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Janis Ian (born Janis Eddy Fink, April 7, 1951) is an American songwriter, singer, musician, columnist and science fiction author. Ian first entered the folk music scene while still a teenager in the mid-1960s. Most active musically in that decade and the 1970s, she has continued recording into the 21st century. She has won two Grammy Awards, the first in 1975 for her song "At Seventeen", and the second in 2013 for Best Spoken Word Album, for her autobiography, Society's Child (nearly 40 years later).
Born to a Jewish family in New York City, she was primarily raised in New Jersey, initially on a farm, and attended East Orange High School in East Orange, New Jersey and the New York City High School of Music & Art. Her parents, Victor (a music teacher) and Pearl, ran a summer camp in upstate New York. In that Cold War era they were frequently under government surveillance because of their left-wing politics. Ian would allude to these years later in her song God and the FBI.
As a child she admired the work of folk pioneers such as Joan Baez and Odetta. Starting with piano lessons at the age of six or seven, Ian, by the time she entered her teens, had learned the organ, harpsichord, French horn, flute and guitar. At the age of 12, she wrote her first song, "Hair of Spun Gold," which was subsequently published in the folk publication Broadside and was later recorded for her debut album. In 1964, she legally changed her name to Janis Ian (her new last name being her brother Eric's middle name).
At the age of 13, Ian wrote and sang 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" finally 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 lyrical content was taboo for 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.
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. Years later, Ian says, Atlantic's president at the time, Jerry Wexler, publicly apologized to her for this. The single and Ian's 1967 eponymous debut album were finally released on Verve Forecast; her album was also a hit, reaching #29. 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 single in the United States, "At Seventeen", a bittersweet commentary on adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, as reflected upon from the perspective of a 24-year-old, was released in 1975. "At Seventeen" was a major hit, receiving tremendous acclaim from critics and record buyers alike—it charted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It won the 1975 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance - Female beating out Linda Ronstadt, who was nominated for her Heart Like a Wheel album; Olivia Newton-John; and Helen Reddy. Ian performed "At Seventeen" as a musical guest on the debut of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975. The song's album, Between the Lines, was also a smash and hit #1 on Billboard's Album chart. It was quickly certified Gold and later earned a 'Platinum' certification 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 any as a teenager.
"Fly Too High" (1979), produced by disco producer Giorgio Moroder, was her contribution to the soundtrack of the Jodie Foster film Foxes, also featured on Ian's 1979 album Night Rains. It earned her a Grammy nomination and became a hit single in many countries, including South Africa, Belgium. Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands.
Another country where Ian has achieved a high level of popularity is Japan. She had two top 10 singles on the Japanese Oricon charts, "Love Is Blind" in 1976, and "You Are Love" in 1980; and her album Aftertones 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. Ian has cut several other singles specifically for the Japanese market, including 1998's "The Last Great Place".
Ian reached the pop charts only once more after "At Seventeen" ("Under the Covers", #71 in 1981), though she had several more songs reach the Adult Contemporary singles chart through 1980 (all failing to make the Top 20, however). She walked away from her CBS contract in 1982 while it still had three albums to go. Ian deliberately spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s without a record deal. During the 1982–1992 period she continued to write songs, often in collaboration with songwriting partner Kye Fleming, which were covered by the likes of Amy Grant, Bette Midler and Marti Jones. She also studied under acting coach Stella Adler and struck up a close friendship with her, which continued until the latter's death in 1992.
Ian finally became one of the first "indie artists," resurfacing in 1993, with the release of Breaking Silence and its title song about incest. She also came out as a lesbian at the time of the release of that album. On 6/25/1993, Ian appeared on The Howard Stern Show, where she performed a "new" version of "At Seventeen" about Jerry Seinfeld.
Ian's album, Folk Is The New Black, was released jointly by the Rude Girl and Cooking Vinyl labels in 2006. It is the first in over 20 years where she did all the songwriting herself.
Other artists have recorded Ian's compositions, most notably Roberta Flack, who had a hit in 1973 with Ian's song "Jesse", also recorded by Joan Baez and Dottie West; Ian's own version is featured on her 1974 album Stars (the title song of which has also been oft-covered, including versions by Cher, Nina Simone and Barbara Cook). Other artists who have recorded or performed songs written or co-written by Janis Ian include Amy Grant, Jeanette Dimech, Sheena Easton, Michele Pillar, Mel Torme, Michelle Wright, Bette Midler ("Some People's Lives," a song written by Ian and her then-partner Kye Fleming, became the title song of her 1990 album), Jann Arden, and Japanese singer Shiina Ringo (covered Ian's breakthrough Japanese hit, "Love Is Blind").
Ian continues to tour, with a round of concerts scheduled for the United Kingdom in the Spring of 2014, and a series of appearances in the US after that.
Criticism of the RIAA
She is an outspoken critic of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a record industry organization which she sees as acting against the interests of musicians and consumers. As such, she has willingly released several of her songs for free download from her website. Along with science fiction authors Eric Flint and Cory Doctorow, she has argued that their experience provides conclusive evidence that free downloads dramatically increased hard-copy sales, contrary to the claims of RIAA and NARAS. Ian's signature tune "At Seventeen" sold over two million singles in the United States alone yet was never certified.
"I've been surprised at how few people are willing to get annoyed with me over it," she laughs. "There was a little backlash here and there. I was scheduled to appear on a panel somewhere and somebody from a record company said if I was there they would boycott it. But that's been pretty much it. In general the entire reaction has been favorable. I hear from a lot of people in my industry who don't want to be quoted, but say 'yeah, we're aware of this and we'd like to see a change too.'"
Writing and editing
In addition to being an award-winning singer-songwriter, Ian writes science fiction. A long-time reader of the genre, she got into science fiction fandom in 2001, attending the Millennium Philcon. Her short stories have been published in anthologies, and she co-edited, with Mike Resnick, the anthology Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, published in 2003 (ISBN 978-0-7564-0177-1). She also occasionally attends science fiction conventions.
Ian has been a regular columnist for, and still contributes to the LGBT news magazine, The Advocate. She has a selection of her columns available on her website. She also contributed a column to Performing Songwriter magazine from 1995 through 2003.
On July 24, 2008, Janis Ian released her autobiography Society's Child (published by Penguin Tarcher) to much critical acclaim. An accompanying double CD, The Autobiography Collection, has also been released with many of Ian's best loved songs.
Janis married Portuguese filmmaker Tino Sargo in 1978; they divorced in 1983. Details of Sargo's physical and emotional abuse were discussed in Ian's autobiography, Society's Child. Janis Ian came out as a lesbian in 1993 with the worldwide release of her album Breaking Silence. Patricia Snyder and Janis Ian were married in Toronto on August 27, 2003. Ian has a stepdaughter by Snyder, and two grandchildren.
Ian's mother, Pearl, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975. To deal with her disease, Ian and her brother convinced Pearl to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college. Pearl eventually enrolled in Goddard College's adult education program, ultimately graduating with a Master's degree. After Pearl's death, Ian decided to auction off merchandise and raise money to endow a scholarship at Goddard specifically for older continuing education students. This began what became the Pearl Foundation. To date, it has contributed over $700,000 in scholarship funds to various educational institutions, including Warren Wilson College.