At the age of 14, Janis Ian wrote and recorded her first hit single, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”, about an interracial romance forbidden by a girl’s mother and frowned upon by her peers and teachers. Produced by George “Shadow” Morton and released three times from 1965 to 1967, “Society’s Child” became a national hit upon its third release after Leonard Bernstein featured it in a CBS TV special titled Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.
The song’s theme of interracial relationships was considered taboo by some radio stations and they withdrew or banned it from their playlists accordingly. In her 2008 autobiography Society’s Child, Ian recalls receiving hate mail and death threats as a response to the song and mentions that a radio station in Atlanta that played it was burned down. In the summer of 1967, “Society’s Child” reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, the single having sold 600,000 copies, and the album 350,000.
At age 16, Ian met comedian Bill Cosby backstage at Smothers Brothers show where she was promoting Society’s Child. Since Ian was underage, she needed to be accompanied by a chaperon while touring and after her set, she had been sleeping with her head on her chaperon’s lap (an older female family friend). Cosby interpreted their interaction as “lesbian” and he is alleged to have warned other television shows that Ian was “not suitable family entertainment” and “shouldn’t be on television” because of her sexuality, thus attempting to blacklist her. Although Ian would later come out as lesbian, at the time of the encounter with Cosby she states that she had only been kissed once and that was in broad daylight at summer camp.
Ian relates on her website that, although the song was originally intended for Atlantic Records and the label paid for her recording session, the label subsequently returned the master to her and quietly refused to release it. Ian relates that years later, Atlantic’s president at the time, Jerry Wexler, publicly apologized to her for this. The single and Ian’s 1967 eponymous debut album (which reached #29 on the charts) were finally released on Verve Forecast. In 2001, “Society’s Child” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors recordings considered timeless and important to music history. Her early music was compiled on a double CD entitled Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings in 1995.
“Society’s Child” stigmatized Ian as a one-hit wonder until her most successful US single, “At Seventeen”, was released in 1975. “At Seventeen” is a bittersweet commentary on adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, as reflected upon from the perspective of a 24-year-old. The song was a major hit as it charted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and won the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female, beating out Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, and Helen Reddy. Ian appeared as a musical guest on the series premier of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975, performing “At Seventeen” and “In the Winter”. The album, Between the Lines, was also a smash and reached #1 on Billboard’s Album chart. The album would be certified Platinum for sales of over one million copies sold in the US. Another measure of her success is anecdotal: on Valentine’s Day 1977, Ian received 461 Valentine cards, having indicated in the lyrics to “At Seventeen” that she never received one as a teenager.
“Fly Too High” (1979), produced by disco producer Giorgio Moroder, was Ian’s contribution to the soundtrack of the Jodie Foster film Foxes and was also featured on Ian’s 1979 album Night Rains. It also became her first international hit, reaching number one in many countries, including South Africa, Belgium, Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands, and going gold or platinum in those countries as well as in the UK. Another country where Ian has achieved a high level of popularity is Japan: Ian had two Top 10 singles on the Japanese Oricon charts, “Love Is Blind” in 1976 and “You Are Love” in 1980. Ian’s 1976 album Aftertones also topped Oricon’s album chart in October 1976. “You Are Love (Toujours Gai Mon Cher)” is the theme song of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1980 movie Virus. She cut several other singles specifically for the Japanese market, including 1998’s “The Last Great Place”.
In the US, she did not chart in the Top 40 on the pop charts after “At Seventeen”, though she had several songs reach the Adult Contemporary singles chart through 1980 (all failing to make the Top 20).
Ian started “Rude Girl Records, Inc. and its publishing arm, Rude Girl Pub., [on] January 2, 1992”. “From 1992 to the present, RGR has steadily grown, with its current ownership of Janis Ian masters up to twenty albums and DVD’s overseas, and a slightly smaller number in North America. The Rude Girl label oversees the production of Janis’ newer work, and in the case of older work, its re-mastering and the re-creation of the original artwork.”
From 1982–92, Ian continued to write songs, often in collaboration with then-songwriting partner Kye Fleming, which have been covered by Amy Grant, Bette Midler, Marti Jones, and other artists. She released Breaking Silence in 1993 and also came out as a lesbian. The album, Folk Is The New Black, was released jointly by her Rude Girl Records label and the Cooking Vinyl labels in 2006, her first in more than two decades.
Other artists have recorded Ian’s compositions, including Roberta Flack, who had a hit in 1973 with Ian’s song “Jesse”. Ian’s own version is included on the 1974 album Stars (the title song of which has also been oft-covered, including versions by Shirley Bassey, Cher, Nina Simone and Barbara Cook). Richard Barone recorded Ian’s song Sweet Misery on his album Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s in 2016. She continues to tour, with a tour in 2014 including dates in both the US and the UK.
Interfusion Records 1983
Columbia Records 1981
Columbia Records 1979
Columbia Records 1978
Columbia Records 1978
Columbia Records 1977