Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lady Gaga and Me: My short, thankless career as a wedding DJ

When one of your dearest, closest friends asks a favour, you agree. When he is getting married and asks you to serve as one of his groomsmen, you accept. When he says that the groom's party will be wearing off-white suits, you dutifully run to your nearest chain menswear outlet and rent an ivory tuxedo with champagne accents. And when he asks if you and your other old, dear friend, Miss Imperial, will handle the music for the ceremony and reception, you fire up your PC and scour the hard drive for appropriate songs.

In the final weeks before the big day I prodded the bride-and-groom-to-be for direction. “What kind of music do you want?” I asked. The answers indicated to me that what they were looking for was music to shake their rumps.

But the first challenge was the first dance. “No Celine” was all the input I got for that one. No problem; after a few days of indecision I came up with “I Love You Because” by Elvis Presley, and they loved it.

But what to play after that?

Miss Imperial and I put our heads together and came up with a vague direction, and I went to work putting together a four-hour set that we figured would appeal to folks of our age and mindset. It ranged from old favourites to hip hop to reggae to the Clash to modern dancefloor rockers (Justice, LCD Soundsystem), with a lot of funky detours along the way. It was a good set. We would load the MP3s into Miss I's laptop, create an iTunes playlist, add a few songs from her library, then press PLAY and walk away to join the party.

Everything started well. We had tested the PA system and it worked fine. The ceremony music – JS Bach's Orchestral Suite in D Major, Air for the processional, and the Beatles' “Here Comes the Sun” for the joyous recessional – had gone beautifully. The outdoor ceremony, beneath shading trees and just feet from the banks of the Mississippi River in Carleton Place, Ontario, was airy, sun-dappled, fragrant and just about perfect. Then all retired to the Canoe Club, in the hall on the second floor with the balcony overlooking the river, for dinner, cake, and then dancing.

Fed, watered and increasingly relaxed, we began. I looked around during the first dance: smiles. Then a second slow song, “Loveable” by Sam Cooke, in case anyone else wanted to be rocked gently. Then we gradually increased the tempo. “To Love Somebody” by Nina Simone got my three-year-old daughter to the floor (during the ceremony she had been the escort of the flower girl, a chihuahua in a wedding dress), and she was joined by a few others during the Stones' “Get Off My Cloud.” All seemed to be going well. An upward trajectory in the dancing population was a good indicator, Miss I and I felt.

But then it plateaued, and soon it began to fall. Before long the dancefloor was a sparsely populated region. We started to panic. Maybe the Pixies, scheduled next, wouldn't get quite the reaction we had anticipated. We axed that. “American Girl” by Tom Petty was only mildly successful. Everywhere you looked: unimpressed faces. This was bad.

Then teenaged Cousin Jeffrey pranced up to the table. He handed us a CD. No case, no liners. “Lady Gaga,” he said. “Play track four.” We did so. It was “Pokerface.” Family members, young and old, flooded the dancefloor, danced exuberantly, climbed up onto the stage. Cousin Jeffrey knew every word. There were high fives, smiles, laughing, shouting. Oh heavens.

This, Miss Imperial and I knew, meant trouble. It was an extremely humbling moment.

Maybe, if you're of a certain age, you know the precise moment you first realized that you were completely irrelevant, but probably you don't. For me, that moment occurred at a friend's wedding, on Saturday, June 27, 2009, at the Carleton Place Canoe Club. It was early evening, warm and close, the sun dazzling as it set over the river. I was surrounded by good friends, my wife and daughter, even my parents. I was thirty-two years old, and in the realm of youth, relevance, with-it-ness, I no longer mattered.

We scrambled. Luckily, Miss Imperial has a deep iTunes library. We scored with the Peas' “Boom Boom Pow” and Beyonce's “Crazy in Love” (a classic, apparently). But our choices grew slim. “How long can we keep this up?” I asked her. She looked worried. Improbably, Justin Timberlake cleared the floor. But as the evening wore, older disco stuff kept the people moving. Cousin Jeffrey was judgemental, folding his arms and scowling when something wasn't right, laughing and clapping like a circus seal when we got it right. Over the course of night we would play Lady Gaga's “Just Dance” and two or three more from The Fame that I can't now name. Every damn time they filled the floor. My faith in humanity was rocked, and I was reminded of the Sean Paul Rule, which was taught to me several years ago when I became a product buyer for an HMV store in Ottawa. Soon after landing the job I happened to run into an old friend who was doing the same job in Toronto, and I asked him if there was anything I should know. “Just don't run out of Sean Paul,” he said, “and you'll be fine.” And he was right. (Cousin Jeffrey also requested Sean Paul, coincidentally, and it too was a hit.) Likewise, as a wedding DJ in 2009, just don't run out of Lady Gaga, it seems.

I need to step back here and thank Miss Imperial profusely, if she reads this. It was her, six-months-pregnant belly and all, who took over the laptop and saved the evening, remaining chained to the table and constantly fretting over where to go next. She eased us into the disco (Cousin Jeffrey seemed particularly taken with Diana Ross' “I'm Coming Out”) and from there, into the '80s stuff, where were in something of a comfort zone, and from there we were able, finally, to steer ourselves into material we felt closer to, the night having fallen and many of the guests having taken their leave.

When the night was darkest, we knew that anyone left on the dancefloor was probably loaded or old like us, so we had some more freedom, though I never did get my Horace Andy-Toots and the Maytals- Skatalites-Clash-MIA set in. Finally we were able to hand off responsibility to the groom's brother, plugging his laptop into the PA and letting him take things in a Diplo-and-hip-hop direction while we packed up and joined all our friends (minus the bride and groom) in heading back to the motel for the after-party.

There things were nice and comfy, all thirty-somethings who were fairly appreciative of all the stuff we had chosen. We put the playlist on random and sipped bourbon and coolers (though not the pregnant lady, of course), ate salty things and chatted into the small hours. By my fourth bourbon, after several gin & tonics back at the Canoe Club, I had more or less forgotten the trauma of coming face to face with my own old-and-lame nature. But there was a residual sting, and it lingers still.

In retrospect it's hard to imagine what I had been thinking in assembling that playlist. What fantasy gathering would I be attending where the guests would enthusiastically greet music by Steinski and the American Princes? Who exactly was going to shout “Oh snap!” when I dropped that Editors remix right after the Chemical Brothers and Justice? What the hell was I thinking? It would have been the wedding reception that I longed to attend, wearing through the soles of my replacement shoes (no way I could dance in those rented plastic things) as we all pogo'd, skanked, vogued and bopped the night away, but it bore no resemblance to reality.

So here I am, days later, gradually coming to accept my folly and the commentary it provides about me and my life. I don't mind being old. My friends are old, and for the most part we're happy. But I worry for a future populated by people who could find something appealing in the music of Lady frigging Gaga.

PS (July 1) - I've just spent a few minutes ruminating on the rich tragedy that is the fact that I didn't even get a chance to play "Losing My Edge," when in fact, that's exactly what was going on. Losing my edge. Huh.


Stan said...

What a great post, thanks for sharing that Andrew.

I first started noticing this a few years ago when I realized I hadn't seen any of the Best Picture nominees at Oscar time, and that I couldn't tell you who half the "stars" were on the cover of People Magazine while in line at the grocery store.

To date, I still do not know what, exactly, a Zack Effron is, or what he's contributing to society.

I will now listen to my first Lady Gaga song just to give it all a little context. Any recommendations? ;)

AGF said...

Recommendations? All and none of it.

Really, I think all it takes (and this is probably what I should have done a week before the wedding) is listening to a half an hour of commercial hit radio (is Ottawa's Hottt 89.9 still alive and kicking?). Fill your boots! Chances are, unless I am once again out of touch, that you'll hear some Lady Gaga. You will not thank me.

And hey! Now there'll be 10 Best Picture nominees that you haven't seen.

AGF said...

Also: I can't believe you read the whole thing. Thanks!

Stan said...

...at 5:50AM no less!

Turns out I have heard that song before and was just ignorant of the artist (performer? entertainer?) singing it.

I recall now having been to a wedding a few years ago where a song came on, and all the 20-ish people there yipped and headed to the dancefloor. I had never heard it before (or since) but clearly it was part of the zeitgeist.

Screw it, I'm gonna listen to Zeppelin and Jack White, watch sports, fast-forward commercials on my DVR, and enjoy the bubble I've created for myself.

Do you ever wonder what the "thing" is that we won't get, no matter how many times our kids explain it to us in twenty years? With our parents' generation, it's sometimes things like online banking, or performing effective google searches. I wonder if we won't be able to play hologram video games properly, or fail at putting the car in "auto drive" and piss everyone off because we're still choosing the speed we want to travel at.

AGF said...

It's already begun with me and facebook/twitter. I know I'm capable, I just don't see the point. Kids!

I now fully understand (and embrace) how young men become old, crusty, grumpy men who listen to nothing released after they turned 30, read the same books over and over, and suspect the world's on a fast track to hell. I'm not that guy just yet, but I get it.

Miss Imperial said...

I'm reading! Of course, now the baby is out and by my side. Time flies!

I really can't take any credit for that original wedding mix. You made it yourself -- a great feat, considering it was four hours long and flowing throughout. It's a shame that we didn't use it in its entirety but that's what happens when pre-teens rule. Which is, these days, all the time.

(I also have to thank you for "Boom Boom Pow" -- if that wasn't on your mix, we wouldn't have seen the power that dance-pop has on an entire room. We should have known.)

I may also have to give credit to young Jeffrey, as I now have some Lady Gaga in that music library to which you referred. I doubt it's as deep as yours (and all the jazz on there comes from PF), but what it does have is some Top 40, and I guess that comes in handy sometimes.

I raise a glass to pop music!