The Infinite Jukebox: Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’

This isn’t just a song, it’s a world, a Universe. It’s soft, ungentle, mellow, yet bitter beyond words, though Janis Ian’s voice stays quiet, and patient throughout. But it’s patience in the face of the inevitability, undemanding, uncomplaining, yet quietly determined to take you inside, to show you the life that too many people, overlooked, unthought of, are forced into leading by chances never offered, by love that never even sees you, let alone dismisses you.

‘At Seventeen’ came out in 1975, just in time. If it had appeared a couple of years earlier, I doubt I would never have heard it then, but this was the year Commercial Radio burst onto the scene across Britain, brash and bright and determined to outdo the stodginess of Radio 1 that, seven years on from its inauguration, still hadn’t been accepted by the BBC, and as a consequence was so easy to pass, Commercial Radio didn’t even need to go out of the middle lane.

I mean, they could broadcast all evening, whereas Radio 1 still had this gap from 6.00pm until 10.00pm where Radio 2 took back the frequency, so I could listen to Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio all evening, if I wanted. And in the evenings, when different shades of music were allowed to play, I would hear this song by Janis Ian.

All I knew of her was that, back in 1967, she’d had this surprise hit in America with a song called ‘Society’s Child’, about an interracial relationship, which was a really hot subject back then, and frankly not that much further advanced in 1975: we still had ‘Love Thy neighbour’ on the TV back then. I didn’t get to hear ‘Society’s Child’ then, and not for many years later. Janis Ian had written it when she was 14. By the time it charted, at the third time of release, she was herself 17, but it wasn’t about anything like that experience that she was singing about now. It was long ago and far away, and the world was younger than today, and the combination of that limpid, clear guitar and that quiet, regretful voice led us into a world that many of us had never seen.

This was especially so for the male half of the audience: I don’t doubt that there were hundreds of thousands of girls of all ages who recognised the unfairness of school, of factions and groups, the advantaged looking down on the unadvantaged, the cruelty of the beautiful towards the plain, the desperate loneliness of finding that no-one can or will look at you, or offer to take you out of this prison, even for a night.

But though it was an eye-opener for me, it wasn’t by any means a foreign country. Though the cruelty was sharper, and the hurt deeper, I understood, recognised more of this than I cared to admit in 1975, when I was nineteen. The valentines never came for me, I was always among the last chosen for games of football or cricket, I was just as much the ugly duckling boy as Janis Ian described herself as being the girl. The only difference was that I was spared the pain of never being asked, because I was supposed to do the asking, only I didn’t know how to ask, and there was no-one there to ask.

It was supposed to be easier for girls then, and that’s what I thought it was like, and Janis Ian took me inside a world in which it was just the same and worse. We all want, we all need, but not all of us can have, because there are laws that exist on no statue-books that rule such things out for us, and this song speaks for all of us, because it speaks with both resignation at the knowledge that we are forever excluded, and the clear-eyed determination to explain without accusation how we are thus crippled.

The song drifts. There are distant touches of strings, quiet horn measures, but still it’s that carefully picked guitar, and the unobtrusive, shuffling rhythm that makes four minutes into a life and a lifetime. The meek shall inherit the earth, if that’s alright with the rest of you, but it never works out that way. It’s your earth, and you’ll never remember to make room. I marvel that we don’t scream more loudly, that all we do is quietly remind each other of how we understand, but part of being the meek is that we are not given much to screaming, even in frustration.

It was long ago, and far away, the world was younger than today, and 1975 is certainly long ago, but it’s never that far away, not the lonely evenings spent in my bedroom, listening to songs like this, and never even meeting the girls to whom this applied, seeking that comfort that comes in solidarity, and maybe sometimes finding that we are what each other are chosen for, instead of condemned to. Some songs remain alive, far beyond what you wish for them. In a hundred years time, Janis Ian will still be speaking the truth of many girls and boys. She will still play on, in Infinite Jukeboxes in the minds of those who have never known what a Jukebox was, or represents.

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