Janis Ian wrote “At Seventeen” in 1973, at the age of 22. She was already somewhat well-known for an earlier protest song, “Society’s Child”. “At Seventeen” — it seems astonishing to me now– became a huge hit, on the pops singles charts, eventually reaching #1.
Here’s a bit of interesting trivia: Janis Ian appeared on the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live” and performed this song.
I don’t know of any other song like it. How many singer-songwriters would write and perform these lines:
And murmur vague obscenities
To ugly girls like me, at seventeen.
About the same number as those who would write a song like “Donald and Lydia”.
The song, if you’re not familiar with it, is about the judgments teenagers make about each other, about “those of us with ravaged faces/lacking in the social graces”, about excluding those who fall short– those who are too short or clumsy for basketball, who never receive valentines, and never get to hear those “vague obscenities”– the most rich and allusive line in the song. It is suggested that the beauty queens will get their comeuppance:
So remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality
and dubious integrity
The small town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when pain in due
Exceeds accounts received
I’m not sure what that means. That the love you get for being beautiful is of “dubious integrity”? Temporary? Transient? I thought the song would have worked better if the “small town eyes” were “gaping” at the wrecks of the lives of those who were excluded because of their “ravaged faces” and who found solace in other places, like drugs, self-abasement, whatever. And I’m not sure that just because you’re beautiful you can’t have true love.
Either way– “exceeds accounts received”– is a clever line. Either way, your punishment, your suffering will never be the amount you deserve. Oh how badly we want to cling to the idea that you do deserve what you get. In almost all the movies about people with disabilities who overcome monumental obstacles to “succeed”, the person with the disability is glamorized. They are disabled, but beautiful, or charming, or peaceful and quietly stoic, like Michael Oher in “Blind Side”. They make you feel good because you tell yourself that you would have behaved decently to this poor, unfortunate soul.
Would we behave as decently to unfortunate souls who don’t have anything lovable about them? Who don’t agree to be the “canvas” upon which we paint our own virtue?
John Prine, an indispensable artist, wrote the song “Donald and Lydia” in 1971, and it appeared on his brilliant first album “John Prine” (which also included “Sam Stone”, “Flag Decal”, and “Hello in There”–three other great songs).
Here’s a taste:
Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat
Behind her small eyes sunk deep in her fat
She read romance magazines up in her room
And felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon.
Lydia and Donald are both ill-equipped to have any kind of success in society. They are unattractive, socially inept, and they know it. They’re like Janis Ian’s seventeen-year-old girl– desperate for a shot at love.
They are as real as your right hand, but they are very, very rarely the subject of music or song or film, in our society. We’re too busy selling phony stories that worship women like Leigh-Ann Touhy (Blind Side) while short-changing the very people she wants to help by reducing them, as they say, to “canvases upon which we paint the image of our own virtue”.
Lydia is just plain fat. Donald is just one of “too many”, a private first class in the army.
There were spaces between Donald
And whatever he said
Strangers had taught him to live in his head
He envisioned the details of romantic scenes
After midnight in the stillness of the barracks latrine
Donald and Lydia find each other– in their dreams. In a flight of fancy, Prine imagines them reaching out from their homely little enclaves of self-doubt, across the ether and flotsam of human insensitivity, to find each other and connect in some mystical, orgasmic union of lost souls.
They made love in the mountains
they made love in the streams
they made love in the valleys
they made love in their dreams
and when it was over
there was nothing to say
’cause mostly they made love from 10 miles away.
There are very, very few movies that deal honestly with the harsh facts of life for people like Donald and Lydia and girls with “ravaged faces”. Since most of North America believes that the function of entertainment is to allow you to escape from your dreary little life into fantasies…
Perhaps the best, still, is Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” (1955), about a likeable Italian American butcher with no illusions about himself or his prospects.
Great Dialogue (from “Roger Dodger” 2002)
Roger: You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that they’re missing something from their lives. Everyone’s missing something, right?
Nick: I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them your product is the only thing that can fill the void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they go out and buy a stupid looking pair of cargo pants.