We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the flyer for a maid service that disappeared into a massive pile of papers is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when to deviate from traditional wedding-reception music.
Sarah Butcher writes via Facebook: "At our recent wedding, my husband and I tried very hard to take all of your music advice. But we still somehow ended up having a first dance to Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's 'Jackson' and ended the night by leading a singalong to The Mountain Goats' No Children.' Clearly, our marriage is doomed. Care to ruminate on situationally appropriate and inappropriate music for weddings — and advice on how to break the rules?"
I'm on the record as believing that weddings are for guests as much as the betrothed — that they're not the place for you to showcase your eclectic musical tastes, that they're for dancing, and so on. This is one of a long list of standard suggestions I give when asked for wedding advice, alongside "Skimp on flowers," "Don't skimp on photography," and "Don't actually get married." (But I kid!)
But this question is different, in several ways. For one, when you say "inappropriate wedding music," you're not talking about inadvertently inappropriate wedding music, a topic NPR Music tackled at great and uproarious length a few years back. It's one thing to blissfully sway along to "Every Breath You Take" because no one could be bothered to consult a lyric sheet before playing it. It's another entirely to decide that, to hell with it, you're going to play... wait, really? You played The Mountain Goats' "No Children" at your wedding? For those who don't know the song, let me recite the first few lines. I'm doing this entirely from memory, people:
I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a failsafe plot to piss off the dumb few that forgave us
I hope the fences we mended fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it's already too late
All of which leads, of course, to a chorus of, "I hope you die! I hope we both die!" This is, no lie, one of my favorite songs of all time, but at a wedding? At least you played it at the end of the night — after, I'm guessing, all but the rowdiest and most fatalistic diehards remained.
But that leads me to the second way that your question deviates from the usual issues surrounding "appropriateness" of wedding music. If you were leading a singalong rather than playing a dark song strictly for your own benefit and/or amusement — if it's a song most people there knew, and it was fun and cathartic moment for everyone — then what's the harm? When you write about "advice on how to break the rules," I think you've already hit upon the formula: It's fine to break the rules if it's a moment that people genuinely enjoy, and if it's a moment that's true to who you are.
Yes, weddings are for the guests — they're a party in which you're the entertainment. But if you and your guests love The Mountain Goats and loved the moment, then you did right by them, right by yourselves, and right by the reality of how many marriages end. Truthfully, though, I like your odds.