The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink is] a real down. It's pretty awful, despite containing some interesting elements. There are only three truly good songs on it: Friends, Misery and Son; I include the latter on the basis of some rich, imagistic lyrics.

Friends is delightful, a loving parody of Dylan's c&w-tinged stuff, performed with exactly the right balance between mockery and conviction (except when Janis breaks up at one point). The words aren't parodic, for the most part, though they catch the flavor of Dylan in early songs like Don't Think Twice and All I Really Wanna Do. And I Did, Ma, on Janis' second album, was pure comedy, and can't be...

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Jacques Vassal

The first thing that struck one about Janis Ian was her youth and the precocity of her talent. (p. 205)

It was in 1966, after her dramatic first appearances at Green-wich Village's Village Gate, that Janis made her first album for Verve-Forecast [Janis Ian]. Immediately the record earned the admiration of the educated public, but also the disapproval of the Establishment. This was due to the most noticed song on the album, "Society's Child," which tackled the problem of racial discrimination in a new fashion and without mincing words: for a schoolgirl of fifteen, not a bad start.

Why so much hassle over a song? Making use of an episode in the life of one of society's children...

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Noel Coppage

[I find Janis Ian interesting because she uses a] powerful cerebrum more to move people than to impress them. Sometimes she overdoes it and works for shock value alone…. In such cases, she's merely doing what worked so well before—Society's Child, written when Janis was a little kid, separated the liberal men from the liberal boys. But she is a prodigy growing up, and her later work deserves a larger audience. (p. 60)

Noel Coppage, "Troubadettes, Troubadoras, and Troubadines … or … What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Business Like This?" in Stereo Review (copyright © 1972 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 29, No. 3, September, 1972, pp....

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Peter Reilly

Seven years after the success of Society's Child, a watershed topical song written when she was fifteen, Janis Ian is back, at the age of twenty-two, with songs composed during her own private season of hell. Always one of the most sensitive of composer/performers, often hypersensitive in live performance, she has at last stopped meandering artistically and [on "Stars" has] come to some positive conclusions: yes, the public will eat you alive if you let it, but she still wants to be a Star; yes, she was deeply in love with Jesse, and though he's gone she's still in love (You've Got Me on a String). However, she's still looking around (Sweet Sympathy) and has a pretty good idea of...

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Susin Shapiro

In her soft-spoken way, Society's Child, Janis Ian, deserves mention for all her credible tunes on Between the Lines. Alternating between eerie nostalgia and low-key hysteria, her violin pathos is straight out of a Max Ophuls melodrama, and that's not half bad. Janis plays the ugly duckling, the hardheaded waif with the heart of gold. She plays with her pain, is a perfect candidate for Janov's primal scream therapy, but instead sublimates the hurt into mellow, melodic sighs. Between the Lines is a studiously earnest attempt at self-discovery and Ian asks only that you meet her somewhere in the middle of your life, and hers. (p. 69)

Susin Shapiro, "Rock around the...

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Karl Dallas

There's a song on ["Between the Lines"] about a spotty-faced 17-year-old who never gets the Valentines or dates, the lyrics of which work fairly well until we remember that it is hardly autobiographical…. [Janis Ian] was closer to the beauty queens in her song, who marry young and then retire, than to the abandoned and unrequited heroines of it…. I realised that, once again, Janis Ian was failing to say anything particularly noteworthy about one of her chosen subjects. She affects now to disown ["Society's Child"], but because of the historical and social context within which it appeared, her "shocking" song about a love affair that crossed the colour line was important at the time, no matter how naive and even...

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Peter Reilly

Janis Ian was one of the authentic voices of the Sixties, one of the street kids who told it exactly as it was without any of the "poetic" trimmings. She directed her coruscating wit, gelid eye, and scolding fury as much at the opportunists of her own generation who were corrupting the dream as at the society that feared and brutally repressed anyone not stamped out by the cookie cutter. But Ian seems to have paid a high price for her own involvement and convictions. She came back about a year ago with a new album, and, aside from a lot of media palaver about her now being able to accept being a "star," it never really went anywhere beyond reminding her old fans that she was up and about again.


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John Lissner

["Between the Lines"] is one of those rarities—a best-seller that focuses on musicianship. Though not without its flaws, "Between the Lines" has substance and depth, qualities absent from Ian's adolescent career and her hit song of those years, "Society's Child," a bristling tirade against adult injustice. This precocious hit was followed by "Janey's Blues," "Honey Do Ya Think?" and "New Christ Cardiac Hero" which zeroed in on dishonesty, exploitation, lack of communication, even suicidal impulses. At 15-going-on-16 Ian became the urchin at large, pinpointing the hypocrisies of society, ever at the mercy of its mores, wounded by its snubs….

Her songs of the late sixties, lacking even a ray of...

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Bob Sarlin

Janis Ian has grown into a charming, mature singer-songwriter. There is surely some of the snotty kid in there somewhere, but what was once called uppityness is now called arrogance….

Recently, with the re-release of her very first recordings, that pretentious teenager has come back to haunt Janis Ian….

Listening now to "Society's Child," "Janey's Blues" or even "New Christ Cardiac Hero," all songs on that first album, one has to allow for the period of time during which they were made. It was a time of musical exploration, the emergence of folk-rock as a viable form; a time of great self-righteousness and pretension. What does shine through is the quality of both Janis' musical...

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Paul Nelson

Melancholic self-pity and petulant revenge would appear to be the two main colors in Janis Ian's rather precious, nearly monochromatic rainbow. At her infrequent best, this chronically forlorn artist is sometimes able to elevate the former hue into genuinely moving introspection and the latter into valid social criticism, but too often she seems strangely content to tell us how fashionably miserable she is and that it is all our fault. Ian does not lack talent—"At Seventeen" and "Water Colors" from Between the Lines are fine songs—but could sorely use an unfettered sense of humor and the ability to separate the posture of sensitivity from the perceptions of selectivity.

Listening to...

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Peter Reilly

Janis Ian has arrived. The ugly duckling of Society's Child has, all these years later, become the most glittering and luminescent of swans. ["Aftertones"], her best album to date, is one of those joyous things that probably happen only once in an artist's lifetime: that particular moment when everything that has gone before finally coalesces into sustained, articulate, and controlled statement. The intelligence is remarkable, the craftsmanship superb and the attack dazzling throughout. Stay tuned, because there is going to be a great deal more said about this album—and I hope to add my own strong feelings to what has become the happiest success story in current popular music. Buy it, of course, and while you...

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The elusive Janis Ian "Queen of the melodic bittersweet" has again emerged into the public eye as a major artist. Her introspective, self-evaluation type lyrics have finally found their time and audience…. [Her] images of love are both full-blown and cautiously sultry. Her images touch on areas that in one way or another exist in all of us. Her love songs are a full indication of this maturation.

The songs in Between The Lines are all strong, and total good taste is to be found in every note and word on the record. (p. 82)

In Aftertones, her music like her words, is the work of a serious musical artist, charged with the competence of a committed energetic artist…....

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Stephen Holden

Most of Ian's new material [on Miracle Row] recycles old musical ideas, again evoking the hypocrisies of social rituals and romantic encounters. However, these miniatures are problematic due to the obsessiveness of Ian's craft: by combining melodramatic chords and claustrophobic rhymes, she reconstructs her psychological perceptions too literally.

Still, there are a couple of nice moments. "I Want to Make You Love Me" has a more relaxed melodiousness than one customarily associates with Ian, and the ambitious "Miracle Row/Maria" successfully evokes a complex relationship between two women. But nothing here can compare with "At Seventeen" and "Water Colors," which are Ian's two finest songs...

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Stephen Holden

["Miracle Row"] is a disappointing production and contains no songs of the At Seventeen/Watercolors caliber found on Ian's best-selling "Between the Lines" album. (p. 144)

[Crucial] to the failure of "Miracle Row" is its dearth of strong material. Many of the new songs are inferior recyclings of old ideas. Party Lights, Let Me Be Lonely, Slow Dance Romance, Will You Dance? and I'll Cry Tonight in one way or another all touch on a theme that Ian has treated more directly in the past: the plight of the grownup wallflower who can't get over the traumas of teenage rejection, even as she recognizes the hypocrisy and shallowness of the rituals that caused that trauma. Only in the...

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Michael Tearson

With Miracle Row Janis Ian is no longer the "poor, sad dear" her many fans perceived….

Janis' writing has grown…. It is not so self-centered. The remaining traces of what has evidently been self-pity and self-righteousness are turning quickly into maturity. Songs such as Take to the Sky and the building Candlelight reflect this growth. The grand finale of the intertwined stories Miracle Row/Maria is as impressive a piece as she has ever put together.

Michael Tearson, "The Column: 'Miracle Row'," in Audio (© 1977, CBS Publications, The Consumer Publishing Division of CBS Inc.), Vol. 61, No. 5, May, 1977, p. 89....

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Peter Reilly

Janis Ian is for the trendies one of the most exciting, red-hot writer/performers in pop at the moment; for the rest of us she's definitely here to stay. With "Miracle Row,"… she has seized for herself the title of Girl Most Likely to Get Pop off Its Moribund Ass in the Late Seventies.

Like the lady herself, "Miracle Row" exudes theatricality. It has equal amounts of the high romance of the low life and the jaded, dark-red-nail-polish lows that accompany the high life. Ian's theatricality, like that of another Great Proletarian, Bertolt Brecht, may not be immediately discernible, but it is there. She, too, chooses street argot as her lyric form, and the non-chalant gut punch seems to be her...

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Peter Reilly

[Janis Ian] has proved herself to be one of the most important writer-performers of the Seventies, and she looks at and into you from the cover photo with a veiled stare that can X-ray a situation, the people in it, and the probable outcome easily, knowingly, compassionately.

Janis Ian operates in the pop-music business, which perhaps denies her the instant credentials the fancier literary and artistic worlds might provide. But what she's been creating for the last several years is a body of work that, for awareness and insight into life as it's being lived (or played) in our time, stands creditably alongside the best in any field of contemporary creative expression…. ["Janis Ian"] finds Ian in a...

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Don Shewey

As far as hype goes, it may have been all over for Janis Ian when she quit writing hit songs about being an ugly teenager with a hit song. But as her craft matures, Ian's lyrics get more distilled, her emotions more subtle, the brisk melodies more distinctive. And her best numbers have become the kind of adult love songs that make singers cry and other composers bite their lips….

[Janis Ian] contains at least three tunes ("That Grand Illusion," "Tonight Will Last Forever," "Silly Habits") as fine and strong as her classic "Jesse."…

The LP has mistakes, but they are few: the solo-piano backing on "Hopper Painting" grows dull, and "The Bridge" presents an embarrassing...

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Aida Pavletich

[In the early 1960s, the genre of teen songs had "the boy-friend" as their central theme. The demons of teendom were the other girls. Parents] were another conflicting force. Her parents usually disapproved of Jimmy or Eddie or Johnny, and made vague but forceful class distinctions to keep the lovers apart. Their objections were met with either rebellion or death. Only Janis Ian capitulated in "Society's Child," breaking the mold. (p. 77)

Outside of a few songs written by Shirley Owens and the Shirelles, Shirley Ellis' dance numbers, and a few songs Lesley Gore wrote after the teen vogue had subsided [in the late sixties], the majority of the teen singers were interpreters of other people's material....

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