Regrettably, the most memorable opinion columns tend to be the most vile. They do it on purpose, you know.
The internet never forgets, but it tends to remember the awful and the controversial for far longer than the poignant and wonderful.
Yet, 25 years ago, on June 1 1997, an opinion column was published that I’m going to go out on a limb and call the most famous one ever written – and it wasn’t vile or awful or controversial in the least.
Packed full of positivity, inspiration and tough but fair love, the piece was called “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young”. You might not recognise the headline, but I’m sure you know a sentence or two that comes after. Because this column isn’t just famous: it’s a rockstar.
In 1998, Australian director Baz Luhrmann – presumably bored between Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! – decided to set this comment piece to music and release it. He named the track Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and it became such a hit that you’ll probably be able to hear this next line as you read it: “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ‘99: wear sunscreen.”
From newspaper to number one
Using voice actor Lee Perry on the record perpetuated the popular myth that Kurt Vonnegut was responsible for the words, but he wasn’t. The real writer was a Chicago Tribune columnist called Mary Schmich.
She was actually addressing the class of ‘97 in her take on a university commencement speech but, other than the date tweak and a few dropped introductory pars, Wear Sunscreen is a newspaper column brought to life, word-for-word.
Luhrmann’s song was a hit all across Europe, and eventually reached number one in the UK and Ireland, embedding itself thoroughly. More than 10 years later, I clearly remember referencing it in a cheesy Facebook post on the day of my university graduation. A few more passed before I learned who the song’s surprising lyricist was.
Mary Schmich was still a regular columnist until June last year. She wrote columns for The Chicago Tribune for 29 years, and won a Pulitzer Prize for them in 2012. She’s 68 now.
Writing that deserves to be savoured and celebrated
Love it or loathe it, the superb thing about Wear Sunscreen is that it has kept Schmich’s funny, charming, heartbreaking, insightful piece of work in our minds, on and off, for more than two decades.
The bittersweet, ever-evolving nature of the news beast is that even the most fantastic of columns often burn brilliantly bright and then slowly fade away – apart from the aforementioned vile, awful ones, unfortunately.
You can still read Mary Schmich’s original 1997 column in full online. I’d love to know how many times it’s visited every month, week, day. I bet it’s a lot.
If only one opinion column in history will ever reach such heights, I’m glad it was this one
I go back to the piece (and the song) fairly often, though I don’t really need to. I know it off by heart. I’ve witnessed bits of it read at wedding ceremonies, and put up on walls. I mentioned it in my interview for this job.
I’ve even been known to give bits of Schmich’s advice out like they’re my own. She said it better than I ever could.
And, as I’ve grown, some sections mean more than others. “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.” That one resonates differently since a global pandemic crept up behind and tapped us on the collective shoulder.
A little voice has long told me, "When it's time to go, you'll know." It's time. I leave the @chicagotribune with deep gratitude for my colleagues, the Tribune readers and the people whose stories have helped me understand the world. https://t.co/j8k6wgoLFI
— Mary Schmich (@MarySchmich) June 19, 2021
The writing is phenomenal, relatable and timeless which is, of course, why Luhrmann immortalised it, and why everybody bought his record. It deserved to be savoured and celebrated. And, if only one opinion column in history will ever reach such heights, I’m glad it was this one.
Like I said, it’s a rockstar. But so many of them are, including those which pass over my desk every day. I wish they could all be remembered so well.
Alex Watson is Head of Comment for The Press & Journal, and a big believer in the benefits of SPF