How to give advice in 1997

Or, the sunscreen saga

Everybody’s looking for raw advice transfer, and in the late 1990s, they wanted it from Kurt Vonnegut on Top 40 radio.

That’s the subject of this week’s excellent episode of the podcast Switched on Pop, in which the excellently named Avery Trufelman learns the long and tangled story of the song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). The quest is timed to graduation season, that moment when we gather together a cohort who already think they’re invincible, hand them each a piece of paper that confirms their delusions of grandeur, and then expect them to listen to an old codger drone some wisdom their way as they stand in the hot sun waiting for the keg party. (You can assume it’ll go even better on Zoom.)

The short, untangled version — which somewhat spoils the drama of the episode —goes like this: On June 1, 1997, Mary Schmich wrote a clever riff on commencement speeches in her Chicago Tribune column, filled with lines like “Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.” The column became a viral email, in which it was falsely credited to an apocryphal Kurt Vonnegut commencement speech at MIT. The Australian director Baz Luhrmann heard about the email and decided to set it to music, hiring a Vonnegutty vocalist to read the lines over a completely unrelated dance track. The song then became a huge hit in Australia, a moderate hit in the U.K., and pop oddity in the United States.

The Sunscreen Song has been lodged in my cranium for the last 20-odd years, in part because its release coincided with my graduation and in part because my brother and I would mockingly quote the lyrics at each other for years afterward. The saga of this list of funny-because-they’re-true observations offers some meta-advice, or advice on how to give advice. Please sing the following lines to yourself:

  • Keep it raw, open, and egoless.

On Switched on Pop, Trufelman sums up Sunscreen’s appeal:

“There’s something that’s so heartachingly earnest about this song. It’s just advice. It’s raw advice transfer and it’s not necessarily trying too hard to be poetic or strange or weird. It’s so raw and it’s so open that of course it could only be made by accident. It’s almost egoless.”

Advice should be as clear and simple as the truth. And because we like to think the best truths are universal, don’t make it about you. But because there are no universal truths, I’ll immediately contradict that statement by saying:

  • Wisdom needs a brand name.

If you can’t be curt, be Kurt. Whoever originated the email hoax decided that the gravely sci-fi writer was the perfect name to attach to the lines. The practice of pushing a lesser-known woman aside to give credit to a man is both unfair and unsurprising, and it was compounded by the creators of the song knowing the real author but sticking with a Kurtesque voice. The real genius here came from Mary Schmich, who managed to turn an items column — that most hackneyed fallback of hacks — into a lasting classic.

  • The middleman takes all the credit.

Baz Luhrmann’s name is on the song, but he didn’t write it or sing it. Such is the genius of the director who made Romeo and Juliet a tale for our times by rendering it as Romeo + Juliet.

  • Chris Rock always deserves the last word.

His funny and profane 1999 song No Sex (In the Champagne Room) is a parody of Everybody’s Free, and it provides a nice sharp-edged end to the song’s story. “Nobody goes to Hooters for the wings,” Rock tells us. “Don’t go to parties with metal detectors.” And the only guaranteed, 100% sound piece of advice there is:

Here's a horoscope for everyone:
Aquarius: You're gonna die
Capricorn: You're gonna die
Gemini: You're gonna die TWICE

Quick quips; lightning

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“Hello babies. Welcome to earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies —:
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

“When you’re in a band, sometimes you’re on lead, and sometimes you’re on tambourine. And if you’re on tambourine, play it right. Play it with a fucking smile, because no one wants to see a mad tambourine player.”
Chris Rock

Thank you for reading issue number 52 of Get Wit Quick, a weekly separation of pomp from circumstance. Is there such a thing as solicited advice? Chris Rock has dispensed so much wisdom, they even made a Chris Rock Wisdom Generator. Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting makes a great grad gift. Before you throw your hat in the air, tap the ♥️ below.