Something I’ve noticed about the years: each one has a number, and the numbers are consecutive. It’s a reasonable enough system, I guess, but it has its drawbacks. When you’re keeping count, every new year marches in with an aura of grim inevitability. Hardly anyone was surprised when 2017 came along. We’d suspected it would show up eventually—very likely after 2016.
It’s a fact that some years are just catchier than others. Like brand-name drugs, their numbers vibrate with potential energy, the hale assurance that big things are in store. Think of 2020: what a sleek, hard oval of a year, summoning perfect vision, effortless duplication. You can chant 2020. You could found a religion around it. Or 2000, the perennial favorite—always and forever the year of the future, of slimming jumpsuits in flame-retardant synthetic fibers.
For obvious reasons, 2017 hasn’t loomed large in the popular imagination. It’s a bit of a dud. It reeks of the random number generator. Until late last year, no one except economists and steering committees probably gave it too much thought. Sure, Cherry 2000, a 1987 Melanie Griffith vehicle, was set in 2017, but its creators went with the more beguiling 2000 for the title. (It’s named after an android who malfunctions during sex.)
Only one great prognosticator, one seer and visionary, heard the music of this dull year thudding from afar. I speak of William “Billy” Joel, the Piano Man himself, whose song “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” is a foreboding indicator of what the year has in store.
It doesn’t look good, people. It does not look good.
“Miami 2017” is a fairly straightforward apocalypse narrative, with a twist: it’s not, on the face of it, about Miami or 2017. It portends a future in which New York has long since crumbled into the sea; the narrator, having fled the hellscape, now lives comfortably in Florida, where he’s telling the youth about Gotham’s fate:
I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway
I saw the mighty skyline fall
The boats were waiting at the battery
The union went on strike
They never sailed at all …
You know those lights were bright on Broadway
That was so many years ago
Before we all lived here in Florida
Before the Mafia took over Mexico
There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive
Yesterday on 99.5 WCRB’s podcast The Answered Question, Joel discussed the origins of the song, which he wrote in the midseventies as New York stood on the brink of bankruptcy:
I was living in LA, I think it was 1975 and New York was having a financial crisis at the time. New York was in pretty bad shape. The city was dirty, there were strikes all over the place, there was a lot of crime … It was national news when New York applied to the federal government for federal aid, and they turned them down. And the headline said, FORD TO NEW YORK: DROP DREAD …
As soon as I saw that headline, I said, wait a minute. If New York’s going down the tubes, I’m gonna go down with it. And I moved back … I just had these apocalyptic visions of buildings burning and skyscrapers collapsing … I wanted a sound of a siren that was kind of bone chilling … I had this vision of hordes of people needing to flee Manhattan Island …
I wanted to set the time and place for when the song was written. And I thought, Okay, this would probably be happening in the year 2017. It seems like far enough into the future to justify me calling it a science-fiction song. And I wanted the perception to be that he’s an old man, he’s living down in Florida now, and he’s telling his grandchildren the story of what happened in New York City.
Take a step back, and you might find that Billy Joel’s apocalypse doesn’t sound so bad. The destruction he sings about is old news, after all, and at least there’s still Florida. In fact, apart from the utter collapse of one of the world’s major power centers, things seem pretty much the same. Old people are still moving south and telling long-winded stories to their grandkids.
People called the song prophetic after 9/11, and again after Hurricane Sandy. But take out all that business about New York collapsing, and the twenty-first century that Joel projected is basically just a hangover from the twentieth—that was his true prophecy. And as of New Year’s Eve, when he played the song at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the BB&T Center in Miami, it’s self-fulfilling, too. The New Yorker has absconded to the Sunshine State to spin us an old yarn about human suffering.
Like a blackout-drunk karaoke rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. I wonder where, in 1975, Billy Joel thought he’d be when 2017 came around. When he played “Miami 2017” live at Madison Square Garden in 1980, and live again at MSG in 2001, and then again in 2006, and then again in 2012, and then again last year, at what point did he realize that he’d still be at it today, getting choppered in to the Garden from his personal helipad for shows on January 11, February 22, March 3? It must be exhausting, to see how little has changed. He suffers from depression, so he has to have recognized it at some point—that there would be one year, and then the next year, and then the one after that, each one with the Piano Man still live at the home of the Knicks, and the Sabrett guys still outside manning the hot-dog carts, and the bus traffic still clogging Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and the people of New York still dragging the skeletons of their Christmas trees out to the curb. He plucked a boring year-number out of the congealed mass of boring year-numbers, and now it’s here, almost just like he pictured it.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.