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“At Seventeen” — Janis Ian

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMUz2TNMvL0%5D

I don’t remember why I bought the soundtrack to Teaching Mrs. Tingle; I certainly hadn’t yet seen the movie. The disc was probably on sale at Hastings and as I knew of the movie as something daring, risqué and above all, popular, I decided to purchase it. In it, I found my home.

“At Seventeen” was originally performed by Janis Ian, but the soundtrack featured a cover by Tara MacLean. I prefer the original but both women sing with a haunting, ethereal elegance. It’s the lyrics, though, that held—and still hold—me under their spell.

I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired”

This became my anthem. I can still see myself, literally at seventeen, ripped from the relative comfort of my hometown (where, if not exactly universally loved by the boys in my class, I was at least universally known as “that smart girl”) and placed into an overcrowded dorm hall teeming with the impossibly beautiful. To me, they seemed unapproachably perfect, leaders of lives I could only dream. It’s no accident that my Meyers-Briggs score shifted from extrovert to introvert during that first year of college. Faced with other women who appeared so much more confident, happy and special than I, I retreated into my shell. While my roommate partied, I hunched over textbooks and listened to this song on repeat.

“The valentines I never knew

The Friday-night charades of youth

Were spent on one more beautiful

At seventeen I learned the truth”

The rhetorician in me appreciates the antimetabole in lines 1 and 8. It’s a subtler form of repetition than I encounter in current songs (Justin Bieber’s sixty-four—yes, I counted, and you would too if you had to listen to it twice while chaperoning an eighth-grade dance—repetitions of the word “baby” come to mind).

“And those of us with ravaged faces

Lacking in the social graces

Desperately remained at home

Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say come dance with me

And murmured vague obscenities

It isn’t all it seems

At seventeen”

It’s easy to look back with nostalgia, isn’t it? Sometimes I long for those days, at seventeen, when the world was wide open, its realities undiscovered, a place where “vague obscenities” were all I knew to imagine because my reality was wholly innocent. This song reminds me that time has dulled the edges of my teenage angst as it has swept away the all-too-real pain, leaving only fond memories behind.

“To those of us who knew the pain

Of valentines that never came

And those whose names were never called

When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away

The world was younger than today

And dreams were all they gave for free

To ugly-duckling girls like me”

No one in my generation had to experience the first pain. After all, we were required to bring valentines to every member of the class. Remember trying to choose the non-sappy pre-printed messages for the people you simply didn’t know? I do. Besides, I’d have been absolutely grateful if my name hadn’t been called during a basketball game. Still, “The world was younger than today” because I was younger, unacquainted with the paralyzing complexities of life.

“We all play the game

When we dare

To cheat ourselves at solitaire

Inventing lovers on the phone

Repenting other lives unknown

They call and say

Come dance with me

And murmur vague obscenities

At ugly girls like me

At seventeen

At seventeen”

Isn’t that a powerful image? Cheating oneself at a game of solitaire. How utterly fruitless. You still lose, don’t you? But it’s the line “Repenting other lives unknown” that speaks to me now. Countless times, I’ve frantically reviewed every event in my life to try to pinpoint that one moment, that one decision that would have changed everything. Maybe, if I’d done it differently, I’d have become a completely different person—thinner, perhaps; happier; deserving of (and possessing) love . . .

In a little over four months, I’ll be twenty-seven. And ten years later, I’ll admit that this song still speaks to me. After all, I am single, and not exactly by choice. I miss myself at seventeen—the innocence, the earnest desire to help others, the hunger for new experiences. To me, this song is about embracing that time in my life . . . and, perhaps, leaving it behind.


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