This is how we do it
This week, a weirdly snarky little Times piece and an Idolator follow-up both wondered about the plight of the wedding DJ; a Wall Street Journal article did the same thing a year ago. Seems like more and more couples these days are deciding to forgo the wedding DJ altogether and just play some playlist they slapped together on an iPod. Well, of course they are. As far as the whole wedding-industrial complex goes, the DJ is probably the least essential cog, and I have to wonder whether DJs are starting to feel like the flesh-and-blood tollbooth operators who must be realizing that it’s only a matter of time before the machines replace them completely. Maybe that’s a bad thing. In the WSJ article and the Idolator interview, DJs make the point that iPods can’t read people’s reactions or artfully manipulate moods. Here’s one DJ, as quoted in the WSJ piece: “DJs can think on the fly and make adjustments. The whole idea of a party is that it’s fluid. It’s dynamic. It’s an art.” Fair enough, but I’ve never heard a wedding DJ that treats it like an art. And maybe it shouldn’t be an art; these guys need to be as nakedly crowd-pleasing as possible, and they’re dealing with impossibly wide spans of ages and backgrounds at virtually every event. A good club DJ can create peaks and valleys, move moods around, build everything up to a massive cathartic climax. Wedding DJs don’t get to do stuff like that; they’re just trying to keep as many people happy as possible. Still, I’ve never seen a wedding DJ display even the most basic aptitude for transitions or crowd-appraisal. Still, I like the idea that there’s an actual person picking the songs, keeping everything moving and making sure that dead spots don’t come too often. I’m getting married in about a month and a half, and the question of whether to hire a DJ or not has been a tough one.
The biggest problem with a DJ is that the average wedding DJ will shoot for cheese at any possible opportunity, at least in my experience. At one friend’s wedding, the groom gave the DJ a list of songs, and the DJ still managed a few moments of cluelessness, playing a godawful Euro-club remixes of some songs rather than the requested originals. But an iPod playlist can be just as perilous. This past weekend, I went to a wedding where the couple did the playlist thing and took some big risks in the process. It worked out: the floor never really cleared out, not even when Pavement came on. But that doesn’t mean that those same decisions would work in every situation. I’ve been trying to put together a playlist, and it’s a pretty tough job, since I don’t want to alienate anyone. Motown might keep everyone happy, but you can’t just play Motown all night. Questions arise: Will “Ante Up” scare my grandma? Do enough people know “New York Groove” that the floor won’t totally empty? How much early-90s dancepop is too much? How can I work in “International Players Anthem”? “Once in a Lifetime”? “No Diggity”? “Paradise City”? “Hey Ma”? Suddenly, a wedding DJ’s job doesn’t seem quite so easy.
We eventually decided to take a sort of middle ground. We’re hiring a DJ, but we’re burning him a bunch of CDs and telling him to only play those songs, preferably in the order we give him. I don’t know the guy or anything, but he seems decent enough on the phone. That I’m a music critic and that a bunch of my friends are music critics makes me more tense about this whole arrangement than I probably should be, like I’ll never be able to show my face in public again if he slips “The Chicken Dance” in there. None of it will matter in the end, of course. Everyone’s going to get drunk and have an awesome time and I’ll be so surrounded with my favorite people that I probably won’t even notice the music too much. But obsessing about this stuff is sort of what I do, and I’m willing to do anything I can to get this whole thing as close to the idealized image that I’ve already got in my head. If at least ten people in formal wear bug out when “We Takin’ Over” comes on, I’ll feel like I did this thing right.