Out on the Floor

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What follows is rebooted from something I wrote in 2007 about being a wedding-reception DJ, which The Mrs. and I were for a couple of years in the early 90s.

Consider the wedding-reception DJ. Next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like. And in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.

Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess. The bride and groom are the clients, but the guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on.

One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.

One night a bride came to the DJ stand upset because the dance floor had cleared, which is completely normal and happens several times at every reception. “Nobody’s having any fun! You’ve got to do something!” (She was part angry, part weepy, and all drunk; she and the groom had apparently gotten loaded in the limo on the way to the reception.) The Mrs. ended up taking her aside to calm her down, and to explain that her family and friends probably wanted to spend some time visiting. “That’s what happened at our wedding,” The Mrs. told her. Well, when the bride found out that her DJs were married, she thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. And if I’m recalling correctly, they ended up paying us the best compliment we could receive—buying an extra hour to extend the party.

Sometimes there’s a guy who wants to hear his favorite song—Black Oak Arkansas’ “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” to pick an example from real life—and never mind that no one can dance to it; he won’t take no for an answer. Likewise, there’s always one guy who can’t think of a request on his own and says, “Can I look at your CDs?” But I didn’t let people come up onto the DJ stand for any reason. Most people respected that, but not all. One guy told us that since the bride and groom were paying us, we should let wedding guests do whatever they wanted. Another wanted to use our PA system to give a toast to the bride and groom. Given his belligerent demeanor and his level of intoxication, this struck me as a very bad idea, and I wouldn’t let him. He retreated to a table and with his friends gave us the stink-eye the rest of the night. When it came time to tear down, I was half-sure we weren’t going to get out of the door.

But it’s human nature to remember the bad experiences. There were lots of good ones, too. The dance floor would be full and you’d segue to a new record, you’d hear and feel a rush of delight as people realized, hey, this is great, let’s stay out here. There was the look in the eyes of elderly guests when you’d play a couple of big-band tunes. Getting handed a wad of cash to do an extra hour (which, as an incentive, we did not have to share with the owner of the DJ rig) was always a very fine thing. And even when we didn’t get asked to stay, it was gratifying when the party got over with lots of people still on the dance floor. They might have stayed for any number of reasons, but I always liked to think it was because the tunes were good.

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