Hey all, Ernie here with another piece from contributor David J. Buck—who’s taking a break from covering outsider music to bring you a tale of twisted culture at the turn of the century … and the dawn of the new millennium.
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“We’ve been trucking down the information superhighway / But we’ll be on a dirt road come Y2K”
— Famed singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, offering (in his song “Y2K”) a satirical comment on the Y2K hysteria that overtook the nation in 1999. It was the kind of thing that, as we noted last year, caused a whole lot of hoarding concerns and got large parts of the public in tune with the survivalist mindset. Some pop culture even contributed to that mindset.
(Time Magazine archives)
Why two what? How an obtuse concept became a target of pop-culture fascination.
Today, we take for granted the magical, pocket-sized internet boxes that play such important roles in our daily lives. It’s true; The average smartphone can store, transmit and retrieve large amounts of data at lightning speeds. My own device alone offers 4GB of RAM (random access memory) and 128 GB of internal storage space. In the early days of computing, however, storage space and memory were severely limited. To combat this, many programmers designed computing systems to read four-digit years as two-digit years. This created concerns over computers being unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900, the crux of the Y2K problem.
The Millenium Bug became a source of fascination among the public, spawning a survivalist movement and capturing our collective imagination through pop culture and humor.
Most of us didn’t take the threat too seriously—a Gallup Poll from Dec. 1999 showed a decrease in public worry, while publications like WIRED, The New York Times and ComputerWorld ran both opinion and speculative pieces on the possible effects of the Year 2000 Problem. Then, there’s this article from CNN all about Y2K related lawsuits.
Ultimately, nothing truly significant or apocalyptic happened at the time—unless you count Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigning from office on Dec. 31, 1999.
“It is our hope that your station might be willing to consider alternative programming that evening.”
— The Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing the big power companies of the time, in a letter to all NBC affiliates, imploring them not to air Y2K: the Movie. According to a Wired piece from 1999, EEI were only one group among many concerned the film would send Americans into a blind panic.
The warning that aired immediately before Y2K: The Movie.
The made-for-TV movie that tried to play up the Y2K hysteria
The months leading up to December 31, 1999, were filled with a combination of fear, paranoia, speculation, preparation and satire. Major television network NBC decided to capitalize on the phenomenon by producing and airing a made-for-TV movie. The phenomenal cliche of a plot, combined with excessive scenery chewing and hackneyed storytelling resulted in a widely panned and reviled film.
The film leaned heavily on scare tactics. Case in point: In a network advertising spot for the film, The Washington Times was quoted as stating this about the production: “Tell yourself...It’s only...a movie.”
A cursory search of newspaper archives for the Times reveals no such quote, though the news outlet did feature a similarly quotable line in another article about the movie: “To panic or not to panic? That is the question.”
The film itself is a bit of an absurd mess, with Nick Cromwell, played by Thirtysomething star Ken Olin, stating less than five minutes into the film as he is being briefed on the impending doom spiral: “All of this, because some computer geeks wrote ’72’ instead of ‘1972?”
From this line at the beginning, Cromwell establishes himself as an unlikable character. He is quickly rebuffed by Joe Morton’s generic government officials—ostensibly here for exposition purposes—spells out the plot of the film for the audience. Then, there’s some hackneyed subplot involving Cromwell’s family.
One character—a man named Roy—remarks early in the film, “I’ve been following that Y2K bug! Tomorrow, we could be living in the Dark Ages!”
He is swiftly rebuffed by the protagonist’s grandfather. Later, a plane crashes at midnight in the Marshall Islands and all of France’s power grid fails! Then some other crazy stuff happens! And there’s a fake newscast! It all ends with the threat of a nuclear reactor overloading in Seattle … the whole thing is bonkers from beginning to end.
CNN.com writer Matthew Schwartz spoke for everyone when he stated this in his his review of the flick: “There are some, um, inaccuracies in the film.”
At the end of the movie, Cromwell’s wife asks him what happened out there. “Not much,” Nick replies slyly, “just a couple computers crashed, that’s all.”
Oh, and the lights go out in L.A. at the end of the film, as our darling Mr. Cromwell—Hero of Y2K—is giving an interview, effectively setting up a sequel that mercifully never came to fruition. A second film—simply title Y2K—arrived on home video in 2001, starring Louis Gossett, Jr., Sarah Chalke and Malcolm McDowell. An in-depth breakdown of this film is posted for posterity on a site called Rick’s World—itself a relic of a much older version of the Internet.
The movies, despite their clear absurdity, have nothing on the various survival guides released around the same time. Just ask Mr. Spock.
“Y2K: From its historical roots to its possible effects on the future of civilization, effects that are so complex that perhaps only chaos theory can calculate the multiple ramifications of what may occur.”
— Leonard Nimoy, in the introduction to The Y2K Survival Guide video, with a somewhat exaggerated statement intended to catch and hold the viewer’s attention.
That time Spock lent his narration to a Y2K survival guide video
A few minutes into The Y2K Survival Guide, Nimoy starts talking about the lost city of Atlantis. If that doesn’t make one question the validity of this so-called guide, just wait until the parts where “experts” begin dispensing the survival advice promised in the title.
While using former Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy as the narrator may add an air of authenticity or legitimacy to the video, it still plays out as more a conspiracy theory than a documentary. The video guide gives an overview of Y2K, the history of computing and some highly dubious advice.
At one point, an “expert” suggests people try to “live like squirrels”—hoard and store as much as possible, looking out only for oneself. It’s a slice of bizarre nostalgia today, but may have held some validity for viewers of the time, regardless of the dubious—and possibly dangerous—survival advice.
When Homer realizes that the rocket ship he's on might be going in the wrong direction.
The apocalypse will be televised: How Y2K influenced every other part of the boob tube
The pulse of Y2K ran through a great deal of pop culture, from television to music, to movies. Every popular show had a Y2K episode, including The Simpsons and Family Guy.
The former showcased planes falling from the sky, Homer Simpson’s computer spreading a virus to all of Springfield and a rather hilarious attempt to escape the planet on a rocket ship. It doesn’t go the way one might expect.
The popular FOX TV series Family Guy did something similar, involving family patriarch Peter Griffin discovering a Twinkie factory, establishing a new life in a post apocalyptic world and eventually being chased from this new town by angry townsfolk. The town is then attacked by octopus creatures, mutated from the family baby, Stewie. Keep in mind this was before Family Guy became the popular show it is today and would, in fact, be canceled shortly after this episode aired.
Even King of the Hill—the long-running animated comedy from Office Space creator Mike Judge—got in on the fun with the normally unintelligible Boomhauer ruminating on the impending computer problem.
On other networks, an episode of Dilbert, the animated cartoon based on the comic strip of the same name by Scott Adams, featured the titular character’s attempts to reprogram the company computer in preparation for Y2K. Elsewhere, The Drew Carey Show proclaimed “Y2K, you’re OK” while Canada’s answer to The Twilight Zone, Psi Factor, played off the fear what a delightful tale of two scientists who for horribly after working on their own solution to the Y2K problem.
The number of Y2K-related songs received by radio show host Dr. Demento by late August, 1999. In December of that year, the number of songs doubled, but by that point, they were mostly “YMCA” parodies or throwaway pieces. Dr. Demento handpicked the highest quality tunes for his medleys.
The songs about Y2K that helped define the closing weeks of 1999
Although television and movies were the primary vehicles for coping with Y2K, several musicians got in the act of mocking the Millennium Bug through song.
Avid listeners of The Dr. Demento Show may remember when Dr. D played one Y2K related song each week toward the end of the year, culminating in two different Y2K Medley’s, played on Aug. 29, 1999 and Dec. 26, 1999 respectively. The songs range from attorney-turned-comedic singer Loose Bruce Kerr doing a Village People parody to a rockabilly number celebrating the end, all the way to a substantially less subtle bit called Y2K Made my *bleep* Explode (use your imagination on this one—especially if you decide to listen to the song).
Famous troubadour Loudon Wainwright III got in on the act with for his own Y2K song from the album Social Studies. Dr. Demento didn’t spend much time on many of the songs, saying, “these will be nothing but curiosities after Jan. 1st.” For the most part, he was right.
The standout Y2K track—for me, anyway—was “Y2K Hooray!” by Jim’s Big Ego. The song is a happy, friendly, upbeat ode to the em apocalypse. The music is punchy and fun, with a vocal style reminiscent of early They Might be Giants.
I reached out to Jim about the song and he graciously provided a YouTube link for your listening pleasure.
Jim followed up on this theme a few times in the ensuing decade—ten years after Y2K, he wrote a song called “Another Thousand Years” and is working on The Wakeful Wanderer book series—exploring social and technological themes—something Jim’s always been passionate about.
As for “Y2K Hooray,” Jim doesn’t perform it much anymore. He says, “It’s actually really hard to play right. The drum track was by my friend Lionel Cassin. He gave me that drum machine and I found the rhythm there. He also wrote that ending coda string part. That was from another pattern. My drummer Dan can do that drum part, but Jesse has to switch very rapidly between bow and pluck on the bass to recreate it. It’s a headache. We’ve attempted it a few times.”
“The idea that our whole society could come crashing down due to a problem caused by bit-conservation (expensive storage in the early days of computation, requiring 2 digit date time stamps) seemed like a very unique problem of the current times. These were the early days of the web, and even then, we knew we relied on networked computers for everything. So, I thought a song that celebrated the worst case scenario seemed like a fun thing to write and record. It was dark humor.”
— Jim Infantino, a Boston-based songwriter and author, discussing the mindset behind “Y2K Hooray,” an upbeat jaunty tune about the end of the world, recording the tune with his band Jim’s Big Ego.
For all the fear, anxiety and paranoia Y2K caused, ultimately nothing on the level of what was depicted on television came to pass. That isn’t to say there weren’t some adverse effects of Y2K—a hospital gave over 158 women inaccurate test results—among other things.
Anyone working in IT at the time put in hours upon hours of work and still couldn’t fix everything. However, thanks to their hard work and dedication of these officials, Jan. 1, 2000 seemed normal to the rest of us.
A year 2000 article in WIRED magazine provides some excellent coverage of the aftermath of...nothing happening. While the public breathed a collective sigh of relief at this, the memory of that year remains, as Jim Infantino aptly summarizes below:
“I remember there being this sense of volatility around all technology after the tech bubble burst. Then there was this further sense of danger that some coding shortcuts may cause key systems to stop working,” Jim told me, “Everyone was wondering if all this computer enhanced living was worth it, and the big triple zero coming up for a new year seemed to have exciting and ominous overtones for what the future held. It felt as if we were actually entering a science fiction chapter of the life of humanity. As it turned out, it was just another year.”
In the end, it turned out not to be much of anything at all.