Singer-songwriter, independent producer, long-out lesbian, and — not incidentally — proud science fiction geek (and SF author) Janis Ian won a Grammy for narrating her autobiography. She beat out such luminaries as Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama — and, as Ian squee’d on her Facebook stream, the First Lady went so far as to send Ian a personal note of congratulations. Um…STREET CRED MUCH?
Ian, you may recall, hit it very big very young with the brutally bittersweet, hopelessly gut-wrenching anthem “At Seventeen,” for which she won her first Grammy, in 1975. “At Seventeen” is about how much it sucks to be young and to yearn hopelessly and know that life will never be what you wish it would. It is a hell of a folk song, a hell of a pop song…but it’s more, because as itself, to me at least, it’s almost not survivable; certifiably virulent, that song can be lethal.
I remember seeing Ian perform “At Seventeen” on Saturday Night live when I must have been maybe ten or twelve, and I was all, “Wow, I feel like I’ve just been beaten in the face with a rubber hose.” I think of “At Seventeen” as far more than simply a pop song; it is a rabidly fearless piece of activist psychology, feminist and Feminist not by conception but by the very blood that pumps through its lyrical veins. Alongside such films as Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Alison Anders’ Gas, Food, Lodging, such albums as Ani DiFranco’s Not A Pretty Girl, such writing as Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues*, Daphne Gottlieb’s poetry and my friend Violet’s writing about her life, “At Seventeen” stands as one of the works that made me begin to understand just how rich, bleak, beautiful and terrifying my female-born friends’ internal landscapes are.
But, through an accident of chronology, “At Seventeen” got their first, since I was about seven when it was released. It still makes me feel like I’ve been beaten with a rubber hose…but sometimes that’s what the artist has to do to make people understand, and only the real artists have the brass ones to do it when the time comes.
If there’s a blueprint for undoing male sexism, it’s helping guys understand some of the vivid internal terrors their female-born friends experience early in life. Some days I like to think that compassion and understanding are the answer to every terrible nightmare out there, and today is one of those days.
Art is the epicenter of any true revolution…in this case, voiced by women who speak the truth even if their voices shake.
Congratulations, Ms. Ian. You are fearless and shameless and bad-ass, and…thanks for that.
*I should note here that it’s my understanding Feinberg no longer identifies as female, but as transgender and alternatively-gendered or non-binary-gendered, and unless I am mistaken now uses alternatively-gendered pronouns. However, Feinberg’s brilliant novel Stone Butch Blues is very clearly about being female, butch, lesbian and working-class, so I count it with these other works about being female. Similar things could be said about some of the early work of Pat (now Patrick) Califia’s, which was clearly conceived from one part of the female side of the human experience, although Patrick is now Patrick and identifies as male. Transgender experience may have different elements in many ways than the non-transgender female experience, but growing up “assigned female” is still an experience with commonalities, even for those who later change or feel like they were always mis-assigned. Every person’s story is individual, just as every person’s gender is individual. That’s why autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works are so important to me.