AT SEVENTEEN – Eddy McManus gets introspective with Janis Ian’s song about about a sad youth who realizes other people have more privileged lives.
Janis Ian, then 22, wrote “At Seventeen” in 1973 at her mother’s house over the course of three months. In her autobiography Society’s Child, Ian says that the song was inspired by a newspaper article about a former teenage debutante who learned the hard way that being popular did not solve all her problems. The article included the quote, “I learned the truth at eighteen”; Ian found that the word “seventeen” worked better than “eighteen” when she tried to put this lyric with the bossa nova-style melody she had been composing on guitar. She also says she initially did not want to record or perform the song because she felt it was far too personal to share, but eventually changed her mind after adding the song’s final verse (“To those of us who knew the pain/Of Valentines that never came…”).
Promoting the song was challenging, as it was longer than most radio hits and packed with lyrics. Along with the promotions team at her record company, Ian decided that their best chance to market the song was to promote it to women, which was no easy task when so many radio stations were controlled by men. Ian did a grueling series of daytime talk shows for six months before she was granted an appearance on The Tonight Show where she performed the song and it took off.
“At Seventeen”, released as the second single from Between the Lines, became Ian’s first national hit single since her first hit “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” in 1967. The single version omitted the longer instrumental verse and chorus because it was considered too long and it was feared that the radio stations would refuse to play it. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and at #3 on the Pop Singles chart in September 1975. Billboard ranked it as the No. 19 song for 1975, and as the No. 2 Adult Contemporary hit of the year behind only Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue.” It also won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1976, beating out the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, and Helen Reddy and was nominated for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year”.