Sometimes, looking back closely at singles that have found stellar commercial success around the world can leave one scratching their heads, but there has to be some sort of deductive reasoning behind the hits.
Back in the late-'90s, the man behind 2022's ELVIS biopic, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, released the song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” a slowed-down, 7-minute spoken-word piece that sounded like, for all accounts, a high school valedictorian's final words to their classmates.
The track made a lasting impression around the globe, eventually landing in the ears of a young Avery Trufelman via the album NOW That’s What I Call Music Volume 2. For over 20 years, Trufelman has applied the song’s advice to her daily life: “Wear sunscreen… be nice to your siblings… do one thing every day that scares you.” But for you, like Trufelman, it may make no sense that such a single found the massive commercial success that it did. This week, Switched On Pop investigates the song’s many architects — novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, and Baz Luhrmann himself — to unpack one of the internet’s first conspiracy theories that turned into Billboard’s greatest outlier.
"Usually if I'm by myself, or on my bike, or just feeling contemplative," Trufelman says, "my mantra, my chant for my whole life has been 'Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)' by Baz Luhrmann." Avery adds that she has been listening to the song since a very early age, "because when I was on a family vacation in Florida, my mom and dad brought me into a Virgin Records and said, 'You could pick out one CD.' I was kid, I think I had like three CDs in my collection, I didn't know what I liked." They peeled the NOW That’s What I Call Music Volume 2 disc out of a bin, thinking it was a great place for her to start listening. She remembers it as "the most cutting edge, modern music mixtape... a phenomenal mix, really really great, and it ended, shockingly, with 'Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)'... which is just barely a song. I mean it's a poem, it's a poem to music and it blew my mind. In a weird way it was almost a proto-podcast; I hadn't listened to anything like that before. I listened to it constantly... I basically had committed it to memory, and it's a nice little shorthand because I just have this amazing cache of wisdom that I can dispense at any time."
The tracks words were crafted by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mary Schmich, whom host Nate Sloan had spoken with about her involvement. "I was on my third column of the week" she recalls, while walking on her way to her office at the Chicago Tribune, when she saw a young woman sunbathing. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I hope she's wearing sunscreen because I didn't at that age, and it shows. I think I was 42 then." She adds, "I was laughing at myself because I had reached an age where all I wanted to do was deliver advice to young people." As for the song's creator, Nate also spoke with Luhrmann about his love for music, remembering how the song simply should not have happened, but the filmmaker wanted to get his hands dirty in music production. "In the end, her observations, you know, 'do one thing every day that scares you,' those ideas in the commencement speech were relevant and meaningful and touched everyone," he admits. Luhrmann eventually got permission to record the article and mashed it up with the song "Everybody's Free" a U.K. dancefloor hit that he reinterpreted for his Romeo + Juliet soundtrack.
Listen to the full episode to hear just how "Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” cemented its place in music history now on Switched On Pop, a podcast all about the making and meaning of popular music with musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding as they pull back the curtain on how pop hits work magic on our ears and our culture.
While you're in the mood, browse and favorite more of your favorite music on Audacy's all-new The 90s, New Wave Mix Tape, '90s and Chill, Punk Party, Alt Now, Drivin' Alt, Alterna 00s, and ALT Roots stations -- plus check out our talent-hosted Kevan Kenney's Music Discovery, Megan Holiday's My So Called '90s Playlist, and Scott Lowe on the Go's Post Modern Music Box!