The invisible bug got us there on Sunday 31 December 1999. Instead of partying in nearby Melville into the New Year, journalist colleagues and I were at the e-News (now eNCA) office and studio in Johannesburg from early that afternoon. The prophets of doom had predicted that as the clock ticked past midnight beginning the year 2000, the dreaded Y2K or millennium bug would cause global computer chaos with planes falling from the skies, accidental nuclear war, global recession and/or infrastructure collapse.
Although there would be no computers, cellphone signals or satellite links due to the predicted technological meltdown, our team was ready to cover the countdown to the end of the world. We had a good “live” television crossing position on top of our five-storey building with a glimmering Johannesburg night skyline in the background, plus a shift roster to go into the next days. I even had a bottle of good Scotch in my top drawer, not for if, but when, it would be necessary.
Clever people worried that a computer flaw would result in issues with dates that went beyond 31 December 1999. “When complex computer programs were first written in the 1960s, engineers used a two-digit code for the year, leaving out the ‘19’,” explained National Geographic. “As the year 2000 approached, many believed that the systems would not interpret the ‘00’ correctly, therefore causing a major glitch in the system.” Bug believers worried computers would interpret the “00” not as 2000, but as 1900. An estimated $300 billion was spent (almost half in the United States) to make systems Y2K compliant.
While many sceptics believed it was barely a problem, even newsroom cynics didn’t take any chances and what would normally have been a lowkey news day was turned into a major operation that Sunday.
But never mind the bug. As news chief here in Joburg, my challenge was keeping reporters and camera people out of the sleazy Bohemian Bar across the road where the hard-boozing locals’ only millennial worry was when “last round” would be announced. If the end of the world came, best be pissed out of your mind, was their appealing approach.
An existential question has bothered humanity throughout the ages: what does one do when an astronomical paw-paw is hurtling towards a fan near you? Do you stock up on tinned food and bottled water and hide in your bunker? Or do you order another round of Jägermeisters like the guys at the Bohemian?
Party like it’s …
With his song 1999, Prince addressed this dilemma. The world was in a scary state when he wrote the song in 1982. It was the height of the Cold War with the hawkish, reactionary Ronald Reagan stockpiling nuclear weapons and ratcheting up tension with the Soviet Union. Prince took the zeitgeist into an imagined future world 18 years ahead as the doomsday clock struck midnight on the year 2000.
Prince explained to Larry King in a 1999 CNN television interview where the idea came from: “We were sitting around watching a special about 1999, and a lot of people were talking about the year and speculating on what was going to happen. And I just found it real ironic how everyone that was around me whom I thought to be very optimistic people were dreading those days, and I always knew I’d be cool.”
First Prince painted the scene of a potential nuke Armageddon in his song 1999:
But when I woke up this mornin’,
could’ve sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple
There were people running everywhere
Trying to run from the destruction.
Everybody’s got a bomb
We could all die any day.
However, Prince had a plan:
But before I’ll let that happen
I’ll dance my life away
Don’t stop it, don’t stop it, say it one more time
Two thousand zero zero party over, oops out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.
This ultimate “fuck it, let’s party” anthem clearly had broad appeal. Selling over four million copies, it announced that Prince was now a superstar.
1999 was also unique, becoming the first song to reach the US Top 40 in three different decades (1980s, 1990s, 2010s) with the same version. Also, as the Songfacts website pointed out, it became the only song to appear on the US singles chart in the year synonymous with its title.
In Johannesburg, atop that hill, the countdown began. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one … meh.
The only explosions were the fireworks lighting up the Hillbrow night sky on the city horizon. The sceptics were right that the likely incidence of a global Y2K meltdown had been greatly exaggerated from the beginning. Nothing to see here, let’s move right along to New Year’s parties.
The live crossing to our e-News reporter was quick and pointless. “We are communicating – so it means that everything is still okay,” a Telkom email announced. News agency Sapa reported that the South African Banking Council’s email, was equally heartening: “ATMs and credit-card point-of-sale devices are reported to be functioning smoothly and there is no shortage of cash.” South Africa’s National Y2K Disaster Management Centre said: “Computer-aided systems and services showed no signs of succumbing to the Millennium Bug, to the huge relief and delight of officials overseeing the rollover.” A statement said lightning struck a suburban power station temporarily disrupting the civil defence telephone system and causing a number of power failures.
Countries like Italy, Russia and South Korea, which had done little to prepare for Y2K, had no more technological problems than countries like the US, which spent millions of dollars to combat what wasn’t a problem.
In that CNN interview back in 1999, Prince also told Larry King: “I knew that there were going to be rough times for the Earth because of this system is based on entropy, and it’s pretty much headed in a certain direction. So I just wanted to write something that gave hope, and what I find is people listen to it.”
The world is experiencing even rougher times here in 2019 with the climate emergency, inequality, austerity and exploitation – and unlike Y2K, the bugs are real: populist, powerful and wicked demagogues who actually run countries.
Maybe Prince was right. It may sound frivolous to suggest it, but there are worse ways than music to at least help take off the edge, or even give some hope.
Shall we party like it’s 2020?