Janis Ian: At Seventeen
A valentine I never sent: reflections of a ten-year-old on Janis Ian's 1975 classic
At Seventeen was the summit of confessional songwriting. For months after its release, Janis Ian could only face an audience by singing it with her eyes closed. The lyrics were dangerously revealing, an artist’s Rubicon.
But eyes open or closed, in pride or in shame, she must have known her words were going to find their way into the world. There are feelings that insist on expression. Imagine holding a bird that so desperately wanted to fly you could only hang on to it by hurting it.
At ten I was in the fourth grade. The harder scarring was still to come. From the near side of seventeen, I knew the lyrics were taboo. Ugliness and exclusion were how younger children punished each other, too. Loneliness, not being picked for basketball, valentines that never came were things you didn't talk about. Inventing lovers on the phone and cheating at solitaire in your bedroom, the same. Hot shame.
There was a whiff of cruelty and comeuppance in her lyrics, for beauty queen and ten-year-old and singer alike. She sang about the worst things during what had promised to be the most magical age: the age of cars and girls and friends and being, at last, tall. The age of smiles and easy freedom. Even the shape and charmed vowels of the word "seventeen" were on the table. For a ten-year-old there was nothing after.
And Ian sang her lacerating anthem over the relentless ease of the samba, a brutal counterpoint.
If I had the words I have now, lying on that soft carpeted corner of my living room, hidden from the doorway, the word would have been exquisite.
But as a child I would have used a simpler word. I would have used the word beautiful. For all the reasons in the song, the vulnerability of a description like beautiful would be trampled after the sobering years of childhood and the bottomless pecking order of kickball.
Years would pass before the connection between blood and beauty would be understood, but I already felt it. There were no happy songs that led you this far into dangerous waters. I was both captive and subtly repulsed. I would have been ashamed to admit I listened to it. I was already that far along on my childhood journey.
And yet, I was in her headlights. This singer's voice beckoned with warm surrender, companionship, recognition, something that purred, longing.
We aren't all beautiful, not outside and not inside.
There's nothing fair or democratic about it. There are practical reasons to pretend otherwise. We've made a cultural reflex to insist that everyone is beautiful, but that's not true. A ten-year-old knows that's not true. We may not like the rules of beauty, but we know them to a boy and girl, lie about them, wish them to be otherwise and despair of finding ourselves on the wrong right side of the inequity.
Our public declarations of what it means to be beautiful march at the front of the long parade of human hypocrisy. They hold the standard high. We rank beauty, long for it, date it, marry it, lose it, trade up for it, buy it if we must or can.
Our association to beauty, to our own and to others, is a pop chart measure of our worth. Always in motion and monitored continually. With a bullet up or a bullet down. If I believe - still - that the need to be or associate with someone beautiful is universal, it is simply because I know - still - that it remains true for me.
There is a Pandora exception to these stark rules, and it is hidden in plain sight in her song.
There is a flash point of alchemy at which a woman's voice becomes so exquisite it trumps the mathematics of the eyes, so poignant that she commands by sound and not form.
Her voice becomes a hall pass from the cold arithmetic, and it is a power to be feared. It is a wizardry of the feminine. Listen, and you can hear Ian rise from her throne at the precise moment she sings "and those of us with ravaged faces." My god. Let the cheerleaders tremble.
Janis Ian carved this liberating truth of eyes and ears into some small, safe haven in my heart, to which I owe her gratitude. For a moment, music freed her seventeen-year-old and my ten-year-old from the tyranny of appearance and solitude and valentines that never came.
And a valentine I never sent.
A soft brush of Brazilian sand on the snare.
A long beach of orchestral blue water. A hip swivel of fingerpicked nylon. The turquoise jewelry of harmonics in high fourths. The sea-washed footprints of the stand up bass. The brass in bronze-skinned competition. The moon-soft samba of your unbreakable stride. They swell, and you swell. They click, but you chime.
You are one guitar, two guitars, and three, and four and... there is nowhere you turn your head that the citrus violins will not follow.
Then you move to center stage in an orange breeze of twilight and close your eyes.
And, in some long ago and far away corner of a living room floor, I close mine.
Ipanema in the golden rain.