Janis Ian was only 15 when her first hit thrust her not only into fame, but controversy.
“Society’s Child” tackled interracial romance, coming out right in the middle of the turbulent 1960s.
“People got crazy. A radio station in Atlanta dared to put ‘Society’s Child’ in rotation, and someone burned the station down,” Ian recalls in her 2008 autobiography, also titled “Society’s Child.”
“Strangers walked up to me in restaurants and spit in my food. … The mail I got spanned the gap between heaven and hell; one letter would thank me for bravely speaking out, the next would have razor blades taped to the envelope so I’d shred my fingers opening it,” Ian writes.
But the talented singer-songwriter never backed down from difficult topics, from taking on stereotypes of female beauty in her 1975 Grammy-nominated hit “At Seventeen,” to coming out about being a lesbian with the release of her 1992 comeback album, “Breaking Silence.”
“That’s the great thing about music and art. It cuts through those barriers, and doesn’t recognize gender or race,” Ian says in an interview from Nashville, where she lives with her wife. “That’s the beauty of it, and that’s what makes it so wonderfully seditious. That’s what makes people want to ban it.”
Currently on tour, Ian visits Atlanta for a Dec. 19 show at Eddie’s Attic which will be her last of 2010.
“I’m going to be doing ‘At 17’ and ‘Jesse’ and ‘Society’s Child,’ and it’s the last show of the year, so I plan to have a good time,” Ian says. “People should know that I stay after shows to meet people and sign things, so if they want to bring their stuff, that would be great.”
A masterful guitarist with a unique voice and forceful lyrics, Ian’s stage presence belies her tiny frame. And in a career that has touched five decades, she continues to challenge herself — taking on new genres and art forms.
Her early fame landed her not only controversy, but tremendous success. Still, at the young age of 18, Ian, already a veteran, took her first break from performing, three years in which she focused on songwriting. In 1983, she took nine years off — studying acting, but also facing the turmoil of marriage, divorce, and losing most of her money to what she describes as “an unscrupulous business manager.”
Since her return to the music scene in 1992, Ian has continued to tour and perform, and also take on new artistic projects, including her autobiography and several published science fiction short stories.
“The shows are great,” Ian says. “I hate the business part, I hate the travel, I hate not being home, but I love interacting with the audience. No matter how many records you make, there’s nothing like singing live.”
‘Love, life, marriage, politics’
Ian’s songwriting has always tackled the political along with the personal. And while much has changed in the last 50 years, the overall themes remain constant, she says.
“It’s the same: love, life, marriage, politics,” Ian says. Politically, “it’s sad that it doesn’t change that much,” she continues, but adds, “I think it is a huge kudo to America that we elected a black president.”
Still, “I think it is unfortunate there is so much screaming now, because it is really hard to hear when you are screaming,” Ian says. “For a long time our country has been running on divisiveness, and that is hard.”
That divisiveness includes the current battles over gay marriage, which Ian, who married her wife in Canada in 2003, finds “embarrassing.”
“It’s a bit ridiculous that the United States doesn’t recognize us,” she says. “How do you explain that kind of stupidity? I don’t know.”
While she is described as coming out in 1992, Ian says she never hid her sexual orientation.
“I was always out to friends and family, so it wasn’t as big of a shock as for someone who was completely closeted,” she says. “I never kept separate bedrooms or made any bones about it. It’s a really different world now, for better or for worse, and I think mostly for the better.”
And after all of her life experiences, from facing down protestors to losing her life’s earnings, Ian’s advice to young lesbian and gay artists is the same as her advice to all artists: “Follow your heart and don’t trust anyone.”
Top photo: Janis Ian first sparked controversy as a teen with her song about interracial love, and came out with the release of her 1992 comeback album, ‘Breaking Silence.’ (Photos by Peter Cunningham)