Chart Week: October 30, 1982
Song: “I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World)” – Donald Fagen
Chart Position: #36, 4th week on the chart, debut week in the Top 40. Peaked at #26 for three weeks in November and December.
Pop music tends to be pretty limited thematically. Amongst the bazillion or so songs about love, lust, and heartbreak, occasionally one will emerge from left field about a topic that makes no sense as the basis for a radio hit.
The first single of Donald Fagen’s solo career, “I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World)” was inspired by the International Geophysical Year, an 18-month event that stretched across 1957–58. It brought together scientists from both sides of the Cold War divide with the hope of leading the world forward to a more connected and peaceful future.
Nothing says rock ’n’ roll like scientific discovery, amiright?
When “I.G.Y.” was released, my limited knowledge of the Fifties was based solely upon watching Leave It To Beaver re-runs and old sci-fi flicks on late-night TV, hardly a comprehensive source of Eisenhower-era knowledge. Whatever view I had of that decade, the images this song inspired fit right into it.
I suppose my attraction to “I.G.Y.” was because it is full of bright-eyed optimism about the prospect of an amazing, space-age future. Since I was into computers and other cool Eighties electronic stuff, I, too, envisioned an improved world thanks to technological advancement. In my 11-year-old mind, if Atari ran the world there would be no Cold War. And what a beautiful world it would be if my mom somehow scraped together the money to buy me an Apple II computer!
Listening to the song as an adult, I wonder if I got it all wrong.
In 1982 I didn’t know a thing about Donald Fagen. Certainly not that the songs he wrote with Walter Becker for Steely Dan were noted for their ironic, cynical lyrics. An approach that was the exact opposite of the warm, nostalgic trip I assumed “I.G.Y.” to be.
For a moment I wondered if this song wasn’t, instead, taking a shot at the late Fifties. Was Fagen mocking the naive belief that science could solve all our problems? Was he pointing out all the ways that the best intentions of that time had failed? Was he critiquing the view that the world would be a better place if everyone just followed America’s twin pillars of Christianity and Capitalism?
I was leaning that way until I listened to the song a few more times. I was again struck by the music. Those clear tones in the horns. The whimsical qualities of the keyboards and harmonica. The little blips and blurps sprinkled throughout. Those elements combine to build a futuristic soundscape that wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Fifties sci-fi movies.
Yes, there are some scathing lyrics, mostly aimed at the American First viewpoint that was prominent at the time. Fagen has said that he discovered pretty quickly that the idillic depiction of the Fifties was a sham, crafted to hide things like racism, sexism, inequality, and fear of nuclear war.
Still, I do think that Fagen was looking back fondly to his childhood. It was an opportunity for him to recall the days before his cynical gene presented itself, when he viewed the world around him, and the future, with wonder rather than skepticism.
I would liken that to our generation looking back to the early days of the Internet, when there seemed to be limitless possibilities for how it would enhance our lives. A computer and modem in every home was the 2000s version of Fagen’s spandex jackets for everyone. A quarter-century down the road we see how the Internet has been as destructive as additive to our lives. But it is still fun to recall the excitement of your first time dialing up and logging on.
I was too young to understand that battle between cynicism and optimism when this song was climbing the chart. Perhaps it is that juxtaposition that has made it stand up over the years to me. It is a reminder that miracle cures sometimes have unintended consequences. And also to never forget the innocence and hopefulness that characterized our younger days. 7/10