- - Tuesday, June 4, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s graduation season again. Time for speeches and advice from famous and not-so-famous commencement speakers. Graduation is a time to look forward, but also one to look back. Over 20 years ago this spring, a newspaper column that doubled as advice for graduating seniors completed an improbable journey. It was a trek that saw the article turn into many different things: An early viral Internet sensation, a spoken-word song created by an Academy Award-nominated director and, finally, a smash hit radio sensation in the spring of 1999.

More than two decades later, the touching and deeply honest advice contained within the Chicago Tribune column, as well as the story behind how it became the most unusual of successes, remains compelling. In the spring of 1997, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Mary Schmich wrote a column that would eventually become the “sunscreen song.”

Stating that “Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out,” Ms. Schmich proceeded to offer her version of a graduation speech. What followed was a mix of sensible and caring suggestions: “Wear sunscreen.” “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.” But Ms. Schmich also unspooled timeless truths:

“Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.”

Calming words that rang true in the politically divisive ‘90s remain so in our fractured world of 2019:



“Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders. Respect your elders.”

In an introduction to her 2008 book “Wear Sunscreen: A Primer for Real Life,” Ms. Schmich recounted the creation of what would become an iconic column. She saw a young woman in her 20s sunbathing. “I hope that woman’s wearing sunscreen,” the columnist thought. From that, she had an idea: “Okay, so no one had invited me to be a graduation speaker. Why not pretend?”

The column ran on June 1, 1997 and that seemed to be the end of it. Until, two months later, it became one of the Internet’s first viral sensations. In her book introduction, Ms. Schmich explained:

“On a Friday in August, I learned that some unknown person at some unknown time for some unknown reason had stripped my name off my mock graduation speech — which was posted on the Tribune’s website — and sent it into cyberspace. Out in the vast ungoverned cyberfrontier, a different, legendary name was attached: Kurt Vonnegut.”

Vonnegut was the famous author of notable novels such as “Slaughterhouse Five.” But he was not the writer of the “sunscreen” column. It may have not been the first case of “fake news” on the Internet, but it certainly previewed things to come. As the misidentified column rocketed around the web, Mr. Vonnegut had to repeatedly tell people he didn’t write it. However, the legendary writer called the column “funny and wise and charming.” He told The New York Times: “I would have been proud had the words been mine.”

Soon, the column and the story behind it had grabbed the attention of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, the director behind “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” Using Australian actor Lee Perry, Luhrmann turned the graduation advice into a spoken word song. In the spring of 1999, it became an unlikely radio hit. Amongst all the pop songs of that year, Ms. Schmich’s work unspooled advice over radio stations across America. The song peaked at number 10 on the adult top 40. On VH1, it became a popular music video on heavy rotation.

In a brief interview, I asked Ms. Schmich if she foresaw the impact of the column. She responded: “No way. The Internet was new and few of us understood its power to transmit words so fast and all over the world. The fact that a moviemaker — people with more cultural capital than us lowly journalists — turned it into a song also propelled it in a way no one could have imagined.”

So, 20 years later, after fake news about its authorship, a hit song and a music video, why has this column endured? To me, it’s the mix of the practical and the profound. The practical can be found in sentences like this one:

“Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.”

The profound can be seen in the wise and deeply humble conclusion:

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth. But trust me on the sunscreen.”

Perhaps the reason the column and the song have endured is simple: Honest, thoughtful, caring advice is timeless. We needed it in the 1990s and we need it even more in 2019. I put the question to Ms. Schmich and she replied with that same humility: “I like to think it’s because it carries some small truths, but who knows?” Either way, good advice, like the “sunscreen song,” endures.

Scott Whitlock is the associate editor for NewsBusters.org.

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