Janis Ian is known for the revolutionary hit song "Society's Child," which she wrote when she was 15 years old. It was a rock song in the voice of a white teenage girl, addressing her black teenage boyfriend. And it took on a serious social theme.
Then in the 1970s, Ian wrote and recorded another very memorable song: "At Seventeen." It was an anthem for the adolescent outsider. Ian was 17 years old in 1968.
In her latest creative endeavor, Ian's memoir, Society's Child: My Autobiography, evokes her childhood and musical career. The book will be released Thursday.
In a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel, Ian says getting attention for her first song, "Society's Child," was a tough way to start her musical career — "with a song that everyone hates you for."
In writing her book, Ian says she flipped through press clippings to help her remember the details of that time.
"I had forgotten just how volatile it was — how at [Parent Teacher Association] meetings, they would be bringing up the song and opening up the subject for discussion," Ian says. "The amount of hate mail that I got, the amount of sheer being spit at in the street ... things like that that I had conveniently misplaced in my memory, came rushing back."
Ian says she was inspired to write the song when she was 14 years old, during a time when "freedom was in the air" and "anything was possible" for her generation. The gay rights and women's rights movements had started, and FM radio connected young people coast to coast, she said.
Then, on a school bus in East Orange, N.J., Ian saw an interracial couple holding hands. The boy was black, the girl was white. Ian says they were oblivious to the glares directed at them.
"I started thinking about how hard that was going to be, and wondering whether their parents even knew that they were dating," she says. "And if their parents didn't know, whether anyone on the bus was going to tell on them. And it sort of started evolving in this song where I wondered whether the girl would be able to the take the pressure. And in the end I thought she probably wouldn't. It probably wouldn't last. And it was too bad, but it made for a great song."
But the song set off a maelstrom of criticism — something Ian as a teenager didn't understand.
"To me the song had the ending that the conservatives or the people who didn't believe in mixing races wanted," Ian says. "The girl and the boy didn't ride off happily into the sunset at all. She copped out and she left and she says quite plainly: 'I can't see you anymore,' and then the last line was 'I don't want to see you anymore.' She shuts him off. So I didn't understand why everybody was so bothered and making threats against me and threats against radio stations and whatnot ... I didn't understand what a button I'd pushed."
Ultimately, Ian says 1968 "was the beginning of the end."
"It might as well have been [the end of the decade], because it sort of wrapped up everything that had begun in the '60s, and I think for those of us who had been active in civil rights and been active in the Vietnam War protests, it really became a very clear indicator that we had totally underestimated the powers that be," she says.
"I think all of us thought that by the '70s, at the latest the '80s, all the world's problems would be solved and everyone would be getting along fine," Ian says. "And instead we saw that Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated that year, Robert F. Kennedy died. We saw that it was going to be a lot more difficult than I think we had thought."