A common concern that clients have for us about their playlists are questions about a songs’ lyrics or overall meaning. Often these clients think that even though a song is loved by them and/or their guests, the lyrics spoil it somehow, in that they’re too dirty, too downbeat, or are appropriate and great, but they wonder if anyone will notice them if the song is rather unknown.
In having DJ-ed the variety of events we have over the years, we can say that sometimes these concerns are valid, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes when planning an event’s playlist we run into concerns with lyrics and song meaning that clients haven’t even thought about and we need to at least make them aware that they think about. Here’s some basic – but often not obvious – guidelines to think about when considering the impact of lyrics and meaning of songs for your event.
As far as a song’s lyrics being too dirty, unless you as the event organizer know for sure that there will be all adults there and they will not be offended by coarse lyrics, there’s really no problem. Hearing the original version of, say, an explicit classic hip hop song when your party is in its heaviest groove is quite sexy and fun for crowds. The tough thing is, clients we talk to usually will have someone attending that they figure could object to dirty lyrics, so they’ll usually choose to have us spin the clean version. Don’t worry – guests will be able to use their imagination and fill in what the “real” lyrics are.
When it comes to songs that clients believe are too downbeat in their lyrics or meaning to include at their event, we’ve found that a few don’t “kill” the vibe. Unless the song is a “showcase” song and is meant to be listened to by a crowd to inspire liveliness – like first dances at a wedding, runway songs at fashion shows, or introductions of keynote speakers at corporate events – in public, songs go by quickly, and they’re not as noticed as it would if you were listening on headphones. (In this way, a few songs sprinkled throughout an event that are festive but in a foreign language can work, too – what the guests will notice is the mood, not the lyrics.)
So, unless you want to play say, three melancholy indie pop songs in a row, or a seven-minute bittersweet vintage samba number, putting a song on the playlist that is special to you but a bit downbeat during a cocktail hour or a dinner is not going to affect an overall upbeat vibe. Just keep these downbeat songs limited,and make sure they’re kept at a reasonable three- or four-minute length. Also, there are downbeat songs that are we’ve found work surprisingly well for dancing. Many know the song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by the post-punk legendary group Joy Division as a poetically-written tune about an impossible relationship, yet because the song is a classic, and because it happens to have a driving beat, it can get crowds moving – even at a wedding, when it’s the antithesis of the mood. (Just make sure it’s played later, when the crowd has has loosened up and had a few drinks.)
Other songs that clients often want to choose are favorites which have lyrics that they think will go with an upbeat vibe, but the clients aren’t sure if guests will notice or appreciate the songs since they are more obscure. We especially find this with clients in the New York City area, as they have such a varied group of cultural and musical backgrounds and therefore often come to us with all kinds of great but rather unknown gems of all genres on their playlists. If an obscure song is played as strictly background music, these clients are often right – again, people at mixer-type events are often mingling, drinking or eating, and not paying attention to the song as single-mindedly as they would in private. So, if a client really wants the song to be appreciated, we suggest making the songs a showcase – for example, if the event is an a art opening, use a special song as the background to an artists’ retrospective slideshow, or if it’s a wedding, use it as a processional for a wedding ceremony, or as a first dance song.
And lastly, regarding a song’s lyrics and meaning, we find it’s great to spin songs whose lyrics go with that portion of the event, or that have a message appropriate to the event in general. This is something that clients don’t often consider much, but done here and there it can boost the lively feel of an event, and make it feel more festive. The important thing here though is the songs should by subtle or sly references to the moment, not ones too out in the forefront, or things will feel too forced. At a corporate cocktail party, it’s great to play a vintage jazz tune about having a good time like Ray Charles “Mess Around” but it’s just lame to play BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” The same goes for a wedding, in that it’s great to throw in newer pop songs like “Say Hey (I Love You)” by Michael Franti & Spearhead that puts the vibe of festiveness and romance in the air, but it’s not advised to play Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” as it’s so obvious that it will simply appear unimaginative and lazy.
Coming next, Part 2: Melody & Mood