“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” is an artefact from the Pre-Cambrian of social media, a fossil ancestor of today’s viral hits. You could go further: by making the jump into offline culture, it’s a kind of missing link to them. Natively, though, it belongs to the long, grey, clickless epoch of text-only circulation: paragraphs indented by lines of arrows, replicating in the unseen spaces of email accounts, far from the light of analytics.
This murky ecosystem was home to a variety of inhabitants. One – the dominant species, perhaps – was glurge: ultra-sentimental stories of cancer patients, puppies and soldiers, the plaintext descendants of death ballads or “No Charge”. Another was inspirational quotes and advice. Nowadays single aphorisms roam free and agile across the social media plains, shedding and acquiring new images, gifsets and inspired carriers as they do. In the late 90s, the climate for uplifting messages was somewhat harsher – the dynamics of email meant that people would not pepper their friends with individual quotes or snippets of wisdom. Instead the inspiring quotes bunched together to increase their survival and circulation chances. They formed colonies tens strong, collections of “wit and wisdom” or “20 facts about…” that offered better value to the habitual emailer than a lone insight could.
“Sunscreen” is in format one of these, two dozen or so pieces of advice strung together. But it has a single author – Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, and she isn’t especially famous or inspirational. That was the point – “Sunscreen” was Schmich’s fantasy of what she would say, were she ever offered a commencement speech, but written in the awareness of how unlikely this was. The column reflects this, constantly equivocal about the value of giving advice in the first place. It’s a forty-year-old’s fantasy of being wise and old enough to offer advice to kids, laced with a forty-year-old’s awareness of how much they still don’t know.
This origin was, it turned out, sub-optimal for viral circulation. As soon as it began taking off, “Sunscreen” was re-authored, credited now not to some barely-known woman but to famous (and male) author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, recently retired, stated – rather generously – how flattered he was. The text was shared, credited mostly to Vonnegut, several million times. And in this form it found its way to Baz Luhrmann.
Luhrmann enlisted voice actor Lee Perry to do the song. Perry had a background in animation, but also in advertising voiceovers, and it’s that side of his talents he brings to bear on his bumptious, insincere “Sunscreen” recital. The fifth most annoying thing about this record is that Perry has lousy timing and at times sounds close to disgusted by what he’s being told to say. I can’t exactly blame him, but the audible sneer on “maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken”, for instance, rather undercuts the message of welcoming life’s many possibilities.
Perry is also a guy, reading words written by a woman, which accounts for the fourth most annoying thing: lines that might come over wry or light on paper sound very much like finger-wagging when Perry booms them out. “Do NOT read BEAUTY magazines, they will ONLY make you FEEL UGLY” he bellows. Well, OK, but if Glamour sounded as condescending as he does, nobody would buy it. A few lines later he’s giving out advice about hair treatments.
Not all “Sunscreen”’s instructions are bad or patronising – I quite liked the lines about your body being an instrument, for instance. In fact, it’s hard to single out any as being particularly egregious – it’s more the slow drip of homily, the pile-up of disconnected, bland instruction that repulses. And, to be honest, the bad luck of us encountering it at all. The third most annoying thing about this record is that it exists. It fell into the gap between the Internet being established enough for woeful things to rapidly spread, and the Internet being a fast and cheap mass medium which meant people could simply see and hear them at a click. “Sunscreen” is a novelty hit, the latest in a line of same. But it’s also a viral video in waiting, a YouTube proof of concept – though without such easy means of circulation existing channels had to be used, which means someone had to go and make the thing. Thanks, Baz.
Luhrmann’s specific contribution to “Sunscreen” is in the music – an instrumental reinvention of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free” as an ambient cloud of mellow vibes, midway between elevator and beach hut. At first this gaseous burble gets out of the way of the speech, but gradually it asserts itself. Every so often Schmich drops in a one-word admonition – “Floss”, “Stretch”, “Dance” – to break the flow. And it’s on “Dance” we hear the second most annoying thing about this record – a rusted old trip-hop beat lurching back into service, bringing home how musically exhausted “Sunscreen” sounds, a fag-end of once interesting styles. The enveloping fug of trip-hop was surprisingly flexible: it could be paranoid or nurturing, aggressive or enigmatic or torchy. “Sunscreen” is none of those things. Its drum loops sound lumbering and obvious, shown up by the sickly brightness of the rest of the arrangement.
But in the end, a better voice or better music could hardly save this song. The most annoying thing about it is inescapable without a complete rewrite: it’s so bloody noncommittal. Every piece of advice comes with a caveat, an opposite to nudge you back onto safer ground. Leave New York before it makes you hard. Leave California before it makes you soft. Don’t worry, or worry. Read the instructions, even if you don’t follow them. Don’t congratulate yourself, don’t berate yourself. Don’t trust me. Buy my record anyway.
There’s a name for this endless, whimsical self-undermining. Not an accurate name, but that didn’t matter, it stuck to the 1990s anyway, poisoning its reputation: irony. Commit to nothing, always leave yourself an exit route, wear sunscreen. It’s not that this record has no beliefs: sometimes gaps appear in its skin of chuckling self-regard and you hear the terror of mortality poke through – failing bodies, departing friends. But it hides that, turning away into offhanded wryness. “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth: oh, nevermind.” Oh well, whatever, nevermind – a disgusted, spasmic shrug at the start of the decade, reflected here as a smug chortle. Nerveless trip-hop and reflexive irony: we are still 18 songs off the end of the 1990s, but here they are, ready for their grave.