♪I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)

The “I.G.Y.” of the title refers to the “International Geophysical Year“, an event that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The I.G.Y. was an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists. Fagen’s lyrics reference, from the point of view of that time, an optimistic vision of then-futuristic concepts such as solar power (first used in 1958), Spandex (invented in 1959), space travel for entertainment, and undersea international high speed railsolar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations, and spandex jackets.

The International Geophysical Year was an actual event in world history. Taking place from July 1957 to December 1958, the I.G.Y. centered on a global series of events highlighting physical sciences and their applications, including seismology, meteorology, and rocketry.

Like a middle-aged man revisiting the “Futurama” he saw at a world’s fair in his youth, Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” captures the essence of this postwar world in an almost regretful retrospective. The outwardly hopeful yet internally disenchanted aura that marks the song represents a society’s aspirations of greatness while also reflecting a deeper understanding of the imperfection inherent in reality.

This paradoxical relationship between promising dreams and discouraging truths is brought out in the lyrics of the song. The refrain’s “what a beautiful world this will be; what a glorious time to be free” fills the listener with an uneasy desire to believe what is being said. The lyric: “well by ’76, we’ll be A-O-K,” when looking at the ’50s with the eyes of ’82, reveals a somber sense of the long road ahead.

Though the words are interesting and thought-provoking, the shining strength of “I.G.Y.” is its captivating world of musical textures. From the song’s mystical, engaging, and almost cosmic intro to the wistful and gently piercing synth-harmonica that reappears throughout, “I.G.Y.” invites the listener into its realm and immerses him in the rich musical landscape. The experience is greatly enhanced when the song is played in a high-quality stereo surround setup; brilliantly defined instrumental and vocal tracks separated among speakers give an added dimension to Fagen’s ingenious arrangements.

Years after hearing this song for the first time, I found myself watching the movie October Sky, which was based on the childhood of rocket pioneer Homer Hickam. When Homer’s achievements were recognized in a school assembly, a large banner was seen hanging in the packed auditorium proclaiming “International Geophysical Year.” I couldn’t keep myself from believing that all of the young people present must have had a touch of that same optimism, though their hopes were yet unclouded by any worries of their future.

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be a.o.k.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
(more leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free