The Story of Pop: 1999 (Chapter 23)

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Telling the tales behind the hits of the year that bought us the third book in the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling and the TV debut of Bob the Builder, this is The Story of Pop: 1999. This week: the newspaper column turned motivational life speech turned last spoken word chart topper to date…

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Now most people think they know the story behind this week’s 1999 hit. So let us do a bit of common myth scotching, if you will. For this, we have to go back a whole two years, to June 1997.

Mary Schmich, a columnist for the newspaper The Chicago Tribune, was inspired to write her column that week in the style of a graduation commencement speech. Titled ‘Advice: like youth, probably wasted on the young’, in the burgeoning, primitive days of a new fangled thing called the internet, it grew via word of mouth.

Hence the urban legend that persisted for a while that the column was actually a commencement speech given by the author Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (it was nothing of the sort, as Vonnegut himself said he’d never been a commencement speaker there in the first place).

In the column, Schmich had been focussing on a young woman she’d seen in her local park sunbathing, hoping against hope that she was wearing sunscreen, which she reiterated the importance of throughout, followed by a series of other pieces of advice about life choices and decisions to have a happier life. It resonated with a great deal of people, whether they were graduates of high school or college or at a much later stage in their lives.

The column eventually found it’s way to Australian film director Baz Luhrmann, famous at the time for films like Strictly Ballroom and his radical reimagining of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo & Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

On the soundtrack of the latter, there had been a choral version of Rozalla’s dancefloor filler ‘Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)’. It was this which formed the backing to Luhrmann’s version of the speech, with Aussie actor Lee Perry (doing his best jilted US accent) providing the spoken word element, albeit with the opening words now addressing ‘Ladies and gentlemen, of the class of ’99’.

But even for its near cultural ubiquity, ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ was a very niche record. It certainly is hard to imagine any other point in the last 40, let alone 20 years when it might have been a hit. The wave of parodies and mockery surrounding it seemed to arrive as soon as it had gained commercial credence.

But with the dawn of a new millennium, people probably flocked to the words of it for reassurance in a new but confusing age. Call it Y2K bug fever if you will, but the fact it shifted a quarter of a million copies in its first week in the shops ensured it flew to number one – even if it was gone from the chart less than two months later. But if we could offer one tip for this week – it’s revisit ‘Sunscreen’. If only to see how much of the advice given resonates now.

Don’t forget to follow our playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 1999. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments or Tweet us, using the hashtag #StoryofPop1999.

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