On June 1, 1997, Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune columnist and Brenda Starr cartoonist, wrote a column entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” In her introduction to the column she described it as the commencement speech she would give to the class of ’97 if she were asked to give one.
The first line of the speech: “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.”
If you grew up in the 90s, these words may sound familiar, and you would be absolutely right. Australian film director Baz Luhrmann used the essay in its entirety on his 1998 album Something for Everybody, turning it into his hit single “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” With spoken-word lyrics over a mellow backing track by Zambian dance music performer Rozalla, the song was an unexpected worldwide hit, reaching number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and number one in the United Kingdom.
The thing is, Luhrmann and his team did not realize that Schmich was the actual author of the speech until they sought out permission to use the lyrics. They believed it was written by author Kurt Vonnegut.
For Schmich, the “Sunscreen Controversy” was “just one of those stories that reminds you of the lawlessness of cyberspace.” While no one knows the originator of the urban legend, the story goes that Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, had received an e-mail in early August 1997 that purported to reprint a commencement speech Vonnegut had given at MIT that year. (The actual commencement speaker was the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.) “She was so pleased,” Mr. Vonnegut later told the New York Times. “She sent it on to a whole of people, including my kids – how clever I am.”
The purported speech became a viral sensation, bouncing around the world through e-mail. This is how Luhrmann discovered the text. He, along with Anton Monsted and Josh Abrahams, decided to use it for a remix he was working on but was doubtful he could get Vonnegut’s permission. While searching for the writer’s contact information, Luhrmann discovered that Schmich was the actual author. He reached out to her and, with her permission, recorded the song the next day.
What happened between June 1 and early August, no one knows. For Vonnegut, the controversy cemented his belief that the Internet was not worth trusting. “I don’t know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet.” For Schmich, she acknowledged that her column would probably not had spread the way it did without the names of Vonnegut and MIT attached to it.
In the end, Schmich and Vonnegut did connect after she reached out to him to inform him of the confusion. According to Vonnegut, “What I said to Mary Schmich on the telephone was that what she wrote was funny and wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.” Not a bad ending for a column that was written, according to Schmich, “while high on coffee and M&Ms.”