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Janis Ian and Society's Children

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - 01:22 PM

In the mid-70s, the song “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian was unavoidable. Since it wasn’t a song I liked, I never looked any further into what she’d done. If I had, I might’ve learned that almost ten years earlier, in the mid-60s, she’d had another hit song – a far more controversial one called “Society’s Child,” about an interracial couple whose relationship is coming apart under the strain of society’s disapproval. It was a pretty daring thing to do, but for the 15-year-old Janis Ian and the people who dared to record and release it. Now, reading her entertaining new memoir, which is named after that song, it occurs to me that “Society’s Child” is not just the name of her first and still most controversial work, it’s also a good description of who she is as a songwriter. Like her slightly older colleagues, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Janis Joplin, and Joan Baez, Ian was a product of her times, reacting to and perhaps even helping to move along the wrenching changes that were going on in American society then.

That got me to thinking about other groups of musicians who were similarly the children of their particular societal and cultural climates. The punks and hip-hop pioneers of the mid-70s were reacting to – and some would claim, helping to cause – the atmosphere of decay in New York City at that time. (Deborah Harry of Blondie on Soundcheck last year: “Real estate was garbage, and garbage was everywhere.”) Grunge in the early 90s seemed to be a bastard child of a recession that may seem almost quaint today but which was scary stuff for anyone who owned a house or apartment that was suddenly worth half of what you’d paid for it.

Janis Ian and her folk friends wove their music into the fabric of American societal change in the 60s. Later, the punks railed against the corporate nature of society in the 70s and insinuated the DIY ethic into our culture. And you could, in retrospect at least, reasonably claim that hip-hop’s move into the mainstream did more to break down racial barriers than anything since the civil rights movement of the 60s.

Would you say that all musicians, all artists, are in some sense their “society’s children?” Or are there some whose relationship to society is a little more complex?

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