Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Between The Lines," by Janis Ian

Janis Ian stumbled onto the scene in 1965 as a fourteen year-old wunderkind, writing and performing “Society’s Child,” a then scandalous song about a white schoolgirl falling in love with a black schoolboy. The song reached number 14 on the pop charts in spite of being banned by most radio stations across the country, with one radio station reportedly being burned down after a DJ dared play it. Janis Ian, who has had songs rendered by musicians as varied as Bette Midler, Amy Grant, and John Mellencamp, may be more known today from pop culture references than from her gorgeous, meticulous, and often controversial poetry songs. In 2004, a character in the teen comedy, Mean Girls, was named after Ian: an outcast, “Goth,” high school girl. I wondered if the kids even knew how hip was that name-check...

In fact, Ian’s number 3 hit from 1975 and the quintessential teen-angst song, “At Seventeen,” is from the album, Between The Lines, one of most heartbreaking and beautiful albums of that wacked-out and wonderful decade. And in the 1970’s when America was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, and the disillusionment of the hippie generation, that’s saying a lot. In truth, the album feels like 1975, with its faded yellow-brown cover and somber tones that saunter into your ears and linger forever. But despite being a perfect reflection of that moment in time, the album still sounds fresh today, like it might have been recorded last winter.

Borrowing elements from folk, pop, rock, classical, and even Broadway, Between The Lines paints a diverse musical landscape filled with sketches of isolation, fury, and redemption (sorry kids, joy sold separately). The album boomerangs between world-weary wisdom and youthful naïveté, at times asserting a voice of independence and strength and at other moments quiet desperation. Ian opens the album with the quintessential pick-up line from the “Me Decade:” “Would you like to learn to sing?” the singer asks, “Would you like to sing my song? Would you like to learn to love me best of all?” Not asking much, right?

The album features one sorrowful rumination after another on lost love (“In The Winter”), failed dreams (“Bright Lights And Promises”), and heartbreaking regret (“Water Colors”). Yet, in Ian’s tortured world, heartbreak never sounded so engaging. Ian draws you in. In fact, as a listener, one feels compelled to participate and to even enjoy the misery; the songs are that amazing. In fact, Ian’s brilliant writing on this album reveals a knack for breathing life into tear-stained journal entries - turning them into pop music poetry. In fact, with the success of Between The Lines, Ian essentially handed-out careers to decades of artists after her (you’re welcome, Tori and Alanis).

But I’ve always wondered why Ian chose the title, Between The Lines. “Between the lines” usually refers to subtle word messages, dancing around the topic when you’re afraid to come right out and say what you mean. But there’s nothing passive about these lyrics; they grab you by the lapels, look you in the eye, and demand your rapt attention. In fact, Ian’s beautiful melodies and imaginative, sometimes startlingly honest songs illustrate how truly sublime pop music can be.

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