Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Cyber-Saga of the 'Sunscreen' Song

The Cyber-Saga of the 'Sunscreen' Song
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 1999; Page C1
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Baz Luhrmann
Thanks to an Internet hoax, "Romeo and Juliet" director
Baz Luhrmann has a hit song. (By Hugh Stewart)

It began as a newspaper column, became an Internet hoax, was turned into a song by a hipster movie director and is now a hit on radio stations around the country. Along the way, it became an example of how words – known to the e-generation as "content" – morphed from one form into another, aided by misinformation and high-speed modems.
"Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" is in heavy rotation on alternative rocker WHFS (99.1), as well as other stations nationwide. It's a 4½-minute fake commencement address, laid down over a hip-hop rhythm track. A very square-sounding man speaks the lyrics:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '99 – 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."

The song goes on to say such things as:

Do one thing every day that scares you.
Don't be reckless with other people's hearts; don't put up with people
who are reckless with yours.

Pat Ferrise, WHFS's music director, discovered the song among a shipment of CDs mailed to the station in early January. He played it for some station employees, young and older, and "everyone who listened to it was intrigued," he says.

Fine, Ferrise thought, we've got a good novelty song here. And as soon as the song made its first on-air appearance, he says, the listeners started calling.

"That song means a lot to me," one caller said. Another gushed: "I'm really grateful for that song."

"I've never seen the likes of this kind of response" to a song, Ferrise says, adding that it "strikes a chord" with the station's predominantly 18-to-35-year-old listeners. The cover of a recent issue of Hits, a radio and music industry trade magazine, notes that the song, off the Baz Luhrmann album "Something for Everybody," has been added to the playlist of New York Top 40 station WHTZ, sharing space on Z100's hit chart with Cher, Third Eye Blind and Bon Jovi. Luhrmann's label, Capitol Records, says it is the most requested song on radio morning shows in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Ferrise points out that the song has a positive, buck-up quality lacking in much of today's whiny, nihilistic rock. It's uplifting – and even instructive – to hear a song like "Sunscreen" tell you: "Keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements."

But the song was never meant to be a song. It originated in deadline journalism.

In late May 1997, Chicago Tribune metro columnist (and "Brenda Starr" writer) Mary Schmich was walking to work along Lake Shore Drive, wondering what she was going to write about that day. It occurred to her that it was near graduation time and she thought she would write a column that read like a commencement address. As she wondered what advice she might offer, she saw a woman sunbathing on the shore of Lake Michigan.

"I hope she's wearing sunscreen," thought Schmich, 45, "because I didn't at that age."

And that's how newspaper columns are born.

A couple of months later, the column became an Internet hoax when a prankster – never identified except as "Culprit Zero" – copied it, labeled it as "Kurt Vonnegut's commencement address at MIT," and began e-mailing it to his or her friends. The pyramid began. Schmich's quirky, smart style seemed believable as Vonnegut's. It carried the implied authenticity of the printed word. And, on the Internet, the concept of "validity" is often less important than "bandwidth" and "really cool graphics." The spread of the thing was amazing. Among the recipients was a friend of Australian film director Luhrmann.

Luhrmann, 35, is largely known for two youthful films – "Strictly Ballroom," about competitive dancing, and a 1996 remake of "Romeo and Juliet," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The film is notable for its modern setting – two gun-toting families war in a fictional "Verona Beach" – and its quick-cut, highly stylized camera work.

Luhrmann was working on a CD in his home country when he saw the e-mail and was intrigued by Schmich's column, which, at that time, was still misrepresented as a Vonnegut address. On the Internet, Luhrmann tried to find Vonnegut's e-mail address, or the address of an agent, to buy the rights to the words and include it on the disc. Instead, he found stories debunking the hoax.

"It seemed to us," Luhrmann wrote, in a Capitol press release, "whether Vonnegut wrote it or not, the ideas in the piece make such great sense."

He contacted Schmich via e-mail, who put him in touch with Tribune management, which sold him the rights to Schmich's column. Luhrmann and his producers made the music, they hired an actor to read the words, and a song was born. As for royalties, Schmich gets a small cut; the Tribune gets a bigger one.

"I've written songs in my life, but no one will ever make records of those," Schmich says.

For Luhrmann, though, it's more than a hit song. It has become a watershed event in New Media. He says:

"What I think is extraordinary, apart from the inherent values in the ideas, is that we were experiencing ourselves a historical moment in the life of the Internet, an example of how massive publishing power is in the hands of anyone with access to a PC."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company



The Speech That Wasn't
Wednesday, August 13, 1997; Page A20
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THE STORY of the bogus commencement speech purportedly delivered at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut, and distributed far and wide over the Internet before someone finally figured out that it was nothing of the sort, has been seized upon as yet another example of how easily and swiftly the Net can spread a fake. The novelist is said to be amused but also a trifle alarmed at the amount of attention he is still getting, despite repeated denials, for a "speech" in which new graduates are advised to "Use sunscreen" and "Do something every day that scares you," along with other slightly offbeat but arguably sensible advice.
News of the hoax or the mix-up, since no one knows whether it came about by mischief or by accident, has been flashed to the four corners of cyberspace almost as rapidly as the original collection of one-liners, which, it turns out, were put together in June in a lighthearted mood by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. Ms. Schmich, who also expresses chagrin at the turn of events, began her June 1 column with the prophetic sentence, "Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out." The column goes on to recommend the exercise of composing one to "anyone over 26," and then to demonstrate.

We'd venture to guess that it is Ms. Schmich's own initial insight that accounts for her semi-spoof's prodigious distribution. True, it's a mystery how the name of Kurt Vonnegut or the venue of an MIT commencement got attached to the piece (especially since the MIT speaker this year was the eminently serious United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan). But it's no more peculiar than the numerous other persistent, and totally false, rumors and documents that constantly circulate on the Net.

It's not as if anyone knows who originally launched the hoax message featuring a "Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie" recipe, or the "actual correspondence" between a hotel guest and a maid about his hundreds of soap bars, or the "authentic" document about TWA 800 that spooked Pierre Salinger. What circulates on the Net faster than anything else, it's clear, is jokes.

You might wish a more high-minded use of so powerful a communications technology, but there it is. People forward clever verbal sketches and funny poems around the Internet with real glee – the form has never before had such an audience – and the further pleasure of giving sage advice is, as Ms. Schmich notes, a mighty motivator. Add the two forces together, and the slapped-on name of a famous novelist is just so much gravy. Mr. Vonnegut is probably lucky that, attention-wise, he got off as lightly as he did.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company




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