Lovely Day

A veteran music writer ponders the tunes most fitting for one's wedding

What makes the perfect wedding music?

As you can imagine, potential consultants will not hesitate when asked for recommendations, whether those consultants be friends, wedding planners, colleagues, DJs, chamber musicians, garage bands, websites or any of the countless tomes packing shelf after shelf at the local bookstore. Like belly buttons, everybody's got an opinion.

Whether music is being played by a DJ or live musicians or your cousin with his iPod, the most important thing is that the tunage not impede the progress of the ceremony or the reception; and that it be appropriate and not seem too glaringly out of place, all while generating warm, loving feelings that make soft-focus memories.

Having been a groom twice, and maintaining a lifelong love of music, I am a little shocked when I realize how few musical memories I have of each of my two weddings.

For instance, for my first wedding, 21 years ago, bride No. 1 and I chose a wonderful mutual friend—who happens to be a remarkably good singer—to croon the standard "Always" as we approached podium. That was worth remembering, in contrast to the fact that the maid of honor was stumbling drunk.

But the rest of the music? By golly, I do believe there was a jazz combo playing politely in the corner, but not one selection has been retained by my memory, although I do recall discussions about music during the preparations for the nuptials. The musical accompaniment must've been quite nice ... and forgettable.

For the second wedding, 10 years later, the music was memorable—for the mistakes made. Bride No. 2 and I got hitched in Spain in a centuries-old church, with only two friends as witnesses. The only others present were a photographer and his assistant. The assistant handled the music, punching a cassette player on and off—but he got confused.

As we entered the church, we heard Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" in C major (written to accompany A Midsummer Night's Dream), which is traditionally played as a recessional at the conclusion of the ceremony. So to balance things out, he played Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" (from the opera Lohengrin), the traditional entrance music, as we exited. I'll never forget it, because it was exactly the opposite of what was intended.

So perhaps the cardinal rule of wedding music should be, "First, do no harm." We all know that the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia," Britney Spears' "Toxic," Metallica's "Creeping Death" or The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" are poor choices for nuptials.

So why do we hear "U Can't Touch This" (by MC Hammer) so often at weddings? Guess it's just a song that says "par-tay."

I once attended a wedding during which the bride and groom strolled down the aisle to the tune of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." Well, the song has long been rumored to have been written with tongue firmly in cheek, about a day spent wandering around high on heroin. The song is, at the very least, a sarcastic rumination on fleeting happiness in the midst of darkness and depression.

The lion's share of music during the wedding reception is most often handled by professional wedding DJs, who—with military precision—officiate everything from the cutting of the cake to the bouquet toss, from the father-daughter and mother-song dances to the garter toss. Sometimes, a dollar dance is included, but some wags consider that cheap.

Choosing which song goes where during the reception seems to be an art. There are many points during the fun when "Another One Bites the Dust," by Queen, can seem appropriate. But it may be best played during the couple's entrance into the reception. And the vagueness about which partner it refers to is a party game in the making.

The narratives inherent in songs from musicals would seem to be ideal, but, again, ambiguity works better than concision. Beyond that, weddings aren't usually a time for subtlety in music. The most blatant emotions are the most effective, and most universally felt.

That's why, I think, Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" works well during a wedding reception, even outside of the context of the musical The Lion King, and why, for some reason, perfectly good show tunes such as "Get Me to the Church on Time," from My Fair Lady, and "I'd Do Anything," from Oliver!, don't. Those examples are maybe a bit too specifically linked to their plays.

And I can't fathom why, but when Earth, Wind and Fire play "Got to Get You Into My Life" (from the appallingly bad movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), it sounds more like a song made for the wedding bash than does The Beatles' original version. Shoot, EWF has several songs ideal for receptions—"That's the Way of the World," "Sing a Song," "Shining Star" and "Fantasy" among them.

Generic dance music, with loose celebratory or love messages, often can win with a mixed crowd. That's why songs such as Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," The B-52's' "Love Shack" and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" are such perennial favorites.

There are some no-brainers during the reception. Who wouldn't want to hear Average White Band's "Cut the Cake" while bride and groom do exactly that? And Luther Vandross, doing his silky best with "Dance With My Father," is perfect for the dance between the bride and her dad. Also recommended by some sources for this moment are The Temptations' "My Girl," which seems a little creepy to me, and Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," which is indeed a nice choice.

Whether it's father-bride or groom-mom, the intergenerational dances can also include top choices such as "Sunrise, Sunset" (from the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack) and Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." Also on that list is Rod Stewart's version of "Have I Told You Lately," which makes sense, seeing as most moms seem to love Rod. But for my money, the original version by songwriter Van Morrison is better—and a tad more melancholic, which adds beauty.

For the first dance between the bride and groom, favorites include "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" (from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack), by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. The flip side of that coin is Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," which, for some strange reason, seems to show up on a lot of lists as proper reception fodder. Maybe it's the acoustic guitar, minor key and string section.

Idealized romance is always a good bet; after all, what is a wedding but the fondest hope for a future of romantic idylls? Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You" is popular with couples staring into each other's moist puppy-dog eyes, but her unending show-offy trills and runs can be off-putting. I prefer the original version by the song's writer, Dolly Parton.

I'd need the fingers on both hands to count the times I have heard "Always and Forever," by Heatwave and countless other artists, at weddings. And I always cringe. Same goes for Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and the Lionel Ritchie-Diana Ross duet "Endless Love." Such songs have become clichés and, in some circles, are little more than the punch lines for bad jokes.

Country-themed weddings have lots of choices, naturally, but perhaps no other country artist turns up on more wedding-DJ lists than that willowy, still-enigmatic survivor of romance, Shania Twain. Wedding receptions twang far and wide to the sounds of Twain's "You're Still the One," "Any Man of Mine" and, though it's more of a novelty tune, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman." Twain's duet with Bryan White, "From This Moment On," seems as if it were written to become a trademarked wedding choice.

Speaking of duets, is any other song as effectively sappy and heartwarming at the same time as does "It's Your Love," by married couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw?

When it comes down to it, the best tunes for weddings are plain and simple love songs, be they chaste, such as Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," a little steamy like Teddy Pendergrass' "You're My Choice Tonight" (from the soundtrack of the movie Choose Me), retro-cool like The Dixie Cups "Chapel of Love," or Frank Sinatra's classy classicism on "The Way You Look Tonight." If you're feeling a little artsy, Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" is a creative depiction of exploring a long-term partnership.

One of my favorite pure expressions of love in song is Bill Withers' charming "Lovely Day." Withers sings, "Then I look at you, and the world's all right with me / Just one look at you and I know it's gonna be / A lovely day." And as he raises his voice on each succeeding chorus, holding the note on the "day" at the end of that last line, it actually feels like a lovely day.

That's what I would want to hear at my next wedding.

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