"At Seventeen", also known as "At 17", is a song by American singer-songwriter Janis Ian from her seventh studio album Between the Lines. Columbia released it in August 1975 as the album's second single. Ian wrote the lyrics based on a The New York Times article with a samba instrumental. Brooks Arthur produced the final version. A soft rock ballad, the song is about a social outcast in high school. Critics have regarded "At Seventeen" as a type of anthem. Despite her initial reluctance to sing the single live, Ian promoted it through various performances. The song has been included on compilation albums and live albums.
|Single by Janis Ian|
|from the album Between the Lines|
|Recorded||September 17, 1974|
|Studio||914 Sound Studios|
|Janis Ian singles chronology|
Critics praised "At Seventeen" for its lyrics. For the song, Ian received the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and was nominated for the ones for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The single at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has sold over a million copies as of August 2004. Internationally, "At Seventeen" charted in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. One of Ian's most commercial successful songs, it has been considered her signature song by critics. "At Seventeen" has been frequently used in television and films, such as The Simpsons and Mean Girls; it has also been referenced in some literature. Various recording artists and musicians, including Anita Kerr, Jann Arden, and Celine Dion, covered "At Seventeen". The Hong Kong all-female band at17 named themselves after the song.
Background and recordingEdit
"At Seventeen" was written by Janis Ian and produced by Brooks Arthur. Ian was inspired to write the single after reading a The New York Times article about a young woman who believed her life would improve after a debutante ball and her subsequent disappointment. The article referenced the age eighteen, but Ian changed it to seventeen to fit with her samba guitar instrumental. Ian recalled feeling uncomfortable while writing "At Seventeen" as it predated the confessional song trend of the mid-1970s. She was also uncertain about writing about high school when she never experienced a homecoming or a prom. She said that she purposefully took her time with the song to insure it did not lose its "intensity"; she had repeatedly stopped and started her work over the course of three months. At the time, she was living with her mother. Ian wrote "At Seventeen" at the age of twenty-four.
During the recording process, which Ian described as "very tense", she worried that she had accidentally stolen the melody and consulted with three friends. Arthur described the song as "just honest and straight from her heart", and felt it was different from folk or pop music. He said that Ian was easy to work with as she had prepared by bringing lyric sheets and arrangements to the studio sessions. Arthur and Ian had previously worked together on her 1966 single "Society's Child", in which they formed a close friendship. "At Seventeen" was completed in roughly two or three days at 914 Sound Studios; it was recorded on September 17, 1974. The final version contains two takes combined together, as the initial ending was deemed too weak compared to its start. Allen Klein listened in during a session and positively responded to the song.
Brooks Arthur, Larry Alexander, and Russ Payne were audio engineers for "At Seventeen". The song included various backing instruments: Richard Davis, acoustic bass; David Snider did the acoustic guitar; Burt Collins, flugelhorn; Phil Bodner and Romeo Penque, flute; James Buffington, French horn; Sal DeTroia, nylon guitar; Barry Lazarowitz, Larry Alexander, percussion; Alan Raph, Bill Watrous, Eddie Bert, and Mickey Gravine, trombone; Burt Collins, Jimmy Sedlar, Joe Shepley, Ray Crisara, trumpet; Alan Raph, trombonium; David Sackson, Manny Vardi, Eugenie Dengel, George Brown, Patty Kopec, Richard Maximoff, and Seymour Berman, viola; Arianne Bronne, David Sackson, Ezra Klinger, Harold Kohon, Harry Lookofsky, Harry Urbont, Joe Malin, Julius Schacter, Kathy Kionke, Lewis Cley, Marie Hence, Masako Yanagita, Max Hollander, Ora Shiram, and Peter Dimitriades; violin. Ian had arranged the horns for the track.
Composition and lyricsEdit
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"At Seventeen" is composed in the key of C major using common time and a moderately tempo of 126 beats per minute. Instrumentation is provided by a piano and a guitar. During the track, Ian's vocal range spans from the low note of G3 to the high note of Ab4. Some commentators connected the song to bossa nova. Mix magazine's Gary Eskow cited Ian's style as the opposite of those by Antônio Carlos Jobim due to how she "explore[d] the belly of the bossa, the flip side of Ipanema". John Lissner of The New York Times referred to the instrumental as having a "laid‐back bossa nova beat" and ostinato. On the other hand, Lindsay Planer of AllMusic referred to "At Seventeen" as a mixture of pop rock, jazz, and blues, and music scholar James E. Perone associated it more with jazz and a "coffeehouse folksinger" approach. Perone described the song's style as more restraint compared to Ian's contemporaries. A writer for the Rolling Stone associated "At Seventeen" with "sulk-pop".
"At Seventeen" is a soft rock ballad about being a social outcast in high school, particularly regarding adolescent cruelty and rejection. 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 "The 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.”
Some commentators viewed "At Seventeen" as a type of anthem. Melissa Etheridge and Billboard's Patrick Crowley interpreted the song as a gay anthem. Crowley equated the awkwardness described in the lyrics to the confusion over one's sexual orientation. Etheridge felt the line ("I learned the truth at seventeen") as discovering one's homosexuality. Ian said that she was surprised at the LGBT support given to the song. NPR included "At Seventeen" in its 2018 series on American anthems.
Release and promotionEdit
Ian's manager and CBS each felt the song was too long, and the latter was uncertain on how to market something with so many lyrics. Producer Herb Gart had suggested for "When the Party's Over" to be released as the lead single from Ian's seventh studio album Between the Lines rather than "At Seventeen". He reasoned that radio personalities would choose "At Seventeen" as the better single and feel smarter than the record label. Alternatively, Arthur thought "When the Party's Over" was a more appropriate choice. Gart requested radio stations play only the first sixty seconds of "At Seventeen" followed by an advertisement for the song to encourage people to call in and request the rest. Ian said that Gart's promotional strategies were successful.
"At Seventeen" was first released on August 1975. It was made available as a 7 inch single on November 20, 1976 through Columbia; "Stars" and "Applause" were used as b-sides on two separate single releases. The album version was four minutes and forty-three seconds, and the single version was cut down to three minutes and fifty-six seconds. In February 14, 1977 (Valentine's Day), Ian was sent 461 Valentine's Day cards in reference to the lyric ("The valentines I never knew"). She has subsequently included "At Seventeen" on compilation albums. A remastered version of Between the Lines, including "At Seventeen", has also been made available; on August 4, 2014, Ian released an acoustic version of "At Seventeen" through her label Rude Girl Records.
Ian was initially hesitant to perform the single live, describing it as deeply personal and fearing public ridicule. She closed her eyes while singing it for the first six months to avoid seeing the audience's response. She later said that the frank lyrics helped to develop pathos with the listeners. Ian went on a promotional tour for the single, in which she performed at small shows for almost half a year. These appearances include a British morning show that included Queen's promotion of their 1975 single "Bohemian Rhapsody". In the beginning, Ian toured with her drummer, bass player, and tour manager. Ian said that she knew the song was successful when the size of the audience changed from 100 to 800. Ian sang "At Seventeen" for Saturday Night Live's first episode on October 11, 1975. The following year, she performed it as The Old Grey Whistle Test at the Shepherd’s Bush BBC Television Theatre. She also sang it on an episode of The Tonight Show, which included guest host Steve Lawrence.
Ian and Howard Stern did a parody version of the single for the Miss Howard Stern New Year’s Eve Pageant on December 31, 1993. The revised lyrics included "can't he get an older girl". She performed the song as part of the Women in Music: 1960-1999 concert, aired by MTV on 1999. Ian sang "At Seventeen" for the 2016 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' American Songbook series and the 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival. The same year, she recorded an acoustic version to include on the app for Wally Lamb's novel I'll Take You There; the app included a soundtrack containing eight songs, including "At Seventeen". Some of Ian's performances have been released on live albums.
"At Seventeen" received a positive response from critics for its lyrics and take on adolescence. A contributor for The Jewish Chronicle praised "At Seventeen" as "a moving and memorable appraisal of teenage loneliness". Twiggy commended the song for perfectly representing the awkwardness of being a teenager, and compared it to her own experiences growing up. The Advocate's Gina Vivinetto summed up "At Seventeen" as "the best song about growing up female ever written". Brittany Spanos, writing for The Village Voice, attributed the song's success to Ian's intimate delivery of its subject matter, likening it to Joni Mitchell's fourth studio album Blue (1971). Jeff and Don Breithaupt wrote that the song was "lifted above the level of generic moping by a sharply detailed lyric". John Lissner described "At Seventeen" as "mellow [and] improve[d] with each hearing", along with the songs “When the Party's Over”, “From Me to You”, and “Bright Lights and Promises”.
For "At Seventeen", Ian received the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 18th Annual Grammy Awards. She also received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Grammy Award for Song of the Year for the single. She performed the song as part of the ceremony. "At Seventeen" was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008, and is considered Ian's signature song. According Mike McPadden of VH1, the single had made Ian into a "major mainstream folk-rock performer".
"At Seventeen" peaked at number three on September 13, 1975 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and remained on the chart for twenty weeks. It reached number one on the Adult Contemporary Billboard chart for two weeks in August 1975, and stayed on the chart for fifteen weeks. It also peaked at number on the Cashbox top 100 chart, and number 6 on its year-end pop singles chart. For the Billboard Year-End chart, "At Seventeen" peaked at number nineteen. It also reached number twenty for pop and two for easy listening. According to Billboard, the song received a resurgence in sales after the Grammy Awards in 1976.
"At Seventeen" also made appearances on international charts. In Canada, the single peaked at number one on the RPM pop music playlist and number six on the RPM Top Singles chart. On RPM's top two-hundred songs of 1975, it ranked at number seventy-one. "At Seventeen" reached number thirty-seven on the New Zealand Singles Chart for the week of October 10, 1975. In Australia, it peaked at number eighteen on the Kent Music Report. It was included at number eighty on the year-end chart.
Ian cited the song's commercial success as making her an example of the American dream. It was her first successful single since "Society's Child", and her largest success overall. The Register-Guard's Lewis Taylor referred to "At Seventeen" as one of Ian's comeback records after she had gone financially broke and music critics deemed her as not commercially viable. As of August 2004, the song has sold over a million copies.
Use in mediaEdit
"At Seventeen" is a popular choice for film and television. It was played in the 2001 film Scotland, PA, which is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play Macbeth. The character Donald Duncan, portrayed by Geoff Dunsworth, is shown listening to the single in a scene that professor Jennifer Drouin interpreted as indicative of his queer identity. The song was played in the background of a scene for the 2004 film Mean Girls. Some critics felt it represented the character Janice, who has the same last name as the singer. Liz Lemon (portrayed by Tina Fey) performed a karaoke version of "At Seventeen" in a season one episode of 30 Rock. The A.V. Club's Erik Adams described the scene as a callback to Fey's work on Mean Girls. "At Seventeen" was included in the 2013 film Blood Ties. Stephen Holden, writing for The New York Times, criticized the song's placement in the film, and believed it belonged in "a softer and gentler movie" instead. It is also featured in the first season of The End of the F***ing World and in the fifth season of The Blacklist.
The single was featured in three episodes of The Simpsons; "A Streetcar Named Marge", "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer", and "Chief of Hearts". In "A Streetcar Named Marge", the lyrics are changed to describe the contestants of a beauty pageant. The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin cited the scene as representative of the episode's satire on "loneliness and despair [transformed] into crowd-pleasing entertainment through wildly inappropriate showmanship". For "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer", the song is used during Homer Simpson's search for a soulmate. Sarah Oliver of The A.V. Club felt it reflected the character's melancholy.
"At Seventeen" has also been referenced in literature. It was named in Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, where four girls imprisoned in their own home use it and other songs to communicate with the narrator and his friends. Orson Scott Card titled his short story "Inventing Lovers on the Phone" from a line of "At Seventeen". Ian said that Card's work had inspired her own music, specifically the track "This House" from her 1993 studio album Breaking Silence.
Formats and track listingsEdit
- 7" single
- "At Seventeen" –3:56
- 7" single
- "At Seventeen" –3:56
- "Stars" – 4:41
- 7" single
- "At Seventeen" –4:41
- "Applause" – 4:00
- Digital download
- "At Seventeen" –4:19
Credits and personnelEdit
- Acoustic bass – Richard Davis
- Acoustic guitar – David Snider
- Arrangement (horns) – Janis Ian
- Drums – Barry Lazarowitz
- Engineer – Brooks Arthur, Larry Alexander, Russ Payne
- Flugelhorn – Burt Collins
- Flute – Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque
- French horn – James Buffington
- Guitar (nylon) – Sal DeTroia
- Percussion – Barry Lazarowitz, Larry Alexander
- Producer – Brooks Arthur
- Trombone – Alan Raph, Bill Watrous, Eddie Bert, Mickey Gravine
- Trumpet – Burt Collins, Jimmy Sedlar, Joe Shepley, Ray Crisara
- Valve trombone (trombonium) – Alan Raph
- Viola – David Sackson, Manny Vardi, Eugenie Dengel, George Brown, Patty Kopec, Richard Maximoff, Seymour Berman
- Violin – Arianne Bronne, David Sackson, Ezra Klinger, Harold Kohon, Harry Lookofsky, Harry Urbont, Joe Malin, Julius Schacter, Kathy Kionke, Lewis Cley, Marie Hence, Masako Yanagita, Max Hollander, Ora Shiram, Peter Dimitriades
- Written by – Janis Ian
|United States||August 1975||7 inch||Columbia|
|November 20 1976|
|August 4 2014||Digital download||Rude Girl Records|
"At Seventeen" has been covered extensively by various recording artists and musicians. Anita Kerr covered it for the studio album The Anita Kerr Singers, released in 1975. Anthropologist Mary A. Bufwack and music reporter Robert K. Oermann attributed Ker's cover to popularizing "At Seventeen". Claude Francois recorded a French version of the song, titled "17 ans", in 1975. In 1988, cabaret singer Judith Cohen performed a cover of "At Seventeen" as part of her shows. Stephen Holden described it, along with her rendition of Bruce Roberts' 1977 song "I Don't Break Easily", were "built to strong dramatic climaxes in which a key line abruptly changed the narrative perspective". Tara MacLean recorded the song for the soundtrack of the 1999 movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle. CNN's Paul Clinton wrote that the film's music, including "At Seventeen", had "add[ed] energy and pacing to the story". Chocolat covered a Yoshinori Sunahara-produced "At Seventeen" for her second studio album Hamster, released in 1999. Billboard's Steve McClure described Chocolat's version as having a "dark, ambient feel". Ringo Sheena recorded the track "Seventeen" as a tribute to the Janis Ian song; Sheena had cited Ian as one of her major influences, particularly for her voice.
All-female band at17 chose their name partially based on the Janis Ian song. Ian was one of group member Eman Lam's favorite singers. at17 covered the song in Cantonese on their first studio album Meow Meow Meow in 2002. New Zealand singer Amber Claire released a cover of the song as the second single from her 2004 debut album Love and Such. It debuted and peaked at number twenty-eight on the Official New Zealand Music Chart. The same year, Gwyneth Herbert included her rendition on her second studio album Bittersweet and Blue; a reviewer from The Times described the version as "pop angst". DHT covered the song with Edmée Daenen for their debut studio album Listen to Your Heart (2005). AllMusic's David Jeffries described the rendition as lacking the camp of the original, though he found the cover to be successful.
Producer Kenneth Ehrlich requested Celine Dion perform the song as part of a 2008 Grammy Nominations TV special. For her rendition, Dion sang it with only her band on stage. She included it on her Las Vegas residency show Céline, and recorded a Babyface-produced cover for her eleventh English-language studio album Loved Me Back to Life (2013). According to Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, the album version contains "a light Brazilian feel". Some critics praised Dion's performance, with Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson writing it perfectly represents the singer as a "manic, Hallmark card-brandishing guru of schmaltz". On the other hand, Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic called the cover "thoroughly colorless adult contemporary." Dion also performed "At Seventeen" as part of a medley with her singles "A New Day Has Come" (2002) and "Unison" (1990) for her tour Celine Dion Live 2018.
Carly Rae Jepsen sang "At Seventeen" during the top three of the fifth season of Canadian Idol. Entertainment Weekly's Grady Smith praised her rendition for showcasing her breathy vocals, while Evan Sawdey of PopMatters found it to be unoriginal and tone-deaf. Jann Arden released her cover of "At Seventeen" as a single from her seventh studio album Uncover Me. Arden said that it was the first song she learned to play on the guitar, and identified it as a "perfect coming of age song". AllMusic's Stewart Mason described Arden's take as "downright spooky". The cover peaked at eighty-four on the Canadian Hot 100 Billboard chart on May 5, 2007, and remained on the chart for six weeks. Arden performed "At Seventeen" on her Uncover Me Tour in 2007. She included the live version on her iTunes exclusive extended play (EP) Live Session, released in 2007. In 2008, Regine Velasquez recorded her cover of the song on fifth cover album Low Key. For the album, she included songs that she wanted to sing since childhood. The same year, Rhonda Burchmore included her rendition of "At Seventeen" on her studio album Pure Imagination. Burchmore chose the song based on what the Herald Sun's Jill Fraser referred to as "a deliberate move to more popstyle songs".
"At Seventeen" is performed as part of the musical I Dreamed a Dream. It was one of several pop covers used to tell the life of Susan Boyle, which Emma Clayton of Telegraph & Argus praised as a smart idea. Maureen McGovern performed the song at the Feinstein's/54 Below as part of a 2015 event celebrating female singer-songwriters. The same year, Alessia Cara included a song entitled "Seventeen" on her EP Four Pink Walls, which the Rolling Stone's Brittany Spanos called a "savvy update" of the Ian original. Saffron Monsoon (portrayed by Julia Sawalha) did a karaoke version of "At Seventeen" in the 2016 film Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie in a bar with drag queens. The version was included on the film's official soundtrack. Rachael Yamagata recorded "At Seventeen", along with other covers, to finance her fourth studio album Tightrope Walker (2016). In 2018, American singer Sarah Partridge covered "At Seventeen" for her album Bright Lights and Promises: Redefining Janis Ian. Partridge recorded her version with a septuple meter.
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