Oct 14

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

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#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.



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  1. 1
    punctum on 29 Oct 2014 #

    One of the more unusual hits of 1972 – although in that context it really wasn’t that unusual – was “Desiderata,” the twenties collection of semi-poetic homilies which subsequently became a sixties bedsit poster fixture, now set to music and solemnly recited by the San Franciscan proto-shock jock Les Crane. That its beneficent “go placidly” amble became popular in a particularly bloody year sets out the limits of homilies unaccompanied by active commitment. Gandhi went placidly, but he was leading his people to the Pretoria legislature as opposed to a top-floor Hampstead penthouse.

    Like a New Age Billy Bragg, there is something about the Sunscreen Song that sets my teeth on edge, even though I essentially agree with nearly all it has to say and even though it acknowledges its own foredoomed failure at its opening (“The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience”) and close (“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” – or as Gil Scott-Heron rather more pithily put in his “B-Movie” eighteen years earlier: “People want nostalgia; they want to go as far back as they possibly can, even if it’s only as far back as last week – not to face now or tomorrow but to face backwards”). Listening to its blandly gruff recitative of tips on how to grow and flourish – or how to avoid growing – one can easily understand Brad Pitt’s sideswipe at the piece in Fight Club (subsequently sampled in the Dust Brothers’ “This Is Your Life”). There is a complacency at work here which virtually invites the sceptic to prick its skin.

    Luhrmann does not seem to have had any active involvement in the record other than executive producing it; the backing track is a reworking from the Romeo And Juliet soundtrack, which in itself is a cod-operatic/hip hop lite reworking of “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good),” a major pop-rave hit for Rozalla in 1991, and the narrative is delivered, not by an American, but by an Australian actor pretending to be American – with a nice-ish irony, the actor is named Lee Perry. Musically and conceptually it owes a bundle to Malcolm McLaren’s “Madam Butterfly,” and presumably McLaren must have regularly smacked his forehead for some time afterwards for not coming up with the idea first.

    But from another angle, the Sunscreen Song is not entirely free of threats. It is perhaps the second number one of the internet age; its text is taken from a Chicago Tribune thinkpiece written in 1997 by one Mary Schmich – some have fancifully attributed it to Kurt Vonnegut – in the form of a mock-graduation ceremony address to the youth of her day; indeed, on the parent album Something To Remember Perry opens the track by addressing the “class of ‘97” whereas on the single version he now speaks to the “class of ’99.” Despite all of its encouraging and instantly self-deprecating/denigrating grains of generalised advice, the title alone suggests something more sinister. “If I could offer you only one tip for the future,” Perry intones gravely at the beginning, before the music starts up, “sunscreen…would be…it.” And at the end he repeats “but trust me on the sunscreen” as the beats suddenly start slashing backwards like a suicide bomber ready to unzip and unload his cache before an abrupt cutoff. Sunscreen, of course, to ward off cancer engendered by potent sun rays, now unprotected by the ozone layer; thus the battle is already lost, the time finite. This is a manifesto on how best to live one’s remaining time in the face of an encroaching apocalypse. On repeated listening the track seems to become progressively more dreamlike, or maybe nightmarish in its not quite reality, its hidden sabres less than paradisical.

    None of this has really pervaded Luhrmann’s work as a director. The Red Curtain Trilogy is the title which has been retrospectively been applied to his sparse triumvirate of films, but apart from a general hopeful camp undertow it’s hard to discern any real link or symmetry of purpose between them; Strictly Ballroom is charming, astute floss. Romeo And Juliet is one of those rare films which visibly dates as you are watching it; for much of its first half, despite the downward-dragging Leonardo DC, I was practically cheering it on, willing it to deal with the chances it was giving itself – but the bravura could not be sustained and the final impression was one of flimsy modishness concealing a basic conjuring trick; not being Orson Welles, Luhrmann couldn’t turn that modest trope into a conquering advantage.

    And Moulin Rouge! seemed especially foolish, all the more so for the fleeting specks of magic which crossed its over-coloured, unbreathable environment; Kidman looks and sounds good until you realise she’s not being called upon to do very much. Ewan McGregor, meanwhile, unbalances the film entirely with his grotesque pantomime hamming, and I particularly despise his performance in Kidman’s death scene for how fucking true to life it was. The approach to the Q Magazine-approved list of pop tapestry threads was barely above that of the seventies children’s TV show Crackerjack – and at least Peter Glaze had a firm grasp of his and the programme’s essential absurdity.

    So we see a director in love with colour, but not necessarily with reason; who could place Moulin Rouge! next to, say, Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu and not recognise infantile scribbling in close proximity to something which actually tells us about human beings and how they choose to respond to art as stimulant or nemesis? Or to Demy’s sublime anti-confection Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, sung all the way through (and that’s sung, not camped – Jim Broadbent in particular take note) and leading to an ending of inevitable and slowly shattering hopelessness – far less showy and infinitely deeper. Extending this perspective to “Everybody’s Free” we have a spectacle of grudging goodwill from a spirit which secretly knows that the game is up, and it carries more worries than any of Luhrmann’s films. Since starting to write this entry, I’ve changed my mind about the record at least three times; half of me recognises it for the con trick that it is, the other half reads between, or below, the lines and registers eyes of wicked, blood-red coal behind the screen of benignity. I can’t quite recall how I reacted to it at the time. For now, however, an equivocating 5

  2. 2
    Tom on 29 Oct 2014 #

    McLaren is a good angle, I think. More than any record since “The Stonk”, this is one I find almost impossible to even finish, so I’m glad of extra perspectives here.

  3. 3
    wichitalineman on 29 Oct 2014 #

    First time I’ve ever heard this. It’s not what I imagined I needed to avoid in 1999, not at all.

    Desiderata was the first thing it reminded me of, as if Les Crane had got his papers to serve as an unwilling soldier in the irony wars. I stuck with it until “dance”, the weird and clunky change of beat, and then gave up.

    At least they didn’t get James Alexander Gordon to do it.

  4. 4
    Cumbrian on 29 Oct 2014 #

    #1 when we found out my Mum had skin cancer – and thus, personally, unmarkable. Still in my mind when I left the family home for university and dreaded the distance between me and her, not knowing how she was coping, not knowing really how I was coping, and not knowing whether there was more to it or not. A fraught time. In my darker days, I noted that I have almost all the same moles as she did, even though I have my father’s dark complexion, as opposed to her fairer skin. Consequently, I took the main bit of advice here to heart – sunscreen is it for me, in the same way that never actually having smoked anything was the message that I took from my grandmother’s passing from cigarette induced cancer.

    Look after yourselves. Slip, slap, slop – or whichever way around the Aussies have it. It’s that or Noel Gallagher will watch TV with Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to try and generate some cash for looking after you.

  5. 5
    Kinitawowi on 29 Oct 2014 #

    Gritted my teeth and got through it all for what I suspect may have been the first time ever. Those little one-word interjections with changes of pace now remind me of Mylo’s Destroy Rock And Roll, when everything stutters for a moment on the mention of “Queen”; lacking Mylo’s sense of humour or the Church Universal And Triumphant’s totally pointless vitriol though, this is just a tacky, gaudy mess.

    Pretty much the case for much of Luhrmann, to be honest. Moulin Rouge had pacing issues up the wazoo, Romeo + Juliet was a stupid execution of a stupid concept… and I didn’t realise just how damn long this tripe is either. Yeesh. Evil.

    1 is pretty much bang on.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 29 Oct 2014 #

    Punctum beat me to the punch re: Desiderata, although I don’t see Max Ehrmann’s name mentioned. I suspect collections of homilies are nothing at all new, and someone with a better grasp of history than me will fill in the blanks.

    Above all, Sunscreen’s a list song. I like list songs because you can game them; agree/disagree, been there done that/bucket list & etc. The tone of Sunscreen though is oppressive and the beauty magazine line comes in and sours the whole thing with its uncalled-for “authority”. But then list songs and homilies are never really meant to be taken at their word. They are pleasant distractions or titbits from the Peterborough page of The Daily Mail. This one feels very Daily Mail, dressing up populist opinion and selling it as authority. Some people will lap this stuff up, because they don’t want to think for themselves, which is probably why Desiderata was such a success in the first place.

    For ages, I thought the narrator was Luke Perry, y’know from Beverly Hills 90210.

    Yeah, and my knees ARE fucked up and I DO miss them, you condescending bastard!(3)

  7. 7
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Oct 2014 #

    Agreed that Desiderata is a better point of comparison, but the record this, superficially (perhaps excessively long, much spoken-word babbling on, any “tune” almost being an aside) brought to my mind was an early 90s curio from The Shamen, with Timothy Leary doing the (psycho)babbling, “ReEvolution”. Though really they not very alike at all – the Shamen track has real, as you’d expect from them, musical interest and substance, and whatever Leary is doing, he is not coming close to insulting the intelligence of his audience or throwing self-contradictory platitudes at them. In fact, it’s a quite extraordinary record, and one of the more wonderful things to slip into the top 40 in the 90s….

    ….this, though. Again, who bought it? I’ve no idea. Did it get radio airplay? Not much (or at all) that I recall, but maybe I had the wrong (or right) stations on. Wherein lies its appeal? I wish I knew…..is it perhaps tied in with the opening up of higher education, first under Major, then under Blair…and the ensuing degradation of some degree courses and the blatant commercialisation of others, creating a cohort of graduates who would genuinely appreciate this kind of “pep talk” to push them out into the outside world…? I kind of doubt it…and I can certainly remember nothing of the substance, only the style (wonderfully formal, traditional, almost-six-centuries clad with much Latin and ritual that bore the weight of history and expertise; and then, rather more casual, laid back, conspicuously modern and very smuggly post-enlightenment) of the two such speeches I experienced on graduating. But in neither context would something such as this been welcome.

    I don’t find this hateful, just nondescript. There certainly is, as the text’ s origins explain, something of the filmic or mass-communication about this. The style is much more American than British, too. The musical value of the track – or even the contribution of music to it – is minimal indeed (the link to Rozalla only really asserting itself in the title). It’s a real curiously, and perhaps one that does speak, above all, of the broader media and popular culture of 1999 than it does of anything more usually directly related to “popular music” or “the charts”.

    At least it did not inspire a string of imitators. It was at least not the Jive Bunny of this year ending in nine. With that in mind, I Think I can stretch to a 4.

  8. 8
    Mark G on 29 Oct 2014 #

    One of those you don’t mind until you’ve heard it all, and then you don’t want to hear it anymore. Whereas “O Superman” is something that makes you want to hear it again.

    I was, indeed, curious about the Lee Perry version. So, eventually saw this for 20p in Sue Ryder, satisfied my curiosity.

    It’s not that Lee Perry. As you were.

  9. 9
    Mark G on 29 Oct 2014 #

    Also, growing up in South Shields, I never even saw sunscreen until 1975

  10. 10
    Duro on 29 Oct 2014 #

    You’ve absolutely nailed it here and my own comments, written a few weeks back, mirror yours (I know less about the original piece of writing, which might posses a level of irony that I have not contemplated):

    Back in 1999 the concept of privilege-checking remained embryonic, which has possibly aided Baz Luhrmann’s stint at the top in this most bizarre of pop years to be half-remembered as a whimsical curio rather than the overtly patronising lecture that I now hear. As the basis for a chain email Mary Schmich’s words rank alongside the ‘virtual snowball’ my dad would forward every now and then (with attendant advice for youths from the generation who ensured that I still can’t buy a house fifteen years later as some attempt at pre-millennial penance) for sheer irritancy. As a number one single, the result is execrable. I don’t have the funds to go and live in New York for any period of time, Mr Millionaire Film Director/Harvard Alumnus Journalist/Overpaid Portly DJ, neither do I enjoy the telling-off-by-proxy to “NOT BUY BEAUTY MAGAZINES” by one of cinema’s true masters of style over substance. I suppose I shouldn’t make too much fuss out of the whole affair when this ego massage for sanctimonious and hypocritical 40 year olds nonetheless remains superior to some of the stuff we’ve already heard this year (and indeed the two truly back-to-back travesties that wave goodbye to the nineties), and, if the record saved the life of just *one* previously-reckless sunbather…

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 30 Oct 2014 #

    One of the Senior Management at the School I taught in at this point was a breathless advocate for Neuro Linguistic Programming – sharing pearls of wisdom such as ‘There’s no such thing as failure -only negative feedback’. This was also the era of conspicuous Spin Doctors (not the band!), whose glib, soothing phrases flowed with ease from the lips of Blair and others. After the confrontational style of Thatcher and her fellow Tories it was tempting to be (half-knowingly) beguiled by the promises of New Labour – things could only get better.
    Sunscreen seems to fit very much into this ethos (although the delivery is clunky) as well as looking forward to a slew of TED talks. I can easily imagine it accompanying a soporific Powerpoint presentation with state of the art (1999 style) interslide animation – something else I associate with this era.

  12. 12
    mapman132 on 30 Oct 2014 #

    When I saw this recording (not really a “song”, is it?) coming up in the number ones list, having not actually listened to it in 15 years, I honestly thought I might rate it as high as 5/10. But I had forgotten how something mildly amusing in print form could be positively grating on the radio after about the third time (and yes, it did get play in the US, for about 3 weeks or so). I think Tom nails it right on the head about Perry’s snide delivery. Not that a better delivery would have helped much: I think a big reason spoken word hits don’t show up very often is that while good music can be enjoyed over and over again on your radio/phone/cd player/whatever, even a good speech or comedy routine quickly becomes tedious if played more than a few times. And this is far, far from a good speech or comedy routine. Not insulting enough for a 1, but I can’t give it more than 2/10.

    FWIW, after a quick start on US radio, this fizzled out at #45 – still the biggest spoken word hit in years. Curious what the sales/airplay breakdown was. The only way this would be a hit today is via Youtube plays combined with an even more liberal interpretation of what constitutes “music” by Billboard than the one that allowed “Harlem Shake” to reach #1.

  13. 13
    flahr on 30 Oct 2014 #

    I enjoy how the sleeve gives this three different titles.

    I thought I read this was some self-consciously ironic DJ push, maybe someone on the Breakfast Show or something. W.r.t. why it made #1, I mean.

  14. 14
    cmmmbase on 30 Oct 2014 #

    #12 – There was a US cd single, but either it was a limited edition or not available at the same time that radio played it – the airplay/sales breakdown: #24 airplay, didn’t make top 75 sales.

  15. 15
    anto on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Oddly enough the listening public ultimately took this record’s advice i.e quickly forgetting about and dispensing with it. I started wearing sun screen for the first time last year (generally I regard sunbathing as one of life’s most pointless indulgences so i had never seen much need for it before, but then realised that protection was necessary for just walking around outdoors) and yet this track never crossed my mind even once, which seems fair enough, it’s a ploddy distraction of a single that has dated quite badly.
    It seems to belong to a sub-genre that could be termed ‘margarine ambient groove’ ultra-lightweight and soporific with an off-putting air of self-satisfaction. Like a lot of actors whose voices are only familiar from adverts (I can think of at least two others but don’t know their names) Lee Perry’s narration is too smugly persuasive to offer any charm, let alone wisdom.
    It’s hard to be convinced by Baz Luhrmann’s films – his ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is a film that I liked for it’s vitality when it originally came out but when I last watched it about two years ago what really stood out was how much better Pete Postlethwaite and Miriam Margolyes were at reciting the verse than the rest of the cast. ‘Strictly Ballroom’ has long since been usurped by the tacky but wildly popular TV show that nicked it’s title, as for the blancmange headache of ‘Moulin Rouge’, once was enough.

  16. 16
    Garry on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Oh, it’s our Baz. I’ve been waiting for this one. In Australia this came, this went, and was no where as memorable as John Safran’s Not the Sunscreen Song.

    Strictly Ballroom was a very Australian film, but there was always a sense Baz went away and stopped making Australian films. It was a tailing off of the same cultural cringe which targeted Clive James, Germaine Greer etc forty years earlier for daring to leave our shores and try and succeed overseas. Baz, therefore, was ripe for a take off.

    And in Australia the taker-offer-er was John Safran. He rose to fame on a program called Race Around the World, a program hosted by DAAS Kapital’s Richard Fidler, in which they give a bunch of untrained kids handy-cams and a lot of vaccinations and told them to roam the world and send back a video-story each week.

    Someone or other won it, but the entrant everyone remembers was John Safran. He streaked through Jerusalem, sneaked into Disneyland, and, to his family’s horror, got baptised in a river in Africa. He was basically disqualified for filming in a confessional even though he was the most popular contestant. He was a japer, who loved nothing more than being confronting, often to make a point.

    After the show he did Not the Sunscreen Song. There’s plenty of Australian-centric references, and one big dig at Baz. It picking up the sneer Tom referenced in the source version. It’s pretty nasty all round, but it’s Safran. He would go on take make several TV series, become a novelist and investigative journalist, and who is still with us presenting programs on youth network Triple J with an aging Catholic priest called Father Bob.

    So Baz’s posing Schmich’s words is always linked with Safran over here.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 30 Oct 2014 #

    The music side of this track’s entirely desultory, which leaves us with the text…. Nothing too deep there but I don’t find it as irritating as many do, perhaps because I don’t detect any sneering or any irony whatsoever.

    Tom’s remark, “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.’ strikes me as particularly insensitive and misguided. The script has lots and lots of unhedged, categorical pieces of advice; it’s plenty committal. And for example, ‘Don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either’ (which is just correctly considering a couple of distinguishable cases) prefaces ‘all your choices are half chance and so are everyone else’s’. That’s *very* committal and a good rule of thumb. Eggheads like us might wish she’d written something like ‘Beware of making fundamental attribution errors, and police any of your self/other asymmetries with respect to them’ but that’s not the sort of language that most people are in a position to process.

    And, for another example, ‘Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but at least know that that’ll be unhelpful’ prefaces ‘The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind’. There’s no lack of commitment or irony there, rather there’s a kind of counsel that’s hard to hear – that the things that are uppermost in one’s consciousness (including one’s fears) are
    often superficial, and it’s the nameless problems that you you’re not especially conscious of at the time that get you (hence don’t sweat all your superficial and head-line driven worries).

    I *do* hear in the script a bunch of moments that urge trying to live up to some ideal even though you know you’ll fall short (‘read instructions even though you probably won’t follow them’, ‘try to respect your elders’, etc.). But that’s nothing to do with do-nothing, grungy irony.

    And I hear moments where the advice ruefully reflects that advice is easy to give but hard to take, etc. (‘Advice is a form of nostalgia’, ‘Never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me…’). But self-awareness (assuming it’s not paralysing) is once more nothing to do with irony or glib chortling or whatever Tom tries to stick on it.

    One thing that’s a little curious about the column/speech is that it’s *very* short for a Commencement address. Steve Jobs’s famous one at Stanford – http://youtu.be/D1R-jKKp3NA – which was widely shared in the mid-’00s, is 3 times as long as ‘Wear Sunscreen’ and is much more typical.

    I agree that the stuff about NYC and NorCal is a little too cute – clearly for a lot of people those places are exactly where they want to be and where they’ll want to stay. The advice in this case seems to betray its Chicago/Midwest origins, i.e., it’s offered principally to stay-at-home Midwest kids in the spirit of mind-opening (the general injunction to ‘Travel’ comes next), and without worrying too much about the ‘you must not stay’ closing-off of options it also calls for (at least lightly).

    Anyhow, a strange #1. There was quite a bit of prescriptive prognosticizing going on near the peak of the .com bubble, in Fight Club as Marcello mentions, but also in The Matrix, and at the end of American Beauty:

    “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

  18. 18
    Ed on 30 Oct 2014 #

    @8 I would love to hear *the* Lee Perry do it.

    I can forgive Luhrmann a lot, though, for Romeo + Juliet, which is also utterly of its time, but in a good way: self-confident, energetic, flamboyant. I agree with Punctum that it sags towards the end, but the momentum it builds up with its copters shots and gas station confrontations and pill-popping Mercutio carries it through.

    Like Anto I saw it again a couple of years ago; unlike Anto I still really enjoyed it.

    Probably the most palatable appearance of Radiohead in any context, too.

  19. 19
    Ed on 30 Oct 2014 #

    @17 On the outbreak of sermonising in the late 90s, I don’t want to be too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, but at that time we heard a lot about stuff that can seem terribly important when you’re not constantly worrying about paying the rent and staying alive.

  20. 20
    Tom on 30 Oct 2014 #

    #17 – The mistake I make, I think, is to say that a better voice or music wouldn’t make any difference. Because I’m not really damning the text, I’m still damning it as performed. The text is condescending but, yes, sincere: a column length expansion of “youth is wasted on the young” that is tiresomely addicted to qualification as a rhetorical device. In the lips of Perry that does, for me, come over as smug. But even if you take him away and leave the words, you might not be left with irony but you do end up at a kind of passivity – you won’t listen anyway, you shouldn’t listen anyway – that seems as much of its time.

  21. 21
    James BC on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Wish the Rozalla song had been number 1 instead. That is far more inspirational, and also much funnier, than EF(TWS)TSS(CO99).

  22. 22
    jim5et on 30 Oct 2014 #

    I can’t help connecting this with one of the other great inspirational speech singles of the ’90s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA2ghKqXqOg . Drain that of fury and fun and drugs, and you’re left with Sunscreen.

  23. 23
    jim5et on 30 Oct 2014 #

    God, listening now, that PF song is way more storming than I remember. Oh, and 3 for Sunscreen.

  24. 24
    iconoclast on 30 Oct 2014 #

    I don’t think I can reasonably add to or improve on Tom’s comments in any way, except that by my standards this gets THREE.

  25. 25
    Rory on 30 Oct 2014 #

    #7, “At least it did not inspire a string of imitators”: it inspired a parody in Australia, though, which is what I always think of when I think of this. (Oh, I see now that Garry has mentioned it @16.) In fact I actually bought that one, whereas I’m not sure I’d ever heard this in its entirety before today.

    Since “Not the Sunscreen Song”, John Safran has made some extraordinary television, although you’ll probably have to visit Oz to find the DVDs. Nevertheless, John Safran’s Music Jamboree and especially John Safran vs God are well worth the viewing time. John Safran’s Race Relations couldn’t quite match its predecessor, but still has its moments.

    But to the original… as Tom suggests, it’s a single that would never even have existed today. Some unknown would have beaten Luhrmann to the punch by setting the text to a GarageBand track on a YouTube clip, which would have racked up a few hundred thousand views, and that would have been that. Nobody would have overplayed it, the beauty of those clips being that you watch them only as many times as you personally can stand.

    I’m not sure it would even have become a viral video, though, if it were happening today, because it feels as if we’ve been overloaded with commencement speeches (real or imagined) since this was a hit; we read or watch the best of each year’s crop in a way that we never could before the Web. Before the 2000s, the only graduation speeches I’d ever heard were the ones from my own graduation ceremonies. They were scarce commodities even in the late ’90s; now they’re old hat.

    So one listen of this was quite enough. 2. Five for Safran (maybe even six; it’s making me laugh again as I listen to it now).

    I liked the Luhrmann “trilogy” at the time, and even had a Romeo + Juliet poster on my wall at one point, but I’m happy to leave them as memories rather than rewatch them; I haven’t even seen Australia yet, and missed The Great Gatsby as well. (The last sounds like a perfect fit for Luhrmann and De Caprio, though, so I expect I’ll catch up with it eventually.)

  26. 26
    Rory on 30 Oct 2014 #

    [“Your comment is awaiting moderation” – yeah, I thought I was pushing it with the number of links. Help?]

  27. 27
    Rory on 30 Oct 2014 #

    #4, “Slip, slap, slop – or whichever way around the Aussies have it.”

    Slip, slop, slap,
    Slip on a shirt,
    Slop on sunscreen,
    And slap on a hat.
    Slip, slip, slap (da dahh!),
    You can stop skin cancer,
    Slip, slop, slap.

    (Yes, I was 12 in 1980 and this is burned into my brain.)

  28. 28
    hectorthebat on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Sample watch:

    The sample actually appears to be from the Quindon Tarver version here:


  29. 29
    mapman132 on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Another parody, courtesy of Chris Rock:


  30. 30
    Rory on 30 Oct 2014 #

    (Whoops, made a slip with one of my slops in #27. *Slaps forehead*)

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