“At Seventeen” is a song by American singer-songwriter Janis Ian from her seventh studio album Between The Lines. Columbia released it in July 1975 as the second single from the album. Ian wrote the lyrics based on a The New York Times article and is about a social outcast in high school. Critics have regarded “At Seventeen” as a type of anthem. Despite her initial reluctance to perform the single live, Ian promoted it at various appearances and it has been included on compilation and live albums since.
The song received much praise which earned her the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the Year. The single reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has sold over a million copies. “At Seventeen” has been used frequently in television and films, including The Simpsons and Mean Girls; it has also been referenced in literature. Various recording artists and musicians, including Anita Kerr, Jann Arden and Celine Dion, have covered the song.
It was written by Janis Ian at the age of twenty-four and was inspired by a New York Times article about a young woman who believed her life would improve after a debutante ball and her subsequent disappointment when it did not. In the article the girl was eighteen, but Ian changed it to seventeen to fit with her samba guitar instrumental. She recalled feeling uncomfortable while writing “At Seventeen” because she had never experienced a homecoming or a prom. She said she purposefully took her time with the song to ensure it did not lose its “intensity”; she repeatedly stopped and started work on it over the course of three months. At the time, she was living with her mother.
Producer Brooks Arthur described the song as “just honest and straight from her heart”, and felt it was different from folk or pop music. He said Ian was easy to work with as she had prepared by bringing lyric sheets and arrangements to the studio sessions.
The lyrics focus on the conflict between cliques as represented by the contrast of “ravaged faces” and “clear-skinned smiles”. The song opens with the line “I learned the truth at seventeen that love was meant for beauty queens”. The narrator reveals in the third verse that she finds herself unattractive “Those of us with ravaged faces” but later provides a more hopeful outlook through an “Ugly Duckling” allusion; “Ugly duckling girls like me.” Ian said “The Ugly Duckling” lyric was partially inspired by Billie Holiday, who described her music as always containing a sense of hope. Ian had written the last verse “To those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came” to connect with the listener. Other lyrics include: “…remained at home, Inventing lovers on the phone.” and “The valentines I never knew, the Friday night charades of youth.”
One critic described the song as “a moving and memorable appraisal of teenage loneliness.”
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