Why Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ is More Apt than Ever Before
Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind…’ Why Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ is More Apt than Ever Before
It feels like, now more than ever, that some notion of pre-pandemic life is within reach. With shops, bars, pubs and salons opening again we are able to return to some sort of social life. We can physically interact again, and despite not knowing whether to approach a friend with arms wide open for an enveloping hug, or a tentative elbow raised for an elbow to elbow ‘fist bump,’ it does really feel that the lonely isolation-filled days of lockdown are truly behind us. Yet I know that I am not alone when I say that there are frequent times, particularly when I dwell too much on both the near and quite distant future, that I am filled with a buzzing hum of anxiety that I can’t quite put my finger on. If the pandemic has taught me anything it is that life really is very unpredictable, that you can plan and anticipate to your hearts content but there will always be things and moments that have the power to completely override those meticulously made plans. It is hard to make definitive plans right now as, at any time, new waves, new variants or new government guidelines could be announced. How and what can our futures pan out to be if we are constantly living with this level of worry about what the future will hold? It is during these moments of anxiety that I turn to music and spoken word for comfort, in particular Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’.
The predominant basis of the song is an essay written as a hypothetical commencement speech by the columnist Mary Schmich and was originally published in June 1997. The essay gives various pieces of advice on how to live a supposedly happy life. The facets of advice range from the menial, ‘Don’t mess too much with your hair,’ to the profound, ‘Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind/ The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself.’ Film director Baz Luhrmann, best known for his Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), took the essay and transformed it into a single that reached number one in the United Kingdom. The speech itself is narrated by the vocal actor Lee Perry and is set to the choral version of ‘Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good) by Rozalla, a song that was used in Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. The single received mixed reviews upon its release. Many people thought it was rather kitsch and tacky, ‘a DIY pop landmark for the end of the self-help decade’ (James Oldman NME), and was the inspiration of multiple parodies. However, the first time I listened to the track, the heartfelt sincerity of the words shone through and it has stayed with me ever since. Lockdown was a time of intense isolation and loneliness and it felt as if any notion of ‘self-help’ was the only source of comfort and motivation. Lockdown created an environment in which we had to look within ourselves as it was far easier than reaching out. To this day, I feel the humanity and the humility of the simple but effective words, words that truly incapsulate the messiness of what it means to be human. They are words that encourage us to take a deep breath in and reexamine what it is that we can control and can’t control within our own lives. It is a song about surrendering to the messiness and unpredictability that is thrown our way and an attempt to find moments of beauty and comfort within ourselves and through our connections with others.
The song opens with the importance of wearing ‘sunscreen.’ Framed within the narrative of a public health announcement, Lee Perry’s booming voice relays just how vital wearing sunscreen is. This fact is undisputed in its universality. It seems like such an obvious piece of advice, yet as Perry continues to speak we become aware of what the rest of the track will address, ‘Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.’ The song begins to touch upon the bizarre and chaotic nature of the experience of living, yet it does so in such a human way. The very words themselves incapsulate what it means to be human, to live a life that is often messy and chaotic, full of nuance and contradiction. It is obvious that this type of song would lend itself to parodying; that the glib cynics within us label it preachy, lumbering and obvious, with one harsh critic condemning it as ‘so bloody non-committal’(Tom Ewing, Freaky Trigger). Yet to me, it has a degree of heightened awareness, so much so that it moves beyond the realms of the tacky self-help song and becomes an encapsulation of what it means for somebody to experience life in such an individual and nuanced yet at the same time highly universal way. Towards the end of the final verse, we hear the words,‘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.’
It is this part in particular that resonates; the song is so conscious about what it means to impart wisdom and how that wisdom will be received. The cleverness of the song lies within this self-consciousness. It is aware of what it means to give advice and how that advice will be interpreted and skewed to accommodate simultaneously the universal as well as the singular experience.
This self-consciousness and self-awareness is further found when Lee Perry’s resounding voice states the lines,
‘Remember compliments you receive, forget the insults/If you succeed in doing this, tell me how’
It is because of these moments of heightened humility and awareness, that I find myself able to connect with the words. At the very same time that the song dispenses advice, it aligns itself with the very notion that by being a person means that there is no one way to live a life, no one way to take on advice and utilize it and there is no one way to feel. The song creates a thoughtful space of reflection, where the words themselves simultaneously give guidance yet have an understanding of what it means to be human in a life that is so full of different experiences. It allows for a deliberation upon the chaos, the anxieties and the insecurities that everybody feels at some point or other. It doesn’t attempt to gloss over the parts of being human that we are encouraged to hide on a daily basis, but creates a space in which these parts, these anxieties, worries, fears and apprehensions can be reflected upon.
The advice itself is a subtle combination of the quotidian as well as the profound. It is advice that reaches out and seeps into the fabric of what it means to have a very average but happy day as well as touching upon the various profound and life-changing moments that we can experience from time to time. It is this combination that makes it so accessible. Luhrmann structures the track in such a way that allows for moments of the deep and the profound, ‘Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts/ Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours,’ as well as for more lighthearted moments which include reminding us all to ‘Floss’ and ‘Stretch’ and ‘Dance’ and ‘Read the instructions.’ The backing track is layered behind Perry’s voice and starts off as a single steady beat. As the track continues and Perry starts dispensing more heartfelt and more poignant pieces of advice, the backing track subtly starts to become more layered. Soft choral singing which rises and falls, frames the words and lifts them in such a way that they become even more powerful and even more transporting. Just like the nature of the advice given, the backing track subtly ebbs and flows from single instrumental layers to a much more built up sound.
For me, it is a song that celebrates the moderate. It is a song about understanding what it means to have moments of fear and chaos but knowing that they never last. Luhrmann taps into the tension that oscillates between the active control we have and the passivity that comes with certain elements of everyday living, ‘Whatever you do/ don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either/Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s’. Hearing these words offer a certain degree of release. We cannot control everything that happens and there is no point in trying. He also addresses the age old anxiety of attempting to control and understand our futures.
‘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 blindsides you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.’
These are perhaps the most well known and most quoted lines of the whole track and for good reason. Luhrmann likens one of the most profound anxieties that the human race has dealt with since the beginning of existence and likened it to something as quotidian and menial as chewing bubblegum. He translates something so vast, so expansive and intangable into something that we can easily understand and relate to. These lines offer up a sense of surrender, a sense of freedom to live in the present and an attempt to acknowledge that we are all passive beings subject to the passing of time and subject to what the future may hold.
The surge of seemingly disconnected advice, ‘Be kind to your knees/ you’ll miss them when they’re gone,’ or ‘Get to know your parents/ you never know when they’ll be gone for good,’ reaches out and touches both something on the surface as well as something deep within. It celebrates the joy of being moderate and patient, something that I personally find extremely comforting right now as our lives slowly move back to some reflection of normality yet a normality underpinned by a slight hum of nervous anxiety. There is a timeless quality to the track. Whether people find it patronizing, whimsical, tacky or profoundly moving, it gets under our skin and sticks as demonstrated by the fact that it is still popular today and is still quoted. We find ourselves in very strange times right now and nobody knows what will or what can happen in the future. But what we do know, is that it is more important than ever to be kind and moderate with yourself, to understand and listen to your needs and to take the days as they come.