Sree's Stories

Why So Many People Know to Wear Sunscreen

By Sreenath Sreenivasan
May 10, 1999

Never before has such mileage been milked from 675 words. The Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich's column on June 1, 1997, dispensing life advice in a mock graduation speech, has gone on to become a mass e-mail message, a novelty book, and, now, a hit pop song. Those words were a blend of common sense ("Wear sunscreen" and "Respect your elders") and some not-so-common sense ("Do one thing every day that scares you" and "Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.").

Two summers ago, they were picked up by an Internet prankster, misattributed to the author Kurt Vonnegut as a graduation speech he supposedly gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ended up in millions of e-mail in-boxes around the world.

Eventually, Ms. Schmich expanded them into a 64-page book for Andrews McMeel Publishing, "Wear Sunscreen: A Primer for Real Life." But no one could have predicted the musical twist to an already twisted tale.

In late 1997, the Australian film director Baz Luhrmann -- who has made such movies as "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" and "Strictly Ballroom" -- acquired the audio rights for the words, hired an actor to bring them to life and now has a bona fide hit recording on his hands.

The song, "Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen)," consists of spoken words and a background track. The album it is on, "Baz Luhrmann Presents Something for Everybody" (EMI Group's Capitol Records has not issued a commercial single), has been out for about a year, but only recently did it come to widespread attention, breaking into the top 50 in the Billboard charts, with the track becoming one of the most requested songs at radio stations around the country. Last week, it was No. 18 on Amazon.com's list of top 100 albums.

"I have never heard anything like this before," said Billy Hammond, a disk jockey at WHTZ-FM in New York. "I've got parents calling up asking me to play the song so that their kids can learn from the lyrics."

At KROX, an alternative radio station in Austin, Texas, the music director, Brad Hastings, "latched on to it immediately," and put it into heavy rotation. "Our core audience, the 12- to 18-year-olds, were jumping up and down for it," he said.

Just as e-mail helped spread the original hoax message, the Internet has kept the song going. Dozens of Web sites have copies of the lyrics and there's even a "Morph's Sunscreen Song Shrine." There has been much discussion and analysis of the song on Internet news groups and there are sites that sell the album or link to sites such as Amazon.com and CDnow.com.

"The success really is thanks to the combination of Internet and radio," Ms. Schmich said. "Reminds me of how puny newspapers have become," she continued, acknowledging that nothing she had ever written before had received such a response.

The recitation is by Lee Perry, an Australian voice-over specialist, who put on an American accent and recorded the words using a digital field recorder and a cheap pair of headphones.

The song is not unstoppable. On Austin's KROX, one of the earliest stations to play it, "Sunscreen" has been taken off heavy rotation, down to seven times a week from a peak of 30 times a week. "The things that make it appealing at first also make it irritating after you hear it too often," Hastings, the music director, said.

And there is already a backlash against the song. Even the Sunscreen Song Shrine carries lyrics to "Not the Sunscreen Song," a parody that offers advice such as "Don't flush public toilets" and "Wear sunscreen, but only if it's that coconut oil that gives you cancer."


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June 1, 1997 | The Chicago Tribune

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them when they're gone.

Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have children, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don't mess too much with your hair or by the time you're 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.