Whenever I'm about to speak with a woman for this blog, I always have a minor panic attack wondering if I should assert that even though it's called "Boy Culture" I love women, too.
I definitely felt that way in light of this next interview subject, a woman of many accomplishments!
In honor of Janis Ian's nomination for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Album category—alongside fellow out lesbians Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres, not to mention Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama—I was lucky enough to get to interview the music legend whose 1975 single "At Seventeen" is still the ultimate coming-of-age song.
Boy Culture: Congratulations on your ninth Grammy nomination, this time for the audio version of your memoir Society's Child. Is it especially meaningful to be recognized for reading your book and to be in such esteemed company in the category?
Janis Ian: It's meaningful to be recognized for anything, all the more because I've been in the music industry since I was 12 or 13! The company for this nomination is astonishing, though. I keep thinking there's a joke in there somewhere—an ex-president, the First Lady and three lesbians walk into a bar...
BC: Do you listen to lots of books?
JI: Actually, no. I read a lot, but when I'm in the car I'm usually listening to melodies in my head and working on songs. My partner listens to tons, though—she's a criminal defense attorney and spends a lot of time on the road.
Ian & her wife Patricia Snyder—they married in Toronto in 2003
BC: Three out lesbians in one category—is that something you envisioned being possible by now back when you first came out?
JI: I was always out to family and friends and colleagues. Then I was outed by the Village Voice when I was 26, but the other papers were kind enough to not pick it up—that was when we still had morals clauses in contracts, and it would have destroyed my career. I came out formally in 1993 at the Triangle Ball, along with k.d. [lang] and Melissa [Etheridge]. So I've actually "come out" three times—and I wouldn't have dreamed this would be possible any of those three times!
BC: You came out almost 20 years ago. Outing and coming out remain hot topics in the LGBT community—do you feel it's important for artists to come out, either for the artist personally or for the good of the community?
JI: I think it's terribly important for public personalities to come out! The question Urvashi Vaid asked me was, "Did you have any gay role models growing up?"And I had to admit that the only one I'd ever known about was Radcliffe Hall—but when I read The Well of Loneliness, it sounded so awful, I just didn't even want to know about it. After the conversation with Urvashi, my partner Pat and I decided that it was vital for gay youth to see a stable, happy, "normal" couple, two people who weren't seeking publicity, were just living their lives like everyone else. We both wish we'd had that kind of role model growing up.
BC: Society's Child, the title of your book, was taken from your famous song about an interracial relationship. Did you at the time you wrote that have in your head that it could apply to a gay relationship, too?
JI: Not at all. The title was actually pulled out of the song by my producer, Shadow Morton.
BC: You stepped into the fire releasing a single, 45 years ago, that dealt with such a controversial topic like interracial romance. Any advice for performers today, who are still under pressure not to offend the wrong people?
JI: Do you really think performers are under pressure to avoid sensitive issues? I can barely think of an issue that would make waves, or keep you from getting airplay, unless it's something like Natalie Maines's comments about Bush while she was overseas—and that was country radio. Country and gospel are both notorious hold-outs...and good hiding places for people in the closet!
BC: On the flip side, controversy is sometimes deliberately courted today. What's your opinion of performers who use this tool?
JI: I really don't think about that. I just think about whether it's a good song, a good record, a good performance. I will say that if that's the way you get your press, you better have a damned good record to follow it up!
BC: What do you think of lesbian chic, the fact that an artist like Katy Perry can release a song like "I Kissed a Girl" a few years back and have it be a huge pop smash and lay the groundwork for her becoming a teen icon?
JI: It's not much on my radar. Although, I admit—it's nice to be "in vogue" in some area for once in my life!
BC: Finally, I'm semi-obsessed with your '70s song "Fly Too High" and was wondering what you remember about working with Giorgio Moroder and why you wanted to be a part of the soundtrack for Little Foxes? Also, there was that pre-MTV video...
JI: I wanted to work with Giorgio and I wanted to work with Nile Rodgers. Giorgio had time and interest, while Nile did not. In retrospect, it was much better this way because Giorgio and his team created an interesting fusion of jazz and disco.
The movie was ancillary, a project he was working on.
I remember the video because none of us had ever done or seen anything like it. It was, as you say, pre-MTV, and really pre-music video. It was looked on more as a promotion tool for the record company to use with rack jobbers and buyers, not something for fans.
Odd how thinks work out, isn't it?