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Janis Ian Was More Than Just A Teenager

After hit song "At Seventeen," singer-songwriter Janis Ian stepped away from her musical success for over 10 years, which is why Ann Powers thinks she's a bit forgotten.

Morning Edition's series called One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs focuses on musicians or bands whose careers in the United States are defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalogs have much more to offer.

In this installment, NPR Music's Ann Powers argues that Janis Ian, who won the Grammy for best pop vocal performance in 1975 for "At Seventeen," pioneered what we now consider the adult contemporary genre. Read Ann in her own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.

Janis Ian has had one of the most fascinating career trajectories in pop music. She was a child prodigy in the '60s and she was known for provocative protest songs, including "Society's Child," which was the story of an interracial relationship — which did chart. But then she dropped out of the music business for a few years and came back with a totally different sound.

"At Seventeen" is such a powerful and honest confrontation with the feelings of inadequacy that so many girls and boys feel: that's why it became a ballad for ugly ducklings. Janis Ian's willingness to confront the beauty myth and her own struggles with it — Ian was never a convention glamour girl, at all. She's very androgynous, she just didn't look like a golden California babe, and that was certainly what was common among singer-songwriters in the '70s.

"At Seventeen" had such an overwhelming impact on so many people that it's kind of overshadowed a lot of Janis Ian's other work, but she has so many great songs, and one in particular is just as much a classic: It's called "Jesse."

Janis Ian wrote "Jesse" from the perspective of the loved one of a Vietnam veteran, and we don't really know whether the soldier is still at war or if maybe he's come back or she's come back and is struggling ... It's mysterious, but at the center of the song is incredible ache, this loneliness that you know will never be resolved.

It's so clean and clear and sad, and this is what Janis Ian is so good at: she writes character studies, she confronts societal issues, but in a very personal and relatable way. It's just one of many that Janis Ian wrote and gave us, and I hope people explore her catalog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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