Rock Flashback: “At Seventeen”

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Janis Ian

Here’s another one of those intriguing, fabulous, dubious rock history “facts” that frequently shows up on the Internet: On Valentine’s Day 1977, it is said, singer [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Janis Ian[/lastfm] received 461 valentine cards in response to her single “At Seventeen.”

Do you remember “At Seventeen”? It’s a literate, bitter, confessional single about the way unattractive, socially repressed girls are treated by their peers in high school — including the fact that they never get any Valentines. It went all the way to #3 on the Hot 100 in the late summer and fall of 1975.

The bit about the Valentine’s cards is traceable to Ian’s Wikipedia entry (big surprise), which includes a footnote crediting The Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, compiled by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton. I’m not saying Rees and Crampton made it up — only that I’d like to know where they found it. I don’t know whether Ian mentions it in her autobiography, Society’s Child, but I’m betting against it.

While it’s possible that Janis Ian might have received Valentines from fans after “At Seventeen,” the precision of that number, 461, makes me skeptical. And here’s the other thing: “At Seventeen” was a Top-10 hit in the fall of 1975. If she were going to get a lot of valentines in response, wouldn’t she have gotten them in February 1976, while her song was still getting a fair amount of radio play, instead of 1977, as the oft-repeated statement has it?

“At Seventeen” was inspired by a magazine article Ian read about a debutante’s coming-out party. The opening line of the article was “I learned the truth at eighteen.” Thinking there might be a song in it, Ian scratched out some lines and a melody, even going so far as to play the work-in-progress for a friend to make sure she hadn’t stolen it from somebody else. It took her two months to finish it, basing it on experiences she’d had as a young girl, before deciding it was so personal that she would never sing it in public. It wasn’t until she decided to look outward — to draw in those who may have had similar experiences by writing the last verse, the one that starts “to those of us who knew the pain/of valentines that never came” — that she felt as though the song was finished, and fit for public hearing.

Janis Ian

“At Seventeen” and the album Between the Lines didn’t make Janis Ian a superstar. Three unsuccessful albums later, she was dropped by her label and didn’t record for 12 years. She’s worked steadily since 1993, however, and still tours frequently. She’s getting ready for a string of American dates in March and April, and you can find out all about them here.

Have your own memories to add to this Rock Flashback? Share them here or read through flashbacks past…

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