Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Do’s and dont’s of wedding songs, why Adele sucks, and the evils of remix dances

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Dear Matt,
I recently got engaged and am getting married next spring (yay!). But I need your help. What song should the new husband and I dance to at the celebration of our nuptials in front of friends and family? As an avid reader, I know you have good taste in music. Plus, this is THE song choice of song choices. My decision on this will live with me for the rest of my life. Any suggestions? A couple things to keep in mind: young children will be present so please keep it PG; and anything involving Gangnam Style, The Chicken Dance, or the words “Flo Rida” is a non-starter. Thanks a million! – Amanda

This is a question I often hear when counseling premarital couples at Five Love Languages Seminars. Music is obviously important. As Auden said, “Music is the best means we have of digesting time.” And no time tends to freeze itself as indelibly as the minutes that comprise the first dance at your wedding. The gooey advice columnist in me would like to tell you to dance like nobody is watching. But the calculating realist in me is sad to report that in fact, lots of people will be. So don’t get drunk or nervous, trip on your train, and go sprawling on the parquet. Or six of your so-called friends will have your humiliation uploaded to YouTube before you can even cut the cake. Such is the current nature of things. We are all stalkarazzi now.

I will therefore give you a do’s and don’t’s framework in selecting a first-dance song, a menu of first-dance philosophies and song selections from which you can make an informed decision:

Don’t select any Chris Brown numbers, unless the values you want to celebrate at your wedding are bad taste and wife-beating. Specifically that bane of every “viral” wedding, Brown’s tune “Forever,” which started the showboat wedding-dance production. Just as bad are those awful “remix” dances, the ones that require the couple to begin with something slow and staid, until a newer, funkier song comes on. At which time you and your groom pull sunglasses from your bridal cleavage, and prove what horrible sheeple you are, as you obediently sniff the anal pheromones of the throngs of halfwits who have preceded you, all of whom upload videos of themselves gyrating like asses on the most important day of their lives. It wasn’t funny the first time. It’s much less funny by the ten thousandth. If you’re contemplating any song that requires choreography, don’t.

Do go with a big band over a DJ if you can possibly afford it. It’s not a necessity. It’s just a nice touch. I’m (unfortunately) not getting a kickback on this, but if you’re in the region, I suggest hiring my friend Eric Felten and his orchestra. Felten has what every memorable big-band leader needs: good hair. He’s also a silken vocalist who plays a wicked trombone. The benefit of hiring his ilk is a sort of look beyond the first dance to the rest of the reception. As it’s not just about the music he’ll play (everything from Duke Ellington to Bobby Darin to Harry James), but it’s about what he won’t play. None of those make-your-ears-bleed wedding groaners like “Old Time Rock’n’Roll” or “Celebration” — the dog-whistle cue to the unrhythmic, inebriated hordes that it is their time to shine. Yes, your slutty cousin with the neck tattoos in the Lucite heels will likely be disappointed that she can’t put out her mating calls during the Cupid Shuffle line dance. But let her muck up her own wedding with that stuff. She’ll probably have three or four of them, anyway.

Do remember that like a snowflake — no two of which are alike — your first-dance song should be an expression of your individuality. As a modern American, you should be used to the notion of your own specialness, since your mollycoddling teachers and parents have been instilling this in you since you were in Montessori school. So go ahead and pick something that’s a reflection of your taste (assuming your taste is any good). But don’t take that so far that it becomes an act of aggression. It’s fun to pretend that you don’t care what people think. But you obviously do. Which is why you’re paying 100 bucks a head so that your dad’s retired business partner who you’ll never see again can gorge himself on Surf and Turf and drink his weight in single malt scotch. It’s okay to admit to ourselves that we all care, at least somewhat, about what people think of us. You know who doesn’t? Sociopaths. So don’t pick a song like “If My Nose Were Full of Nickels, I’d Blow it All On You,” just to be “interesting.” Do pick a song that means something to you, but nothing that’s licentious, offensive, scatological, profane, or sexually explicit. There’ll be plenty of time for that sort of behavior on the honeymoon.

Don’t play anything by Adele. This dictate doesn’t have much to do with wedding songs, since I wouldn’t expect you to pick one of hers, as most of her compositions seem to be from the John-Hinckley school of stalkerhood — Taylor Swift for the roly-poly set. But I’m gratuitously taking this opportunity to bash the most overpraised singer of this generation (Time magazine decided the woman, who once said that the Spice Girls “made me what I am today,” is one of the most influential people in the world. Sadly, they’re probably right.) Adele seems like a perfectly nice girl. Still, I can’t stand that caterwauling cow. As it makes me quarrelsome when moony critics, starved for any blue-eyed soul singer who doesn’t need auto-tuned, unanimously heap superlatives on some mediocrity (she’s Kelly Clarkson, but darker!), deeming her the new Queen of Soul. Blecchhh. Real soul music — the kind that doesn’t need colored contacts, the kind sung by Aretha and Gladys and Linda “What a Man” Lyndell (who oddly, was white, though you’d never know it) — has been dead for almost 40 years. (Adele was born in 1988, and she isn’t bringing it back.) Yes, Adele has presence, and her songs have a bit of urgency. But so does gastrointestinal distress. And both G.I. disorders and Adele songs make me want to run for the loo, as her people say. Aidan Moffat, in the British music magazine, The Quietus, probably put it best, describing Adele’s hit “Someone Like You” as sounding “like it was penned by a rom-com robot for a new Haagan Dazs-sponsored Girls Night In compilation.”

Do stay classic. About one out of two American marriages end in divorce, and the average duration of those is eight years. So goose your odds of success and pick a song that’s lasted longer. Nearly anything from the Sinatra songbook will do. Though my favorite Sinatra tunes are “The Summer Wind” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” (not at all wedding songs), my friend, The Cool Refresher, went with “Witchcraft” at his wedding, which works nicely. From the same family, you might consider Tony Bennett’s version of the 1947 Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne gem “Time after Time.” And if you want a more muted version of that, go with Chet Baker’s cover. Also hard to beat: John Coltrane’s and Johnny Hartman’s 1963 version of the 1952 song (first recorded by Sinatra) “My One and Only Love.”

If it’s less sleepy you’re after, and you want earthier and dirtier, do go with classic soul music (as opposed to the faux Adele version). Big, bad, gravel-voiced singers are your friend. If I come back in another life, and in that life, I can sing, I hope to sound like Wilson Pickett in what would be a pretty choice first-dance song. It’s named, straight-forwardly enough, “I’m in Love.”  Recorded by Pickett in 1968, it was written by Bobby Womack after he was criticized for marrying Sam Cooke’s widow shortly after Cooke was shot in the chest at the age of 33. (Aretha did a soaring version of the same. It’s easy to forget, in her current incarnation, how there was a time when every version of every song Aretha Franklin used to sing was worth listening to. Try on her version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” for starters.)

While we’re on the ladies, you might as well consider LaVern Baker’s swinging, smoldering first release for Atlantic Records (1953), “Soul On Fire.” If you want a lost treasure, and don’t mind getting accused of ripping off the 2010 Blue Valentine soundtrack which rediscovered it, try Penny and the Quarters “You and Me,” which to my ears, has a riff similar to that of the Isley Brother’s “This Old Heart of Mine,” also useable if you don’t mind going way up-tempo. (It’s technically an unrequited love song, but nobody will hear the difference.) If you want to slow it way down, Curtis Mayfield’s “So In Love” is in my hall of fame.

There are any number of more contemporary songs that would work. Since I’ve already gone on long enough, I won’t include them. Doing so would require me to lyric-check for wedding appropriateness. The trick, I think, even if you pick something newish is for it to sound like it’s already logged some years. You want a song that comes sturdy and well-crafted, that can weather the storms, much as you hope your marriage will. To that end, if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably go with the perfect song, Tom Waits’s “Picture in a Frame.” It’s a song that arrived ageless. It could’ve worked a hundred years ago, and it will work one hundred years from now. The only problem with using it, for my purposes, was it arrived in 1999, five years after I was already married. That’s unfortunate for me and my wife, for whom it would’ve represented the perfect embodiment of our eternal love. Which is why I’m keeping it in my back pocket. My trophy wife, once she’s finally born, will probably love it, too.

What did I actually pick, in case you’re curious? As memory serves, I wanted to go with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home To Me,” one of the yearningest, burningest soul songs of all time (the infectious yeah-yeah call-and-response on the chorus being sung by Lou Rawls). Though if you really drill down into the lyrics, the song is about a man trying to convince his woman to come home after leaving him. Probably not the best choice for a first-dance song. So unbeknownst to me, my wife swapped it out for Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways.”

This last is a lovely little underplayed gem. Though she caught me by surprise on the dance floor during our wedding. I must’ve looked stumped, because she said, “Remember, we slow danced to this in my room.” She might’ve been right. I don’t remember, as I’d made it to her room, and thus, had other plot points occupying my concentration. But I nodded in recognition of our shared history, hoping to make a lot more of it. I pulled her in by the small of her back, grabbed her hand, and swept her across the floor. Or at least I awkwardly shuffled her across the floor, since I’m not much of a dancer. Which leads me to our last do/don’t. Don’t dance (if you’re a straight man) unless you absolutely have to. But you do kind of have to first-dance at your own wedding. So if your spouse swaps out the perfect song for a song they think is more perfect, do pretend like it’s not a big deal. If it all goes right, you’ll be together forever. Plenty of time to even the score.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.