[19 September 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
When you hear the name Janis Ian, you will generally think of either one of two things: either the ironically-named goth-friend of Cady (Lindsay Lohan) from the fantastic 2004 teen-flick Mean Girls or the young singer-songwriter who scored a massive pop single with the tender ballad “At Seventeen” in 1975.
What you don’t think about is how Ian wound up performing on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, avoided multiple murder attempts by her then-husband, later discovered she was a lesbian, did coke with Jimi Hendrix, and was once under heavy monitoring by the FBI. Oh, and she won a lot of Grammys to boot.
All of this backstory makes for great autobiographical fodder, and that’s exactly what The Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection is meant to highlight. It’s a tie-in with the release of Society’s Child, her harrowing new book detailing all of the events above (and more). The press version of The Autobiography Collection is coupled with a press release featuring lengthy excerpts from the book, and the two projects are meant to be somewhat inseparable (hell, they even share the same cover). You read the book and are moved by Ian’s struggle to the point where you just have to hear the songs that her life inspired, and this two-CD set is supposed to have the vice-versa effect. What you don’t hear, however, is the less-interesting tale of her lending songs to terrible movies (the loathed 1979 adaptation of The Bell Jar), struggling to come up with a hit anywhere near as sizable as “At Seventeen” (she didn’t), and becoming the victim of terrible, terrible cover art early in her career.
Yet, when we divorce this new best-of collection from Ian’s personal struggles, we find that the music holds up surprisingly well. This Collection is an odd non-chronological mix of singles and fan favorites, live-performances and home demos, all licensed and distributed via her own Rude Girl imprint. The first disc opens, predictably enough, with her first song “Hair Spun of Gold”, a track that shows a teenage songwriter mature well beyond her years, tackling the issue of self-vanity with surprising force and gusto. What’s surprising is that the set then jumps to a live 2000 performance of her scathing late-career highlight “God & the FBI”, a track which is all the more stunning considering that it’s government-invasion overtones were conceived years before the Patriot Act even existed.
The rest of Collection follows in this vein, jumping almost-haphazardly between tracks old and new, well-known and undiscovered. Somehow, against all odds, it all makes for a strong portrait of a songwriter so often relegated to One Hit Wonder status. Certainly, there are times when she succumbs to a bit too much bombast (1976’s “Love is Blind”) and even gives herself up to the calling of the radio-friendly pop song (1979’s “Fly Too High”, which charted—oddly—on Billboard’s Club Play tally). But by and large this collection winds up hitting a soft-rock sweet spot that never feels forced or too preachy. “Tattoo”, here done in a live setting that was recorded two years prior to its official 1993 release, is a harrowing, beautifully rendered Holocaust tale that works wonders in its sparse, minimal setting. The evocative pop of “Stolen Fire” somewhat oddly bears a sonic resemblance to one of Ian’s own followers, Suzanne Vega, here benefiting from a fuller production while not ever compromising itself lyrically.
There are examples of Ian’s genius scattered all over the place, ranging from her controversial inter-racial dating saga “Society’s Child” to the tender 1973 ballad “Jesse”, and, of course, the flawless “At Seventeen”, still great after all these years. Near the end of the second disc, however, we are treated to some genuine rarities, ranging from “Ginny the Flying Girl” (originally recorded for a Sesame Street record in 1981) to an a cappella rendition “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” (culled from the 2005 Janet Reno collection Songs of America). These aural delights make for a near-perfect bookend to this ambitious double-disc set, but their effect is hampered by Ian’s insistence that this album be not only a stable for her best-known works, but also a clearing house for new re-recordings and excessive alternate versions, earmarked by the double appearances of both “At Seventeen” (in its album and single versions) and “Hair Spun of Gold” (in its demo and studio incarnations), the difference between these being negligible at best. And while we’re at it, if this truly is intended to be the ultimate overview of Ian’s work, where is the 1981 charting single “Under the Covers”?
No, you will not find yourself playing latter-day Ian tracks like “Every Love” ad nauseum, but ultimately The Autobiography Collection has far more highs than lows. It makes for a surprisingly meaty chunk of pop-folk that has aged quite gracefully. It’s hard to describe what a perfect Janis Ian overview would consist of, but, in the end, this Collection is as close to perfect as we’re going to get.