(Audio)Book Talk: SOCIETY’S CHILD, by Janis Ian

SOCIETY'S CHILD, via indiebound.org
Society’s Child: My Autobiography
Janis Ian (Facebook) (Twitter)
Audiobook read by the author
Tarcher (2009), trade paper (ISBN 1585427497 / 9781585427499)
Autobiography/memoir, 384 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible, Inc.; ASIN B0089IC1KC)
Reason for reading: Personal; 2013 Grammy Award winner, Best Spoken-Word Album; 2013 Audie Awards nominee, Narration by Author(s)

Opening lines (from the Prologue):
“I was standing alone on a stage in Encino, California, halfway through the first verse of my song ‘Society’s Child.’

‘Come to my door, baby
Face is clean and shining black as night
My mama went to answer
You know that you looked so fine
Now, I could understand the tears and the shame
She called you “Boy” instead of your name’

“The problem had begun with a lone woman screaming out the words ‘N**** lover!’ Then the people sitting around her had joined in, chanting as though they were at a religious service. They were even chanting in time to the song.

“‘N**** lover! N****lover!’ beat beat beat beat N**** lover! N****lover!’ beat beat beat beat

“It was difficult to concentrate on keeping my own time.

“The chant degenerated into yelling, twenty or thirty people in the sold-out concert hall. I peered to the left, where the sound came from, and saw some of them beginning to rise. They were shaking their fists in the air as the rest of the audience looked on in stunned silence.

“I was having a hit record.

“I was singing for people who wanted me dead.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Janis Ian was catapulted into the spotlight in 1966 at the age of 15, when her soul-wrenching song “Society’s Child” became a hit. An intimate portrait of an interracial relationship, “Society’s Child” climbed the charts despite the fact that many radio stations across the country refused to play it because of its controversial subject matter. But this was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career. 

In this memoir of her more than 40 years in the music business, Ian chronicles how she did drugs with Jimi Hendrix, went shopping for Grammy clothes with Janis Joplin, and sang with Mel Tormé, all the while never ceasing to create unforgettable music. 

In 1975, Ian’s legendary “At Seventeen” earned two Grammy awards and five nominations. Her next two albums brought her worldwide platinum hits. But after seven albums in as many years, she made a conscious decision to walk away from the often grueling music business. During this period, she struggled through a difficult marriage, which ended with her then husband’s attempt to destroy her, and a sudden illness that very nearly cost her her life. The hiatus from music lasted for close to a decade until, in 1993, Ian returned with the release of the Grammy-nominated Breaking Silence. Now, as she moves gracefully into her fifth decade as a recording artist and writer, Ian continues to draw large audiences around the globe. 

In Society’s Child, Janis Ian provides a relentlessly honest account of the successes and failures – and the hopes and dreams – of an extraordinary life.

Comments: I sometimes forget that the terms “memoir” and “autobiography” aren’t precisely interchangeable, and that when I say that some of my favorite guilty-pleasure reading is “celebrity memoir,” most of that reading is proper celebrity autobiography…and some of the celebrity autobiography I’ve enjoyed most has been either rather light, or very specialized, in the “celebrity” quotient. For example, if you were born much later than the mid-1970s, you may never have heard of singer-songwriter Janis Ian, let alone have any interest in her life story. I don’t think she’s had a big hit in this country since I was in middle school, and if the audio version of her autobiography, Society’s Child  hadn’t won the 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word Album” and snagged an Audie Awards nomination in the “Narration by Author” category, it probably wouldn’t have caught my notice either.

Society’s Child takes its title from Ian’s first single, released in 1966, a controversial song about an interracial relationship that she wrote and recorded when she was barely fifteen years old. Years of steady work–writing, recording, touring (lather, rinse, repeat)–followed, and by her late twenties, Ian was a seasoned veteran of a music industry that was changing direction away from her strengths. She’s changed direction as well, many times over the last few decades, and is well into her fifth decade of a career where she’s now managing her strengths on her own terms.

The ups and downs and winding roads of Ian’s career offer an interesting capsule of the music industry’s evolution over a half-century, but her personal life may have had even more ups and downs and winding roads. Starting her career so young caused Janis to mature early in some ways and to lose ground in others. While she seldom doubted herself in matters related to her creative work, the practical issues surrounding it–management of logistics and finances–were often challenging, and the aspects of her life and personality that didn’t involve her work were even more so. Struggles with identity and self-image, along with the aftereffects of childhood molestation, her parents’ divorce, and her mother’s chronic illness, led her into and out of therapy (with varying degrees of success) and relationships with both men and women. While Janis realized early on that she was attracted to women, she effectively spent her early adulthood living as a bisexual, and through a disastrous marriage.

Although she’s not widely recognized for it, Janis Ian was a pioneer–as a musician, as an admitted and acknowledged lesbian, and as an independent artist making use of the Internet to connect with fans and market her work. All of that gives her story continued relevance. And the personal tragicomedy of it–the romantic drama, the associates who proved untrustworthy, the vindictive IRS agent who pursued her for years over back taxes–makes it fascinating reading.

I found that I needed to remind myself of the distinctions between autobiography and memoir more than once while listening to Society’s Child  While it may take off on tangents, memoir usually is structured around a central theme that drives its narrative; autobiography is less organized, and therefore, more like the life it portrays. That quality caused me to have trouble with Ian’s chronology at times, and I needed to remember that while a story has to be told in some sort of sequence, some the events in that story may be occurring concurrently…and I just didn’t need to fixate so much on what happened when and in relation to what else. That ended up not being so difficult after all, though, because Janis Ian drew me into her story beautifully. Each chapter of Society’s Child is named for one of her songs, and most open with her performing a fragment of that song; this is a definite plus of the audio presentation, and made me want to add some of her music to my library (although I haven’t gotten around to it yet). And when she’s not singing, her style is intimate, conversational, and very engaging. I didn’t know much about Janis Ian before reading her autobiography, but she’s well worth knowing, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to get acquainted with her.

Rating: Book 3.75/5; Audio 4/5

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