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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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Comments

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  1. 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.)

  2. 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 :)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 98
    benson_79 on 11 Mar 2021 #

    A spot-on review, the last paragraph pretty much sums up Baz’s film oeuvre too. For some reason I really liked Moulin Rouge when it came out, maybe because I was still clinging onto a persona of student-y irony. When I rewatched it as a jaded thirtysomething, I absolutely despised every last artificial second. Bleaurgh.

  9. 99
    Gareth Parker on 24 May 2021 #

    Bloomin’ hell the radio edit is still around the 5 minute mark! Utterly laughable stuff, Tom’s right with his 1/10 in my opinion.

  10. 100
    TheGerkuman on 19 Oct 2021 #

    I don’t disagree with most of the points Tom makes, but they also don’t bother me. As such, it’s just a non-descript haze of platitudes and aphorisms, that drifts by and then leaves without notice. Chris Rock did better, since at least I remember that there is no sex in the champagne room. There is champagne, but that’s not what we’re there for.

    Trip hop didn’t die however. At the very least, Phase 1 of Gorillaz kept it on life support, before it moved onto indie rock.

  11. 101
    TheGerkuman on 19 Oct 2021 #

    Also, Moulin Rouge! remains great and I’m sticking by that take.

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