Singer-songwriter Janis Ian faces controversy because her songs deal with society’s issues

Tuesday, June 20, 2000
Janis Ian
Janis Ian


NEW YORK — Few Americans have childhood memories featuring FBI agents lurking around corners or brazenly stepping in their paths to snap photographs. And few have felt by age 15 both the sting of censorship and the sweet taste of success.


But Janis Ian has.


Ian, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who has been writing and recording music for more than 30 years, considers herself a staunch supporter of First Amendment rights, in large part because of her early experiences.


“One of the points of being an American,” she says emphatically, “is that there is free speech.”


Ian was a guest on “Speaking Freely,” a new television program set to debut July 15 on New York’s Metro Arts 13, an arts-oriented cable channel operated by WNET, PBS-TV in New York City. Hosted by executive director Kenneth Paulson, the program is a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture.


The interview with Ian will air July 22. Other guests in the series will include Sonny Ochs, the sister of the late 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs; and David Margolick, author of a book about Billie Holiday and the controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” “Speaking Freely” will air every Saturday on the MetroLearning Channel at 9 p.m., 11 p.m., and 1 a.m. ET. The launch show, featuring actress/author Jane Alexander, also will air in Manhattan on Time Warner Cable on Sunday, July 16, at 8 p.m.


Ian first came face to face with censorship in 1966, when she had her first major hit, “Society’s Child,” a song about interracial dating. She described it during the program, videotaped at Newseum/NY, as “Black boy meets white girl, and nobody likes it.”


Ian recalled “Society’s Child” was rejected by 22 record companies before she found one that wanted it. The song might have remained obscure but for the power of television. Legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein heard about it and featured it on his prime time TV program — which put it on the charts. At age 15, Ian found herself touring and performing with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones.


“It was a real schizophrenic time,” she said. During performances of “Society’s Child,” some in the audience “would start screaming, ‘Kill the n—– lover!’ and try to drive me off the stage. My assumption became that sooner or later I was going to die on stage, that sooner or later one of these people would bring a shotgun or something.”


Ian said she has tried at times to write “safer music” but she termed those efforts “dismal failures.” She joked that she’d love to be able to sit in a room and write commercial songs, “but I just don’t have that talent.”


She does seem to have a talent for writing music that changes lives. Her second major hit single, “At Seventeen,” released in 1975, continues to resonate with teen-agers who feel lonely, unpopular and left out. Ian said teen-agers tell her they come to see her perform just because they’ve discovered that song in their parents’ record collections.


“It’s a piece of luck to write a magic song,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t work hard. I do, but it’s luck when you manage to tune into the zeitgeist and write something so universal.”


In 1993, after not being in the limelight for more than 10 years, Ian came out with her album “Breaking Silence” and with the revelation that she is a lesbian.


Ian’s newest CD is called “God and the FBI.” The title track tells of how the FBI had her family under surveillance for years because of its progressive politics.


“You could always spot them,” she said of the agents who constantly tailed her and her parents. “They always wore suits, even at the height of the summer, and they always wore shiny shoes,” she recalled with a slight chuckle.


The consequences of FBI surveillance were not funny at all, particularly for her father, a chicken farmer who worked hard to earn credentials to be a teacher. It was the night her father attended a meeting about the price of eggs in New Jersey, Ian said, that the FBI first began keeping tabs on him, and shortly thereafter on her and her mother, who had gotten involved in the civil rights movement.


FBI agents would show up every couple of years at the school where her father was teaching, asking about his alleged associations with Communists, hinting at a possible drinking problem. That would necessitate a move to another school and, Ian said, “after a while, nobody would hire him.”


Ian got the FBI files on her family through the Freedom of Information Act, but she said it took nine years, numerous angry letters and threats of a lawsuit before the government would release those documents.


Censorship today is “more subtle,” Ian said. “In the music business, we don’t have censorship per se. But what we have is a search for the lowest common denominator,” the music that is easiest to sell to the largest number of people. That, she said, inherently limits the kind of material record companies will accept and promote.


Ian steadfastly defended other controversial performers, including radio “shock jock” Howard Stern.


“Without free speech, this country is no different from any dictatorship,” she said. “Part of our responsibility is to make sure that Howard Stern, as despicable as you may find him, gets the opportunity to talk locker room trash on the air. Or that the Klan gets to march. I don’t like it. But I defend it.”