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Sunscreen, Vonnegut and the Internet

every six months or so the story arrives in my email. It is a copy of the commencement address that Kurt Vonnegut gave at M. I. T. in June of 1998.

It is a great address. It is very clever. It is inspirational. I encourage you to read it.

And, then, as now . . . it is a hoax.

Kurt didn't write it. Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist and Brenda Starr writer, wrote the speech. In her column, published June 1, 1997, Schmich fantasized about giving a commencement address. Then her fantasy address was disassociated from her name and associated with Kurt. It was originally attributed as the address of 1997. It has recently been recast as the address of 1998.

Apparently, even Vonnegut's wife, Jill Krementz, fell victim to the hoax, gleefully forwarding the message to family and friends (according to an article at About.com).

Then it became a song.

"everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" went through heavy rotation on stations nationwide. The 4 minute cut features a very square-sounding man speaking the lyrics over a hip-hop rhythm track.

Whoever began circulating the hoax (he's known as "Culprit Zero") started a pyramid across the internet. Like much on the internet it seemed believable, and it carries an implied authenticity it is "printed". It spread like wildfire. Among the recipients was a friend of Australian film director Baz Luhrmann who passed it on to him.

Luhrmann, 35, is best known for two films "Strictly Ballroom," about competitive dancing, and a 1996 remake of "Romeo and Juliet," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Luhrmann tried to find Vonnegut's (or his agent's) -mail address to buy the rights to the words and include it on a CD he was working on at the time. Instead, he found information debunking the hoax.

"It seemed to us, whether Vonnegut wrote it or not, the ideas in the piece make such great sense."  (Luhrmann, Capitol press release.)

He eventually contacted Schmich, then Tribune management, and bought rights to the column. A song was born. As for royalties, Schmich gets a small cut; the Tribune gets a bigger one.

The cover of a recent issue of Hits, a radio and music industry trade magazine, notes that the song, off the Baz Luhrmann album "Something for everybody," has been added to the playlist of New York Top 40 station WHTZ, sharing space on Z100's hit chart with Cher, Third eye Blind and Bon Jovi. Luhrmann's label, Capitol Records, says it is the most requested song on radio morning shows in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Not bad for a song that was written as a newspaper column, then became an internet hoax.


Sunscreen, Vonnegut and the Internet --- The TextSunscreen, Vonnegut and the Internet The Text: The full text of the "speech". (SunscreenText)

Chicago Tribune  (01.Jun.1997), "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young"Chicago Tribune  (01.Jun.1997) , "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young": The original column that started it all  (chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/0,1122,SAV-9706010178,00.html )

Chicago Tribune  (03.Aug.1997), "Vonnegut? Schmich? Who Can Tell in Cyberspace?"Chicago Tribune  (03.Aug.1997) , "Vonnegut? Schmich? Who Can Tell in Cyberspace?": The follow-up column. (chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/0,1122,SAV-9708030176,00.html)

Chicago Tribune  (08.Aug.1997), "Her Last Web Word Might Be 'Rosewater'"Chicago Tribune  (08.Aug.1997) , "Her Last Web Word Might Be 'Rosewater'": Mary Schmich's second follow-up column. (chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/0,1122,SAV-9708080101,00.html)

Wired News  (04.Aug.1997), "'Vonnegut Speech' Circulates on Net"Wired News  (04.Aug.1997) , "'Vonnegut Speech' Circulates on Net"   (www.wired.com/news/news/culture/story/5762.html)

kurt.vonnegut@mit.edu or "Is Vonnegut that excited about sunscreen?"kurt.vonnegut@mit.edu or "Is Vonnegut that excited about sunscreen?": A Kurt Vonnegut fan site on the hoax.  (www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/mit_hoax.html)

kurt.vonnegut@mit.edu or "Is Vonnegut that excited about sunscreen?"the vOnnegUt web: A Kurt Vonnegut fan site, home page.  (www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut)

Washington Post  (18.Mar.1999), "'The Cyber-Saga of the 'Sunscreen' Song"Washington Post  (18.Mar.1999) , "'The Cyber-Saga of the 'Sunscreen' Song": How an Internet hoax became a hit song. (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/features/daily/march99/etc)

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