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  The Cyber-Saga of the 'Sunscreen' Song

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 1999; Page C1

    Baz Lurhmann
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

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