Mike Ragogna: What is the story behind your writing “Society’s Child”?
Janis Ian: As best as I remember, I was on a bus headed to school, and I saw a black and white couple necking, totally oblivious to everyone else on the bus. They were very happy, but nobody else on the bus was, and I remember thinking, “I wonder if the girl will have the nerve to get through this.” And when I started writing the song–in whatever part of me that talent lives in, since I certainly did not have the experience to know–I made the call that no, she did not have the ability to do that, she wouldn’t in a normal world, and chances are, she’d cop out.
MR: Due to its controversial topic, “Society’s Child” had trouble getting airplay but it eventually became a hit. Do you remember the events that led up to its turning the corner?
JI: The single was released three times. The first two times, WNEW went on it heavily and WBAI played the snot out of it, and after that, nobody would touch it. It was a hit in New York and wherever it got played. The problem was getting it played. Eventually, I guess a year after we cut it, Leonard Bernstein came along with his TV special and he went ahead and touted it, calling the record business a bunch of cowards. A lot of stations then went on it with apologies, and of course, the label got the benefit and took out ads in the trade papers. But it never became a number one hit because one city or one state would go on it, and as it fell off the charts there, the next one would get brave and go on it, and as it fell off the charts there, the next one would get brave, and so on down the line.
MR: Regardless of its erratic airplay and chart numbers, it still made its mark on the culture.
JI: Yeah, I think you’re right, because certainly, a lot of people didn’t dare bring that record into their homes, but they still heard it. I heard from a young guy a couple of months ago who said that he remembered very well his sister bringing it home, and his parents saying, “That record is not staying in this house.” And this is on Long Island. He heard his mother having coffee with her friends when the record became a talking point, and they were saying, “Well, what would you do if YOUR daughter…?” and “What would you do if YOUR son…?” So I do think it had a bigger effect than sales, it’s one of the reasons why it endured as well.
MR: In a way, it’s better it integrated into the culture that way since it created a useful dialog. And it became a real catchphrase.
JI: Actually, one of the guys who was in Miami Vice was in a TV movie in the early seventies and they were going to call it Society’s Child. They didn’t even bother letting us know, I read about it in the paper. So I called my attorney and asked, “Can they do that?” So she called them and they said you can’t copyright a title. We sued and the court decided that yes, I could copyright this title because I had coined the phrase. It had never been heard before. I can’t remember how they put it, but it was an integral part of the song, and I made it part of the language.
MR: You were so young when you had that hit, and apparently, your teachers at New York’s High School of Music & Art were belligerent towards you because of it. What was it like having to endure that as an adolescent?
JI: Going back over my journals at the time, it was really obvious. I understood that the teachers were failed musicians and performers, and this really angered them. I didn’t understand the jealousy…I still don’t understand jealousy on that level. I think I would have understood envy, but this was way past envy, this was into, “If I can’t have it, I don’t want you to have it.” I mean, I would love to have the career Joan Baez is having in Europe right now, but God knows I don’t begrudge her that career.
MR: Yeah, and she’s like the good teacher, with a reputation for mentoring young artists like Dar Williams in the nineties. Are you friends with Joan?
JI: God yeah, I adore Joan! She’s wonderful, she’s been great to me my whole life.
MR: Now, as a kid, you heard about radio stations being burned down for playing your record. What was your reaction at the time?
JI: It was the same reaction I had to everything during that period, which is, “Oh my God, I am SO not dealing with this.” You know, if you’re fifteen or sixteen years old and you’re trying to wrap your head around the fact that somebody who never met you might hate you, and hate you enough to threaten you…which is just a really unfathomable way of looking at things. So when it comes to something as that kind of violence, I don’t think there is any way to react to it other than to just be stunned. Back in those days, nobody had bodyguards, none of us dealt with that sort of stuff.
MR: Speaking of threats, these days, at town hall meetings, you’ve got mobilized Teabaggers, Birthers, Death Panel believers, or just plain Obama haters, and some of these folks are bringing guns.
JI: It’s amazing what you can do when it’s well-planned like that, it’s sad. I think it’s sad that people are still that gullible, that they don’t even know when they’re being used because they have too much invested to believe that those people would use them at all, you know? It’s too bad.
MR: You would think that just from the sheer amount of knowledge and technology that we use on a daily basis, we would be out of the dark ages by now.
JI: You would hope, but apparently, no! [Laughs] Some people would rather stay ignorant and self-satisfied.
MR: Getting back to your recordings and songwriting, in the early seventies, you got a deal with Columbia, and you released Stars that included your song “Jesse” that Roberta Flack had a hit with earlier. Was she the first one to record it?
JI: Yeah, she did the first version and it gave me some much-needed credibility as a writer.
MR: And your song “Stars” was covered by Cher.
JI: And Glen Campbell, Mel Torme, Nina Simone… It’s funny that my longest song is also my most recorded.
MR: Was the release date of your new career retrospective The Essential Janis Ian timed with the release of your Society’s Child paperback?
JI: I approached them (Sony Legacy) last November and told them I was coming out with a paperback next year, and would you guys like to release it simultaneously with that? They said, “Yeah it would be great.”
MR: What motivated the song selection?
JI: On a collection like this, I really have to think of what the fans think is essential, and what I think doesn’t come into it. It would have been very different if I had done a collection of my best songs or my favorites. That would be a whole different album. I was trying to make sure that it was a broad retrospective, covering all of the albums. Originally I was going to sit down and try to pick one song from every album, but that was just crazy-making!
MR: It’s loosely chronological, but it’s not strictly followed. What was the reason for that?
JI: It’s more chronological to the book, I was also looking at it as a companion piece, so that was a whole different thing.
MR: What made you decide it was the time to write your book Society’s Child?
JI: I think I hit my fifties and I realized that I had come up in an interesting time and I wanted to talk about it. I realized that if I could possibly talk about that time without it being completely self-serving, with it also being about the times as much as about me, then I could do it. Of course, it would up being about me in the end anyway, but…
MR: Other than when “Society’s Child” was a hit, are there any periods where you feel like you affected society?
JI: Sure, during “At Seventeen,” that’s the obvious one.
MR: Right, that’s another social song.
JI: Yeah, I think that’s what I’ve always done. When people used to call me a political writer, it was kind of confusing because I was always much more interested in the social end of things which hinges on the political, but it isn’t really part of it.
MR: Did you and Columbia foresee how big a hit “At Seventeen” would be?
JI: I think we all thought that it could be a hit, but I don’t think any of us realized how far-reaching it would be.
MR: You’re in Nashville, right?
JI: I am, been here 21 years.
MR: What got you there?
JI: The songwriter community. It’s the best place in the world for a songwriter.
MR: Do you perform locally?
JI: Yeah, here and there, I do The Bluebird with some friends now and then.
MR: When you perform live, what’s your mission?
JI: To be asked back! It’s the same as making a record, I mean, what’s the goal there? When you’re young, the goal is to have a hit. You get a little older and the goal becomes to get to make another record.
MR: Do you prefer recording or performing live?
JI: At this point, I just prefer sitting around and writing.
MR: Do you see a follow-up to Society’s Child?
JI: No, well, I suppose if I live another hundred years. I don’t know what I would say. I want to do some fiction writing, I’ve had some pretty good luck with short stories, I’d like to do a couple of larger things. Really, I would like to just stay home and write. Unfortunately or fortunately, I have a day job so…
MR: …and that is?
JI: Being Janis Ian and doing all of this stuff!
Now that you’ve read the interview, check out some of Janis Ian’s liner notes from The Essential:
“I was born into the crack that split America.
On one side of the chasm was the America my parents lived in. There, the country was still congratulating itself on winning the war after the War To End All Wars. Men wore suits and ties to work, or laborer’s uniforms. Women wore stiletto heels, and kept themselves pure for marriage. Females did the housework, males did the heavy lifting. Blacks knew their place, whites knew theirs, and there wasn’t much room between.
On the other side of the crack was the America I grew up in, bounded by anarchy and a passion for truth. In that America, all wars were meaningless, born out of governmental greed and disregard. Vietnam was just the latest in a series of events to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. People on my side of the crack wore colorful clothing and water buffalo sandals, made love not war, and believed in the family of man, unbounded by race, religion, or nationality. We lived through an adolescence tinged by assassinations of those we held dear. We didn’t know our place…”