The Oxford English Dictionary defines seventeen as: “One more than sixteen, or seven more than ten; 17.” Janis Ian defines it like this:
I started ‘At Seventeen’ sitting at my mom’s dining room table. It was after the “Stars” album had come out and I wasn’t really working a lot yet. I had the support of SONY, CBS then, but I didn’t really have any money and I had had to move back in with my mom for a while ‘til I could get on my feet. And I was reading an article in the New York Times, the magazine section, where a girl said that she had learned the truth at 18. It was about being a debutante. And I was playing this ding-di-ga-ting, da-ging-ging, ga-ding-ga-ding samba figure, and ‘at eighteen’ didn’t scan, so it wound up being ‘at seventeen.’
Acoustic Storm interview, 1997 here.
Janis Ian makes it sounds so simple: a straight, practical word for word swap. But choosing seventeen over eighteen gives more than a musical third syllable. There are other choices: twenty-one has 3 syllables. It would scan just as efficiently. But twenty-one, like eighteen, is a known quantity. You’re legally an adult. Your childhood is officially finished. Seventeen’s a threshold age. It’s liminal. The age of seventeen has no officially or culturally agreed definition. That’s a bonus to a songwriter. In the vacuum of uncertainty, you have room to paint a word in whatever colours you like. It’s up to you.
As we hear Janis sing the word seventeen, we search our minds for an ‘official’ image of seventeen and find nothing ready-made. Nobody’s defined the word for us, so we’re forced to define it for ourselves. Without an easy, ‘given’ meaning for seventeen, we immediately search our memories to build an understanding of the word. As we search our memories, Janis Ian gives her own. The song becomes poignantly personal and it’s the songwriter’s choice of the word seventeen that begins the process inside our heads.
Choosing 17 over 18 gives Janis Ian the bonus of two possible stress patterns to play with as she sings. And play she does. You can say seventeen or seventeen. She sings both, hopping between them as she chooses. And, having set up seventeen as her ‘standard’ pronunciation of the word at the beginning, we notice the difference when she changes things. It all adds to the meaning of the word within the song. From wistfulness to resigned pragmatism. It’s all there within her pronunciation of seventeen and how she shifts it through the song.
It’s masterful songwriting and masterful singing.
Read more about how the song was written here.
And, if you have the time, Janis Ian‘s speech to Berklee College of Music in 2015 is full of wisdom. Life and art woven together with a Zen story about seeing the world from the inside out near the end:
“That’s what we artists do: we make magic. We’re alchemists of the soul. We turn lead into gold, sorrow into song”