The Half Light: The Terrible Pressure of Choosing Wedding Music

Music Features

The task set before me, three weeks out from the biggest day of my life, was to bite the bullet and choose the songs that would score our wedding. I’m supposedly well-schooled in music, but if you ever want to feel like you know a maximum of three or four songs, all of them inappropriate for an audience of friends and family, I highly recommend taking on this responsibility.

When I sat down on my couch to brainstorm, I’ve never felt more painfully aware of my crushing inability to please anyone. Does that sound melodramatic? Maybe. But I couldn’t escape the frustrating sense that there was a perfect song for each moment, and when I couldn’t dream them up in my head, it felt like a sure sign that I’d always be a disappointment as a husband, father, and human being. This blankness—this awkward groping search that would clearly never yield an epiphany—was some sort of black mark against my soul.

As I looked over our schedule, it became clear that two songs were more important than all others:

1. First dance with the new wife
2. Mother-son dance

I could screw up the others, but those had to be perfect. Not only because of the expected poignancy of the moment, but because I am a miserable and stilted dancer, and only the best music could possibly distract everyone’s eyes from the monstrous footwork being performed by the clod on the floor. (This, by the way, is my foremost curse: a father who is tone deaf and rhythm-less, but could care less since he doesn’t like music; a mother who loves music and can sing and dance; and a son who gained the love without any of the skills. Very tragic.) Plus, if I couldn’t think of a great song, what did it say about my appreciation for the most important women in my life? The pressure mounted. I’m telling you, things got real heavy, real fast.

For the first dance, my initial thoughts were the songs I most associated with my girlfriend (for whatever reason, it feels odd calling her a fiancée, so I’m skipping right from girlfriend to wife). The first, “Slow Show” by The National, has a great chorus that resonated when we first began dating in New York: “I want to hurry home to you, put on a slow, dumb show for you, crack you up…so you can put a blue ribbon on my brain.” Then, later, “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you.” Both lines were meaningful and personal, but the problem is that like a lot of their songs, there’s a sad and ominous vibe underneath the words, plus a few lyrics designed to illustrate the difficulty of being a man in America: “God, I’m very, very frightening…I’ll overdo it.” And, of course, there’s that whole first minute about being out of sync and stupid and scared and unprepared. Not exactly the message you want to communicate to your friends and family as they watch, hoping to be moved. Or, really, to your wife. Plus, the song isn’t really conducive to slow dancing. In other words, it was a terrible choice.

The other song, “Colorshow” by the Avett Brothers, is just clangy and cacophonous and includes several guttural yells before the rather touching chorus: “And I’m done forever, it’s you and me forever.” Again, a single terrific lyric shoved in the midst of a song that wouldn’t come close to working.

So I changed my approach. Instead of thinking about songs that marked our experience and hoping one would fit the narrow parameters of a wedding, I reversed the method. What works for a wedding? Something slow. Something not terribly saccharine. Something meaningful. My first idea was to get real simple. I thought about “Hymn” by Moby, which is essentially just pretty piano music. But it’s too plain and too fast. What about a portion of “Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine? Too sad? Yes, way too sad. Something slow by The Beatles? Too predictable. Belle & Sebastian? Too subversive, too off message. Suddenly, I thought I had it: “Killing the Blues,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ cover of John Prine’s song. It fit every criterion. True, it was a little melancholy. And yeah, maybe it had that one line, about being guilty of doing the saddest thing, “losing yourself in love.” And then, sure, maybe the third chorus is about a woman asking a man to leave, and he doesn’t think he can ever find what they had again, and OH GOD WHAT A TERRIBLE IDEA, WHAT THE HELL AM I EVEN THINKING?

Needless to say, the girlfriend gave it the thumbs-down. I came up with a million other slow songs, before realizing that every slow song I actually like is painfully sad. (To show you how poorly the selection process was going, I briefly considered proposing “Waltz no. 2” by Elliott Smith. Seriously.) What’s wrong with me? I wondered. Finally, the girlfriend took some mercy on me by picking Ray Lamontagne’s “Let It Be Me.” I gratefully acquiesced, understanding that he’s probably that rare mix of a singer who can be sentimental and not completely cloying. Sort of indie, sort of not. It worked, but it shook me that she found it so quickly while I was like a thirsty man dragging myself through an iTunes desert, finding no oasis.

Next was the mother-son dance. If possible, this came with even more pressure, if only because, symbolically at least, it’s the last moment before the child takes that final step into adulthood. The mother-son and father-daughter dances are somehow the saddest parts of the entire day. They signify an end, whereas everything else is a beginning.

My plan went even worse than before, and I’m ashamed to admit I was still hung up on the idea that “Killing the Blues” would be a good choice. My mom asked if the song reminded me of her, and while the answer was no, I hemmed and hawed and tried to make it seem like the answer was a soft ‘maybe.’ She finally agreed, but I could tell she didn’t like it, so I threw out another suggestion. What about “Flume” by Bon Iver? It starts with the line, “I am my mother’s only son…it’s enough.” What could be more appropriate than that? I’m her only son, after all, and the song is slow and beautiful. So she listened, and told me that it made her want to lock herself in a room and cry. Too mournful. Fair enough.

What about “Wind Beneath My Wings”? She used to sing it to me as a kid, and it came with a built-in memory of persevering through divorce and the other challenges we’d faced. The problem there, as my girlfriend noted by rolling her eyes and gagging, is that “Wind Beneath My Wings” is a pretty stereotypical wedding song, and also quite corny. I got angry at her for devaluing that history without knowing what she was doing, but I also knew she was right about the song itself. Luckily, my mom knew it too, so we avoided that result. But it was back to square one, and the process was just as torturous. All my suggestions were either too sad or too fast or not personal enough.

Again, I was bailed out. My phone rang as I reached my point of deepest despair, and my mom said she had the perfect song. Years ago, I sent her “The Part Where You Let Go” by Hem, and we both found it gorgeous. I’d forgotten about it, but she found it on her computer while browsing, and realized it was the answer. And she was right—it came with shared history, it was personal, it was slow without being overly sad, and the lyrics were perfect for the moment. A wave of relief washed over me. The stress was over, for the moment.

So while I failed utterly in my attempts to unearth two infallible songs, I was lucky enough to have two people who understood what was needed better than I ever could. Like the wedding itself, the songs are not really about me anyway. The deeper feelings we share toward our parents and our significant others are expressed over time, through a thousand different avenues. And yet on one day, they have to be reduced to a three-minute song. It’s the time for compromise and a best fit, and even if I’m not an expert at those balancing acts, I’m glad there are people in my life who guide me along. And if they can take it a step further and make me look like something better than a tragically awkward dancer when the wedding day arrives, they’ll have proved that anyone is redeemable.

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