Top 10 Janis Ian Songs

Janis Ian Songs

The top 10 Janis Ian songs first take a reflection into the woman’s musical career that officially began in 1965. Born in Farmingdale, New Jersey, on April 7, 1951, Ian was raised as a farm girl before she enrolled in the New York City High School of Music & Art. Although living on a farm, Ian’s father worked as a music teacher and her mother worked as a college fundraiser. At two years old, Janis Ian was determined to learn how to play the piano.

By the time she was a teenager, she was able to play a variety of musical instruments. As a fan of folk music, she wrote her first song, “Hair of Spun Gold,” when she was twelve years old. It was published, then later recorded as one of the tracks on her self-titled debut album. Although she was born Janis Fink in 1951, she legally changed her name to Janis Ian in 1964. Ian was actually the middle name belonging to her brother, Eric.

Social Awkwardness

When Janis Ian made her debut with “Society’s Child” in 1967, it met with some opposition from reluctant radio stations as America was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The interracial theme triggered hate groups to flood the teenager with hate mail and death threats. There was also a radio station in Atlanta, Georgia, that was reportedly burned down as punishment for playing Ian’s debut song on the air. All of this occurred when she was just sixteen years old. Also at this age, she met Bill Cosby while at a Smothers Brothers show.

The impression she gave Cosby was not a good one as he questioned her sexuality after witnessing Ian’s head resting on the lap of her female chaperone. The older woman accompanied Janis Ian to the set because she was considered too young to tour on her own. The experience of that fateful day supposedly gave Cosby cause to alert television networks to stay away from booking Janis Ian onto their shows.

It wouldn’t be until eight years later that Janis Ian would make her big comeback with her seventh studio album, Between the Lines. This finally gave her the nationwide respect she deserved as an American singer-songwriter. Adding another feather to Janis Ian’s cap was becoming the first musical guest to appear on the premiere of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975. She performed “At Seventeen” and “In the Winter” while on the show. As an album, Between the Lines became the number one seller on the US Billboard 200. It also became certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America after selling over one million copies.

Social Acceptance

Until 1975’s “At Seventeen,” Janis Ian was regarded by critics as a one-hit-wonder. However, she was nominated for the tenth annual Grammy Awards for Best Folk Performance. Although she didn’t earn the win, it demonstrated there was more to the woman’s talent than just one song. Her next Grammy recognition wouldn’t come about until Between the Lines in 1975. Out of the four nominations she earned, Ian walked away with the win for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.

Six years later, she earned yet another Grammy Award nomination for Silly Habits in its Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo Or Group category. Additional recordings made by Janis Ian that earned Grammy Award nominations include 1992’s Breaking Silence, 2013’s Society’s Child: My Autobiography, 2016’s Patience And Sarah (Isabel Miller), and 2022’s The Light at the End of the Line. In 2014, Society’s Child won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album (Includes Poetry, Audio Books & Storytelling).

In addition to her success in America, Janis Ian also became incredibly popular overseas, namely in Japan. 1976’s “Love Is Blind,” and its album, Aftertones, became big hits in that nation. 1980’s “You Are Love” also became a big hit there, which also became the theme song for one of that nation’s science fiction movies, Virus. Inspired, Ian continued to record music specifically for Japanese fans. She also became a science fiction writer herself. In the meantime, she still continued with her singing and songwriting career. Over time, as certain stigmas laid out by society began to ease off, Janis Ian officially came out as a lesbian in 1993. This was the same year she released her fourteenth studio album, Breaking Silence.

Ian’s Legacy

As a recording artist, Janis Ian has twenty-two studio albums to her credit, as well as four live albums, and fourteen compilation albums. From 1978 until 1983, she was married to Tino Sargo, a Portuguese filmmaker Ian later pointed out in her autobiography was abusive to her while they were married. In 1989, she became involved with Patricia Snyder before revealing to the public in 1993 that she was indeed lesbian. On August 27, 2003, Ian and Snyder married each other in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Janis Ian’s legacy as a musician is matched by her influence in science fiction fandom. She has published a collection of short stories based on the genre, as well as making occasional appearances at science fiction conventions.

In addition to these accomplishments, Janis Ian founded Rude Girl Publishing and Rude Girls Records, Inc. in 1992. She has also enjoyed an acting career, mainly appearing as a guest on episodes of different television shows. She also encouraged her mother to fulfill her lifelong dream of attending college, despite the fact she was already a mature woman. This led Ian to pursue fundraising goals that focused on the continuing education of older students. As a result, the Pearl Foundation became a public charity that relies on auctions and donations to set up scholarships for students.

Top 10 Janis Ian Songs

#10 – Married in London

“Married in London” was a song Janis Ian wrote as a strike against the United States government when it came to the issue of homosexual marriage. This came at a time when Ian moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and realized her desire to embark on a romantic relationship with another man was not for her. She became involved with Patricia Snyder in a lesbian relationship that would have her publicly come out as a homosexual a few years later.

The two married in 2008 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, as gay marriage was not legalized yet in the United States. For Ian, the concept of American homosexuals having to tie the knot outside of their home nation was unacceptable while countries like Canada already approved it. “Married in London,” as a song, was first met with tension by listeners before realizing by the end of it that there were elements of humor involved.

#9 – Getting Over You

From the 1997 album, Hunger, “Getting Over You” was a song about getting over a painful divorce. From 1978 until 1983, she was married to a man that mistreated Janis Ian before the two divorced. The lyrics covered the legal process two people go through when they agree to put an end to their marriage. It also covered the reality someone’s life was about to change and not always for the better at first. Whatever goals the couple had in mind when they exchanged their vows have been erased, along with the dreams that went with them.

#8 – In the Winter

“In the Winter” was one of many Janis Ian’s original songs that would be covered by a number of recording artists since it was released as a single in 1975. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart, it peaked as high as number twenty-one. While it may not have marked as big of an impression as “At Seventeen,” it’s a solid Janis Ian favorite by fans who simply love the vocal talent and songwriting skills of this incredible artist. Gentle and dramatic at the same time, “In the Winter” was a beautiful ballad performed by a vocalist whose voice was as angelic as they come. Fans of this song related to the feeling of loneliness and depression that shared similar characteristics to the cold experienced during the winter season.

#7 – Memphis (featuring Willie Nelson)

“Memphis” was a duet Janis Ian performed with country music legend, Willie Nelson. This came from Ian’s seventeenth studio album, God and the FBI, which was released in 2000. The lead guitarist who performed with them was another music legend, Chet Atkins. Ian co-wrote this song with Deana Carter as the two shared their appreciation for the beautiful riverside city belonging to the state of Tennessee. Sung as a duo, Ian and Nelson turned “Memphis” into a wonderful anthem-like ballad. Ian’s opening of “Memphis” was enough for a listener to grab a tissue as she lovingly sang about a city that has been through so much.

#6 – You Are Love (Toujours Gai Mon Cher)

In 1980, “You Are Love (Toujours Gai Mon Cher)” became a number ten hit on the Oricon Inc. music charts in Japan. The “Toujours Gai Mon Cher” in the song’s title is French roughly translated as “Always, my dear” in English. This song was the second time in Janis Ian’s career she would realize a top-ten hit in that nation. Starting in 1976, her popularity in this country, as well as the rest of the Orient surpassed the popularity level she had in her own nation. It was her brand of music that sparked a wave of pop groups that would achieve recording careers of their own.

This was the same song that was featured in the Japanese science fiction film, Virus. “You Are Love” was a wonderful ballad that won over a wave of new fans that recognized Janis Ian’s songwriting talent as something extraordinary. At the time, the pandemic-themed Virus was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made before it was dethroned by 1983’s dramatic survivalist story, Antarctica. Teo Macero was the saxophonist who co-wrote “You Are Love” with Janis Ian as the two turned this wonderful song into a cult classic, especially with the Japanese audience.

#5 – Love Is Blind

In Japan, “Love Is Blind” became a number-one hit on its Oricon Inc. music charts. It was released as a single in 1976 from Janis Ian’s album, Aftertones. This soared Ian’s popularity in that nation which would inspire her to write musical material specifically for its fans. This song played an instrumental role for Ian as it spiked Aftertones to give her the distinction of having the highest-selling album by a solo female in that nation. She would be sought after by Kinji Fukasaku to co-write and produce “You Are Love (Toujours Gai Mon Cher)” with popular saxophonist, Teo Macero. The haunting appeal of “Love is Blind” was what made this song a major favorite among her fans. Perhaps the best line from the song was her belt out of “Lover, let me be!”

#4 – Fly Too High

1979’s “Fly Too High” was a sultry song Janis Ian performed for the soundtrack, Foxes. It also became part of the tracklist belonging to Ian’s eleventh studio album, Night Rains. This became a top ten hit on an international scale among the nations of Australia, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa. The song was about a teenager and her aspirations that caused her to grow up a bit too quickly for her liking. “Fly Too High” featured lyrical content that matched the teenaged theme of the movie that starred Jodie Foster and Scott Baio.

#3 – Jesse

Originally written and recorded in 1973 by Janis Ian, “Jesse” was a song featured on her sixth studio album, Stars. The album itself wasn’t released until 1974 after Roberta Flack’s cover of the song became a number nineteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. While “Jesse” wasn’t established as a hit for Ian when it was released, it did open up a gate for the American singer-songwriter to make a comeback a year later with “At Seventeen.”

As a song, “Jesse” may not have been a hit with Janis Ian as the vocalist but it was her first songwriting hit since 1967’s “Society’s Child.” Roberta Flack’s coverage of this song became a concert favorite performed by Janis Ian whenever she’s on tour. Originally, “Jesse” was intended to be a song about a Vietnam War veteran but it spun in the direction of simply missing that special someone, hoping one day to see them again.

#2 – Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)

“Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” is one of Janis Ian’s signature songs fans identify her with the most. Written and recorded in 1965, the song was about interracial romance, which was still not accepted by the average American during that time. Ian was thirteen years old when she was inspired to write a song and it took her a year before it was completed. In 1966, “Society’s Child” charted well in the cities but it didn’t become a nationwide hit until 1967. This heartfelt folk song peered into the relationship of a teenage couple that faced discrimination and ridicule coming from their school peers and families.

Due to the social pressure being what it was, Janis Ian finished “Society’s Child” with the difficult decision to end her relationship after the exhaustion of social pressure finally got the best of her. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it became a number fourteen hit. It peaked at number thirteen in Canada. What this song did was officially launch Janis Ian’s career as a singer-songwriter. She was just a teenager when she wrote, recorded, and released this song but already had tremendous insight due to her upbringing as one of the few white students attending a mostly African-American school. The timing of the “Society’s Child” release came while the Civil Rights Movement pushed the United States of America to make some important social changes.

In 2001, “Society’s Child” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a song considered timeless and important to music history. When this song was first recorded it was originally intended for Atlantic Records as they paid for her recording session. However, the social drama that took place at the time had them back out and they refused to release it. However, “Society’s Child” remained the property of Janis Ian.

When she performed this song at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, she was discovered by Leonard Bernstein’s producer. This led Ian to perform this song on a television program that focused on the arrival of new pop music. From there, “Society’s Child” caught on among fans who embraced its controversial content with open arms.

#1 – At Seventeen

From the album, Between the Lines, “At Seventeen” was released as a single in 1975 that became her first top ten single since 1967’s “Society’s Child.” This song earned became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart as well as on the Canada RPM Adult Contemporary chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number three. “At Seventeen” also earned Janis Ian a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

This ballad was about a high school student who felt like she was a social outcast. Between Ian’s lyrics and the samba-style instrumental, “At Seventeen” was regarded as one of her signature songs. On programs such as Mean Girls and The Simpsons, this song has often found itself featured in some of their episodes. Ian was inspired to write this song after reading an article about a young woman’s attempt to break out of the shell of social awkwardness.

The delicate nature of Ian’s lyrics was evident in “At Seventeen,” as was her vocal performance. It served as a source of inspiration for upcoming artists to cover their own versions of it, as well as members of society that could relate to this song their own way.

Feature Photo: Eddie, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Top 10 Janis Ian Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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