Who Beat Michele Obama for a Grammy? 10 Things You Should Know about Pop-Music Pioneer Janis Ian

In the studio, 1974. Photo by Peter Cunningham.The Grammy Awards category of Best Spoken Word Album may not have been televised, but the lineup of nominations was packed with heavy hitters: Michele Obama, Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres. Oh, right, and the winner—Janis Ian, 61, a snowy-haired musical legend who won over judges with “Society’s Child: My Autobiography.” So who is this fierce woman behind the spoken-word upset? You need to know, and we’re here to tell you.

1. She’s no stranger to the Grammys. Ian won best female pop vocalist in 1975, for her seminal hit “At Seventeen,” about being a teenage outcast. And over the course of her career, Ian has received 10 Grammy nominations, in categories including Best Folk Performance, Best Engineered Recording and Album of the Year.
2. She was a teen wunderkind. Ian wrote her first hit song, “Society’s Child,” about an interracial couple, at 14, and headlined her first show at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village at 15. She says of her early career, “I wrote my first song at 12. Was published at 13. Made a record at 14, had a hit at 15, and was a has-been at 16. So ‘At Seventeen’ means more to me than you can know.”
3. She was SNL’s first musical performer. Ian performed “At Seventeen” on the very first broadcast of Saturday Night Live, which also featured Billy Preston and George Carlin.
4. She once hawked beer and McDonald’s. Ian sang the first-ever Budweiser Light and Egg McMuffin commercials.
5. The Village Voice outed her as a lesbian when she was 26. A longtime lesbian icon, Ian officially came out in 1993. Ten years later, she married criminal defense lawyer Patricia Snyder in Ontario, Canada; both wore Hawaiian shirts, according to an announcement in the New York Times. After her recent Grammy win, she joked with reporters backstage: “I keep thinking there must be a punchline here: An ex-president and the first lady and three lesbians walk into a bar…”
6. She withstood early controversy. In response to her song “Society’s Child,” racists booed her at shows, wrote her hate mail and even sent her death threats.
7. She survived an abusive marriage. Ian was married to a Portuguese businessman, Tino Sargo, from 1978 to 1983; in her autobiography, she write about how he abused her both emotionally and sexually.
8. She was a music-download visionary. An article she wrote about the changing music industry, “The Internet Debacle: An Alternate View,” has been translated into 11 languages, posted on more than 1,000 websites and used as evidence in landmark intellectual property cases of both Napster and Grokster cases.
9. She’s stoked other performance talents, too. Ian took a nine-year hiatus from music to study acting with Stella Adler during the 1980s and ’90s.
10. A kids’ book is next on her agenda. Ian has a forthcoming children’s book, “The Tiny Mouse,” based on her song of the same name (There was a tiny mouse / who lived in a tiny house / full of drafts and doubts and incredible things…) It’s due out in the fall, and will include a sing-along CD.
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