If you finished high school this century, there is a certain violin string opening that will likely forever make your heart sing with recognition and ache with a crushing reminder of your own mortality.
It belongs to Vitamin C’s "Graduation (Friends Forever)," and as those first stirring notes hit that sudden slick beat drop, it's clear: This isn't your parents' commencement.
Released on January 30, 2000, the reckless thrill of having survived Y2K still coursing through a generation’s blood, "Graduation" quickly became the soundtrack for a new millennium. Nearly 20 years later, this classical canon-sampling banger continues to resurge every spring as a fresh batch of seniors flee the hallways for whatever lies beyond.
But everything you may remember about singer Vitamin C is based on a fallacy. Her first name is not, in fact, Vitamin, her hair is not naturally a shade somewhere between Capri Sun and the flame emoji, and she was definitely not a wide-eyed high school senior when she recorded her iconic bop.
She is Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick, and she was a 27-year-old woman when "Graduation" hit the airwaves, having already lived multiple lives as a movie star, NYU student, and grunge rocker.
This is her story.
From ' Hairspray' to Eve's Plum
Born in 1972 in Old Bridge, New Jersey, Fitzpatrick had a relatively uneventful childhood. As the youngest of three children born to a legal secretary and communications exec, her most noteworthy anecdote before 1987 is that she went to high school with the writer Junot Diaz.
Still, she used this period of mid-Atlantic normalcy to hone her dance skills in local TV ads and her writing prowess at her school newspaper. "I always felt like I had something to say, but I didn't quite know how to say it," she told Girl.com.au in 2001. "I was terribly shy growing up but I found that performing, being creative and writing was very helpful."
Her big break came inconveniently (and ironically) at the same time as her high school prom. She missed the dance—no more hanging out cuz we’re on a different track—opting instead to film the 1988 movie version of Hairspray, in which she played Amber Von Tussle opposite Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry as her on-screen parents and Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad.
But rather than book a one-way ticket to Hollywood, Fitzpatrick did four diligent years at NYU, where legend (and Wikipedia) has it she lived in the same dorm as Sarah Silverman. After graduating with a BA in English in 1991, she did what any ambitious Gen Xer would do, and joined an alt-rock band with a college friend.
The group’s name was Eve's Plum, a twist on the actress who played Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch, and they quickly got a record deal with Fitzpatrick serving as frontwoman and pal Michael Kotch and two others providing instrumentals on a bevy of very '90s, very catchy tracks like "I Want It All," "Blue," and "Jesus Loves You (Not as Much as I Do)."
But by 1998, Eve's Plum had dissolved. "It wasn't successful at all, but it taught me a lot of stuff," she told Ben Stein in 2001. "What to do, what not to do, and I was lucky I got a second chance."
The birth of Vitamin C
That second chance came in the form of a sugar-coated popstar alter ego. Within months of Eve's Plum's demise, Fitzpatrick landed a solo deal with Elektra Records and crop-topped, feather-haired Vitamin C was born.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," she told Craig Kilborn of her new moniker in 2000. "I wanted to do something with my first initial, like C+, but that would be average and bad." Instead, she explained, Vitamin C "is good for you. Everyone knows it. Everyone likes it."
Her first single, 1999’s "Smile"—sample lyrics: "Put a smile on your face / make the world a better place / put a smile on your face / (whatcha gonna do, say, whatcha gonna do)"—was certified gold, and her self-titled debut album went on to be a multi-platinum hit, thanks largely to the universal success of its third single, "Graduation (Friends Forever)."
Due to the track’s "heavy" themes, Fitzpatrick didn't expect it to even be a single, but the intoxicating power of nostalgia couldn’t be ignored. "Graduation" charted in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, and Canada, and reached a middling but respectable No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. When she sang, "Suddenly, it's like we're women and men," 16-year-olds around the world felt that to their very core.
But her bubblegum reinvention wasn’t just a superficial persona. As Vitamin C, she continued to co-write many of her songs, and her success allowed her to branch out in unexpected ways. She played a vampire victim in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 and teamed up with Sisqo to cover Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" in teen rom-com Get Over It. She also had what Entertainment Weekly dubbed a "garish" shade of Tommy Hilfiger lipstick, and her own Mattel doll, one of the first to feature a belly button. "Vitamin C gives me almost like a separate identity," she explained at the time.
Perhaps because she was a decade older than contemporaries like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson, Fitzpatrick didn't make many headlines apart from those related to her music. While Spears and Simpson walked carpets with Timberlake and Lachey, Fitzpatrick quietly dated her Eve's Plum bandmate and frequent writing partner Michael Kotch and married him in 2004.
The most destructive thing she did was routinely dye her naturally "dirty-blondish-brown" hair a series of day-glo shades on the road, which she told People meant she "wrecked many a hotel room."
"I think being older I have more control over my career. I know everyone wants to be beautiful, 16, and sexy. But I wonder what happened to being unique and playful and showing a bit of personality?" she told EW. "When I was growing up, artists were all about being different and pushing boundaries. I'm willing to risk failing to try to be different."
Unfortunately, her risks didn't pay off, at least not as a singer in the pop music sphere. After her follow-up album, 2001's More, failed to duplicate her initial success she was dropped by Elektra. And although she found a home at a new label, her next promotional singles didn't perform and a third album was shelved entirely.
As Vitamin C’s stardom began to fade, Fitzpatrick recorded a few one-off songs for various movie soundtracks and began pivoting to behind-the-scenes roles in the entertainment industry, mainly in the teen pop music space. She started two production companies, and in 2007, she assembled girl group The Stunners, launching the careers of a then 14-year-old Tinashe and 16-year-old Hayley Kiyoko. She also wrote on tracks for Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, Emma Roberts on Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous, and Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato's infectious "One and the Same" duet for Disney Channel's Princess Protection Program.
Fitzpatrick’s decades of gaining an intricate understanding of music at every level—from dance backtracks and punk licks to pop hooks and teen bops—led to her most powerful role to date: Vice President of Music at Nickelodeon.
When her veep gig was announced in 2012, The Hollywood Reporter noted her scope included "overseeing all music recording, production and performance for Nickelodeon and its channels," as well as being "in charge of day-to-day A&R and on-site management for recording sessions and video shoots," which sounds incredibly daunting and impressive.
Based in Los Angeles and now 47, Fitzpatrick keeps a low profile outside of her work. She has no public social media presence and didn't respond to VICE's requests for an interview.
Still, her popstar legacy lives on every May when "Graduation (Friends Forever)" once again resurfaces. It's reportedly charted on iTunes every spring since its release, and one college sophomore I polled confirmed the track has been a staple at milestones her entire life.
"Played it at my fifth grade graduation, eighth grade dance and when I graduated high school!" she told me via Instagram message. "Still a bop lol." (Distressingly, several current high schoolers I asked had “never heard of” the song and said none of their friends had either. But there's still time.)
This August, Benny Blanco and Juice WRLD released a breathy, heavily autotuned "Graduation" that interpolates Fitzpatrick’s 2000 classic, dropping the "Friends Forever" subtitle, presumably because the world is ending and we are under no illusion that high school friends will actually last forever.
Its accompanying music video stars a veritable Who's Who of young Hollywood—Hailee Steinfeld, Kaitlyn Dever, Justice Smith, Dove Cameron, Ross Butler—but will this version last decades, outliving its artists' monikers like Fitzpatrick's did? Doubtful.
"I think that when you write a song, you always have the hope that it means as much to people as it does to you, but it's never a given," Fitzpatrick told InStyle in 2017. "It's [about] how one door closes and another opens… The world sort of turns upside down, and you're onto the next phase of your life."
As our lives change, come whatever, we’ll still have Vitamin C forever.