In Chicago's rich journalistic history, newspaper columns have nailed corrupt politicians, freed innocent prisoners and won Pulitzer Prizes. Not until this month, however, had one cracked the Billboard Hot 100 pop music charts.
Tribune columnist Mary Schmich's June 1, 1997, column certainly has had a unique afterlife.
It began as an imagined, whimsical commencement speech in which Schmich offered nuggets of wisdom such as "Wear sunscreen," "Sing" and "Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours."
Months later the column was making national news as a particularly strange Internet phenomenon: Someone had posted it in cyberspace billed as a commencement speech delivered by author Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was enthusiastically circulated among e-mailers so identified until Vonnegut graciously declined credit and the true author was revealed.
One on-line fan of the column was Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann ("William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," "Strictly Ballroom"), who was preparing a compilation album of reinterpretations of songs featured in his movies and stage productions. He contacted Schmich and the Tribune about licensing her words, and soon Australian voice actor Lee Perry was reading the column with fatherly authority over a relaxed dance track to create the novelty tune "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)."
Luhrmann's album, "Something for Everybody," was released in Australia in late 1997, and the song became popular Down Under. The album came out in the U.S. last April but received scant attention until a couple of months ago, when a Portland, Ore., radio station edited the seven-minute song down to five minutes and began playing it.
"Everybody's Free" has since become a modern-day radio rarity: a regional hit that gradually spreads across the country. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 61 two weeks ago and this week is No. 52 "with a bullet." The album bowed at No. 125 two weeks ago and shot up to No. 78 this week.
Chicago discovered the song late, but it has begun receiving airplay on WTMX-FM, WQKX-FM and WXRT-FM. Perry is scheduled to perform it on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on April 8.
After years of being "a closet songwriter," Schmich has written a hit without even trying.
"I get some peculiar satisfaction out of feeling that I have reached one of my hidden goals circuitously and totally accidentally," she said.
She also inadvertently has become a content provider for the kind of media cross-pollination defining late '90s culture.
"One of the biggest trends happening is the concept of fusion," said Connecticut-based futurist Watts Wacker, author of "The 500-Year Delta." "What you have (here) is something that was written for the newspaper industry colliding with the music industry."
Luhrmann, communicating by e-mail from Australia's Outback, said the collision of words and modern communications provided inspiration for his project.
"Over the last five years, I have been exploring with my team the idea of language having a new lease of life, partly because of the changing landscape with things like the Internet, but also because we live in a moment of great change where . . . the search for meaning, understanding and where we are going moves to the top of the zeitgeist agenda," he said.
Yet, he noted, such a merger wouldn't work if the words themselves didn't carry an impact.
"Even before we released our recorded version some 18 months ago, it was clear that Mary's simple observations had a very strong effect on all who read them," Luhrmann said. "All Anton Monsted and I did as the producing team was find a musical interpretation that revealed the ideas in a different medium."
What the column's strange journey has revealed is how differently words can resonate in various contexts.
"The newspaper is a great place to create but really not all that great a place to communicate when you compare it to the power of the Internet or the radio," said Schmich, whose column also became a one-sentence-per-page hardback book last year: "Wear Sunscreen: A Primer for Real Life" (Andrews McMeel Publishing). "There's something about music as a vehicle to contain other life, other ideas, that makes it, I think, the most potent form of communication that exists."
As for her take on the song: "My first response was to be startled by it, but I've really come to appreciate it for its power to communicate. I like the music that it's set over. It's a little too '70s or '80s or something for me, but I think there are some melodic strains in it that do have this emotionalpull, that add to the words."
Amnon Wolman, an associate professor of music composition at Northwestern University, agreed that music connects on a different level than the printed word.
"The thing about music is that we listen to it differently than we listen to text," said Wolman, who has set excerpts of "The Andy Warhol Diaries" to techno music. "Music communicates, but one of the nice things about it is that it's not clear what and how it communicates. Words are not that clear, butmusic is even less clear."
To Luhrmann, the difference between reading and hearing words parallels that between reading a play or seeing it performed.
"If you read a Shakespeare play, you can have an extremely powerful response to it, but my observation is that the experience tends to be more cerebral, focusing on the intellectual notions," Luhrmann said. "If someone comes along and enlivens your imagination by interpreting that Shakespearean play with actors, music and visual language, then you can in general receive a higher emotional reaction and, depending on how good those elements are, perhaps experience a greater sense of emotion and the poetic resonance.
"On the other hand, if they are bad actors and rotten music, best stick to reading the Bard over a cup of coffee on your own."
Although she could be the only Grammy-eligible columnist, Schmich said the gulf between column writing and songwriting is not as wide as some might think.
"I think that a good column, like a good song, relies on rhythm, uses hooks, may use repetition in a way that's similar to the way that songs use repetition," she said, calling the word "sunscreen" the column/song's hook. "And there's an economy of language that I think a column forces on a writer that very few other forms of writing force. A column isn't as economical as a song, but along the continuum of writing forms, it's approaching it."
Schmich noted she's not exactly getting rich from the fluke hit. Nor is the Tribune, which owns the column. Associate Editor Joe Leonard said the newspaper receives 5 percent of the song's royalties from Capitol Records and gives Schmich a cut. But because "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" is just one of 17 album tracks and has not been issued as a single, the Tribune's earnings amount to 1/17th of 5 percent of album sale profits.
As for whether the song will bring her own musical career out of the closet, Schmich said, "I have many songs waiting to be discovered, but they will never be discovered because I'm not printing them in my columns, and I won't sing them. Unfortunately, I can't sing."Copyright © 2015, RedEye