Grammy-winning artist talks career, life lessons


Music legend and cultural icon Janis Ian took the stage in front of an audience largely ranging in age and cultural background Friday in McCain Auditorium.

Ian shared with the audience songs she had written throughout her 40-year musical career. Between songs, Ian gave personal testimonies about everything, including her experiences performing, her legal marriage to her partner in Toronto and her mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis.

“Society’s Child,” a song about a young Caucasian girl dating an African-American boy, created controversy when it was released in the late 60s.

“They released it three times, and the first two times it was banned all over the country, but it got played in pockets,” Ian said.

Brenda Mayberry, senior administrative assistant for the veterinary diagnostic lab, attended Ian’s concert and said she remembered when “Society’s Child” was released. When the song was banned, Mayberry said she was one of many who called the radio station about the song.

“We demanded it,” Mayberry said. “We knew it’d be getting played at 12:30 at night or later, but we demanded it.”

“Society’s Child” was one of the many of Ian’s songs she could relate to, Mayberry said.

“I know what it’s like because I dated a black guy,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be walking in the park and have the cops follow you because you’re holding hands.”

Mayberry was not the only member in the audience who felt a connection to Ian and her music.

“The song about her mom made me cry,” said Hunter Rose, freshman in anthropology.

Ian said she watched her mother, whom she was very close to, suffer through a long battle with multiple sclerosis, and her honesty on the topic struck a chord with the audience.

Ian talked about the memories about her mom with the audience. She spoke about loving her mom before she was diagnosed and after the disease progressed.

“I learned to love who she had become,” she said.

As demonstrated with the song “Society’s Child,” Ian does not shy away from controversial matters. “Married in London” is a song Ian wrote about her homosexual marriage and the idea that in some places around the world, she is married but when she returns home, she is considered “single” again.

“‘Married in London’ was the music on my MySpace page,” said Amy Barker, a long time fan of Ian’s from Nebraska.

Barker said she went through great lengths to attend the concert.

“We left just in time to get here and get tickets,” she said.

Barker said what she admires the most about Ian’s music is her honesty about everything.

Among the list of accomplishments in Ian’s career, one is being the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live.

“It was great,” Ian said. “It was scary because it was the first live TV anyone had done in years, so everybody was really scared.”

However, kicking off Saturday Night Live was not the most memorable or moving experience in Ian’s career.

One of the most significant events, Ian said, was the first time she realized her song “At Seventeen” became a hit.

Ian recounted a performance she gave after the song became popular.

“I remember walking toward the stage and there were all these people, and I thought ‘Why are they lined up?’ and then I realized they were hoping to get in, and that was an amazing thing to me,” Ian said.

Another great accomplishment, she said, was receiving her Grammy for the hit song.

“Getting a Grammy is pretty amazing, and getting nominated for five, because no woman had been nominated for five to that date,” Ian said.

Rose said she found many aspects of the performance she admired.

“She really made a connection with the audience,” she said. “She was really honest, and I respect that.”

The concert closed with a song that required audience participation.

“I liked when everyone sang ‘I Got You Babe,'” said Chelsea Aeschliman, freshman in English.

Ian encouraged her audience to sing along with her to finish her performance segment of the night. After the song, the audience flooded around Ian’s merchandise table for autographs and pictures.

At the end of the night Todd Holmberg, executive director for McCain, complimented Ian on her performance.

“I will remember this for the rest of my life,” he said.

After years of success in the music industry, Ian had advice for the young musicians who attended her concert.

“Go to my website, read my articles and don’t make the same mistakes I made,” Ian said. “Nobody knows your talent better than you do, so trust your talent.”

In reflection of all of her accomplishments, recognitions and a lifetime of facing controversy, Ian said, “That’s what you work for.”