29
Oct 14

BAZ LUHRMANN – “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”

Popular97 comments • 5,375 views

#826, 12th June 1999

sunscreen “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.

1

Comments

1 2 3 4 All
  1. 76
    sukrat, scholard on 1 Nov 2014 #

    kipling on freaky trigger

    “if—” was said to be inspired by and dedicated to the imperialist cecil rhodes, founder of rhodesia and a seriously unlovely man that kipling admired — but it’s appended to the chapter called “brother square-toes” in the second puck book, rewards and fairies, which is about monks and smugglers and the invention of america, so it arrives offset within a highly complex (well, hullo, this is kipling) context

  2. 77
    Patrick Mexico on 1 Nov 2014 #

    Re 74: Yes, I’d agree that’s a million times cooler than ..Sunscreen. Apart from the worryingly Nickelback guitar sound, but Alice wasn’t to know. Please tell me we won’t have to discuss them on Popular.

    There’s another “everyone loves those warm friendly Canadians – oh, except… THIS” act. Think barely prepubescent, and the Youtube comments yardstick which every piece of music from the past must be compared to as superior to [music from the present*], which, somehow, this project is not yet scheduled to be corrupted by.

    * I don’t mean John Miles.

  3. 78
    enitharmon on 1 Nov 2014 #

    Leonard Cohen then? Oh right, Lennie is far from pubescent and we will get a chance to talk about him, I believe.

  4. 79
    Patrick Mexico on 1 Nov 2014 #

    “Give me a Justin Bieber afterworld” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it! No doubt the Enemy or Reverend and the Makers will try and use it in future in a desperate attempt to make “proper music for proper lads with real emotions” :-/

    Until today, thought the opening line of Pennyroyal Tea was not “I’m on my time with everyone” but “Alone in my town with everyone” (which would have been one of the best opening lyrics ever… though more ambivalently, I thought it was the inspiration for the Richard Ashcroft album Alone with Everybody.)

  5. 80
    James K. on 2 Nov 2014 #

    Until five minutes ago I thought it was actually Baz Luhrmann reading the narration here. (I would say, “I should have known because the narrator does not have an Australian accent,” but apparently the real narrator also is Australian.)

  6. 81
    snoball on 2 Nov 2014 #

    ‘Words of Advice for Young People’ by William S. Burroughs and The Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hopracy is much better.

  7. 82
    Ben on 2 Nov 2014 #

    I love this site, and I love many of these reviews – some brilliant writing. But this, I have to say with affectionate respect, is bollocks. It seems to be written from the point of view of someone who is more smug and self-regarding than the track they accuse of being.

    I get rather fed up sometimes with the glut of ‘inspirational quotes’ that are now everywhere on social media. But there is something about this ‘song’ (I was 20 and at University when it came out) that gets me. Is it really a negative that it mixes the lighter and the deeper? I think that’s one of its strengths. That reflects life, surely?

    You seem to be analysing the song on a sentence by sentence basis, and using straw man arguments to take a lot of the lines apart, rather than taking it in the round. You’ve written a long review of this song, without realising its point. Quite a feat ;)

  8. 83
    weej on 2 Nov 2014 #

    Finding something offensive in this does seem a little odd – it’s a five minute clip, not really music, sometimes insightful, sometimes glib, important to people who liked it and utterly irrelevant to everyone else (including me). I had similar feelings about “Thou Shalt Always Kill” except the backing was much better, and it was even pretty funny in parts and touchingly personal in others (“Thou shalt not return to the same club or bar week in, week out just ’cause you once saw a girl there that you fancied that you’re never gonna fucking talk to”) – it’s basically a list of things for *himself* to remember at that point. Some other bits were annoying – as a linguist I feel a bit annoyed by not being allowed to question Stephen Fry when his rubbish programs on language take up the entire BBC linguistics programming allowance – but the extreme negative reaction I’ve seen it get from some people (Tom above, a girl in Brighton who shouted “we’re not listening to Scroobius Fucking Shit!” at a party) also seems odd. Advice songs… just a trope.

  9. 84
    Tom on 2 Nov 2014 #

    #82: Obviously it takes a certain amount of self-regard to commit to a project like this in the first place – no argument there! But the bulk of my criticisms *are* about the song “in the round” – the speaking voice, the flaccid music, the pile-up of homily. At the end, it’s true, I’m trying to tie back my overwhelming dislike of this to specifics, and I end up treating Schich’s text a little unfairly (though I don’t think I’m unfair on Perry’s reading of it). But I’m specifically trying to avoid a line-by-line fisking of it. Fair enough, though, the review didn’t work for you – it’s a 1 out of 10 for a song that means a lot to some people, so I expect the odd bollocking.

    #83 Looking deeper into l’affaire Scroobius Pip, I think a lot of my reaction was to do with the ideological (and largely imaginary, I dare say) politics of pop media at the time – here’s a single being championed by XFM (the greyest, dullest station to ever get a UK broadcasting license, which in 2007 was helping swamp the charts in truly godawful music) wagging its finger at contemporary pop and hip-hop, obviously I wasn’t going to be on its side. Should I have been too mature for such squabbles? I’m sure I should. Would most of Pip’s listeners have given a monkey’s who was playlisting him? Not at all. I was too deep in by that point.

  10. 85
    flahr on 2 Nov 2014 #

    I remember “Thou Shalt Always Kill” as a 6Music single – I think they did an hour where they played a song by every “just a band” on the list (not as good as the corresponding “Irk the Purists” by Half Man Half Biscuit hour). Fond enough of it at the time (though I believe my conception of ‘the time’, as ever, was several years after the fact) but it wore thin pretty quickly. Tom presumably hates 6Music too but if it hadn’t been for them relentlessly playing “Riot Rhythm” by Sleigh Bells every single morning of my first year at university even though I HATED HATED HATED it I might not have realised that actually I adored it.

    which in 2007 was helping swamp the charts in truly godawful music…” The Pigeon Detectives’ five top 40 hits in three years hardly counts as ‘swamping’…

  11. 86
    Tom on 2 Nov 2014 #

    I never listen to the radio anyhow, so I don’t hate 6Music. But when we had them on occasionally in the office of old they weren’t a quarter as playlist-enslaved as XFM. I found their continual exhumation of ancient Evening Session favourites a little awkward, though – a station that seemed to exist basically to reassure people of my age and tastes that their youth was valid and important, which just made me feel older and sadder. Sometimes listening to their daytime shows was like meeting up with someone you’ve not seen in 20 years and all they can talk about was what you used to do together. I expect the times have changed, though, and they’re now performing the same vital function for people 5-10 years younger than me.

  12. 87
    Mark M on 2 Nov 2014 #

    At various points, I’ve drifted into the idea that I dislike 6 Music, imagining the music they play to be simply a combination of Britpop oldies and whichever bearded tossers are nominated for this year’s Mercury. But as I’m reminded whenever I’ve worked in an office where it’s on, that’s rather unfair – they do play that stuff, obviously, but much more besides. It’s definitely not all white guitar music all the time, nor is the music outside that category always (or even mostly) super-obvious (not unless you regard say, Barrington Levy as super-obvious, for some reason). Plus krautrock and prog during the daytime (not my bag, but not what you’re likely to get elsewhere on proper radio). And they have lots of female DJs. I really like Lauren Laverne’s show, then struggle with Radcliffe and Maconie’s schtick, and the music palate does get a bit more limited with Lammo (bless him) and then Lard, but at the weekend they’ve got Mary Anne Hobbs and Cerys and then Don Letts…
    As a station, it’s certainly a bit pleased with itself, and it’s there to serve a certain audience, but it could be far, far, far worse.

  13. 88
    Tom on 2 Nov 2014 #

    Yes, I can imagine my impression is very outdated – the time I listened to them regularly at work was close to 10 years ago, and the daytime shows then were a bit more XFMish, though with a more adventurous remit and a sense of history. I think I get a slightly skewed impression these days from my Twitter feed, which excitably tags the golden oldies but remains silent about Barrington Levy et al.

    Perhaps XFM has improved too, of course.

  14. 89
    Garry on 3 Nov 2014 #

    #33 Hello Matt, glad another Aussie is here, and also Rory who I’d forgotten was another Aussie of the Triple J era.

    My grudge with Baz is merely from hearing the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack over and over in college because eveyone had it. I’ve never seen any of his movies as a result. I especially hated the Cardigans whiny Love Me song – it took years for me to realise the Cardigans were a decent band.

    As for Thou Shalt Always Kill, I’ve always loved it for it’s glaring inconsistency. I had done my own “Just a band bit” some years earlier with a list called Slaughtering Sacred Cows (“Just because it was by Brian Eno doesn’t mean it is any good; produced by Eno does not mean it is any good; on Eno’s record label…” on through released by this artist or that, on this label, being loved by that major critic or this magazine etc etc).

    I had had a teenaged obsession with the albums of Mike Oldfield. His early stuff was on the ABC TV to time up to the news when I was a small boy. I fully got into his music with Tubular Bells II. I bought all his previous albums and all those being released, raved about this long track, or that section on an otherwise less good album. I probably bored my poor mother to bits. By the deep nineties I realised his then-current albums were getting worse and worse. I learned all artists could create crap and you know, that was absolutely fine. Thus the creation of the list, which was my attempt to say the best artists could be ordinary or even worse, this was the normal nature of things and really, what was best anyway…

    It was this sentiment which drew me to …Kill years later.

  15. 90
    Garry on 3 Nov 2014 #

    #87 I listen to Letts over here. Live it’s a Monday morning pick-me up, though I often iPlayer it. I wish Australia had such a station – the new Double J is trying but it’s a bit pedestrian.

    Years ago, when I was doing radio, I listened to the Late Show with Craig Pilling and loved the way he would smash genres with disregard for anything. Yes he had an emphasis on new releases but then throw in Louis Prima or whatever. It’s what I hear in Don Letts – let it all play out – mix by mood not beat and some form of genred rules.

  16. 91
    Rory on 3 Nov 2014 #

    Garry @89, “I had had a teenaged obsession with the albums of Mike Oldfield” – comrade! (Link goes to old area on my site gathering up 1990s mailing list posts on MO.) Oldfield is the “longtime favourite musician … whose occasional lyrics are notoriously rubbish” I mentioned in the Mr. Oizo thread. Totally agree about his deteriorating 1990s albums, and the 2000s weren’t much better, but give Man on the Rocks a try if you haven’t yet.

    I highly recommend Punctum’s Oldfield reviews at Then Play Long, if you haven’t read them. They’re in the November 2011 archives. As usual, he manages to find new things to say that I hadn’t thought about or heard before despite years of reading Dark Star, Tubular.net and the Oldfield/Amarok mailing list. (Which I haven’t done regularly for years; burnt myself out in the ’90s.)

  17. 92
    Garry on 4 Nov 2014 #

    #91 A fellow traveller indeed :) I’ve read Punctum’s review and they are the reason I keep reading his site. It was great to read an article by someone who got the albums at the time. By the nineties not much of the writing I read on Oldfield (and prog etc in general) tried to capture such memories. It was all criticism or comparisons to Radiohead etc.

    Oldfield tends to get sniffed at, especially by the Wire, but he was a gateway artist, someone doing something different who got a wider audience and led some of that audience into other forms of music. Vangelis and Jarre are the same. I never read about them in the same breath as Kraftwerk or Klaus Shulze and the early house artists, but I wonder how many people got into electronic music because Vangelis and Jarre were available and accessible. Same with the Jan Hammer and others who gave movies electronic soundtracks.

    I read a few of those Oldfield forums – the wonders of being the only cohort of students at my uni who got free internet for the entire three years we were there. I loved your degrees of separation piece. On rec.arts.progressive it was six degrees to Bill Bruford :)

  18. 93
    Rory on 4 Nov 2014 #

    #92 I’m sure you’re right about the influence of those ’70s pioneers. Daft Punk cite Jarre as an influence and Röyksopp remixed MO.

  19. 94
    Tommy Mack on 25 Nov 2014 #

    I was thinking Tom was harsh on this but on a rapid fire Jive Bunny-style mix backwards from Geri, this is my least favourite song so far. Fuck me, it’s really irritating to listen to as an actual piece of music and since I gave Ronan a 2, this is a 1.

  20. 95
    ciaran on 5 Dec 2014 #

    Close to ungradable this.

    I can understand both the good and the bad points of it. One man’s Telstar is another Man’s Vincent.

    On the negative this non piece of music/spoken word song was close to the stuff of nightmares for a 16 year old but again its the type of curveball Number 1’s throw at you every now and again. Preachy old fogey moralising was the last thing I wanted in the charts. If the intention was to reach out to the graduates of 99 it had no effect that I could think of from people in my school*

    On the other hand the tune is pleasant enough and it kind of builds itself after the way too long intro.Not half as annoying as it seems from the beginning, and I’m a lot more tolerant of it than I was at the time.

    I wouldnt be going anywhere close to 10 but a 1 is extremely harsh. Give me this over H and P, Bombalulrna, Ferry Aid any day of the week.

    *Vitamin C’s Graduation (Friends forever) from 2000 was the record I’d associate most from my graduation year(2001).Our student representative quoted from it in her graduation speech.Certainly had more of an impact than Sunscreen did.

  21. 96
    Ken Shinn on 10 Jan 2016 #

    The best parody of this? Hank Hill and family. “You’re payin’ for the nicotine – you might as well get the most out of it.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cINRh4c3P8s

  22. 97
    GFW on 5 Jun 2017 #

    The backing music is pretty splendid and I think the source material is very well written, but this absolutely shouldn’t be anywhere on the charts. The idea of wanting to hear this more than once is insane – as you well noted, this is more akin to a social media phenomenon than any kind of actual gets-played-on-the-radio song.

1 2 3 4 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page