At Seventeen

Posted on May 17, 2013 by Robert Ringer


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.

The valentines I never knew,
The Friday night charades of youth,
Were spent on one more beautiful,
At seventeen I learned the truth.

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.

A brown-eyed girl in hand me downs,
Whose name I never could pronounce,
Said, “Pity please the ones who serve,
They only get what they deserve.”
The rich-relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs,
With a guarantee of company
and haven for the elderly.

Remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality and dubious integrity.
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen.

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,
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

We all play the game, and when we dare,
We cheat ourselves at solitaire,
Inventing lovers on the phone,
Repenting other lives unknown,
That call and say, “Come dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen.

By Janis Ian
© Mine Music Ltd./EMI Music Publishing Japan Ltd.
All rights reserved; international copyright secured.

My take:

People generally think of Janis Ian as a one-song wonder, but that one song, “At Seventeen,” is a work of true genius. Whether you’re a man or a woman, Ian’s agonizing words make it easy to envision the painful life she must have endured during her adolescent and teen years.

The great pianist Roger Williams (“Autumn Leaves,” “Born Free”) once told me that the most soulful music comes from those have experienced a great deal of pain and sorrow in their personal lives. When you listen to Janis Ian sing “At Seventeen,” there is little doubt that her gripping words and phrases are based on her own painful experiences as a young girl growing up in East Orange, New Jersey.

Perhaps the most heart-rendering words of all are in the next-to-the-last stanza of her classic:

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,
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

Painful. Brilliant. And, above all, true.

Clearly, Janis Ian’s heart was still filled with bitterness when she wrote “At Seventeen,” released in 1975 at age twenty-four. Note that in her 1976 performance of the song on YouTube, she says, in a barely audible tone, “For cheerleaders,” just before she starts singing. Sort of like, “Eat your heart out, high-school girls with clear-skinned smiles.”

The worst-kept secret in the world is that the focus of schools throughout the country is on accommodating the jocks, the beautiful gals and handsome guys, the “coolest” kids, and the honor students (though even the latter group has to be athletic, good looking, or cool to one extent or another to be fully accepted). Only the chosen few who resided inside the Charmed Inner Circle during their teen years could fail to relate to Janis Ian’s words.

One final thought: It’s telltale that Ian refers to “the game” twice in her song. First, “Remember those who win the game lose the love they sought to gain” and “We all play the game, and when we dare, we cheat ourselves at solitaire.”

Any thinking person can relate to this because, to one extent or another, we all play the game — not just while we’re in school, but when we venture out into the world. But what makes life so sweet is when someone outside a school’s Charmed Inner Circle, especially someone so far outside that no one even remembers her, discovers that there is life after high school and rises to the top by discovering her God-given genius — a genius that was hidden from her peers and teachers throughout her youth.

Enjoy the genius of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

12 responses to “At Seventeen”

  1. Nigtrider says:

    First heard the song on the car radio in the Spring 1975. Great song, brings back memories of my dating days.
    Every time hearing it, asked my date next to me "Were you one of those that weren't chosen for basketball?"

  2. Pitch says:

    Yes, Janis Fink was-is a very talented lady. One can easily see and hear the extremely painful and traumatic nature of her childhood and early adolescence; the scars of which she still carries today.

  3. Pamela says:

    Yes, you are right because now we people become so materialistic things and we only like plastic beauty. We don’t go and my custom essay thinks about the heart of someone because I think beauty that can fade but the purity and beauty of a heat can never be fade out. So please be aware and look for the real beauty.

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    It is a nice song and feeling relax after listen this song and never bored this song. To find the related song library just click on this fix connections to bluetooth audio devices in windows 10 you get it the all related song.

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