WHEN I WAS in college, I used to DJ a lot of parties. Not “DJ” as in some guy at a club with a fake name, ensconced in a booth, aloof from the dance floor, spinning obscure tracks to impress the crowd with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form; I was never a music snob. No, I’d be on the floor myself, surrounded by pulsating bodies, jumping around like a maniac, singing at the top of my lungs, spinning a CD around my index finger. A song would fade out, or end with a tight chord—DJ Rule #1: Never stop a song mid-stream—and I’d change the compact disc while a bated-breath dance floor waited to find out what I’d play next.
The goal was always the same: keep up the momentum, keep the party going, keep people dancing, keep on with the force don’t stop, don’t stop ‘til you get enough. As the semesters rolled along, our parties grew more epic, and I became very skilled at this. To be fair, my knowledge base was narrow. I could not spin house, or rave, or trance, or even hip hop, nor was I capable of, say, playing only songs by artists that begin with A; I was not remotely cool, and my ignorance of alternative (viz., not popular) music was staggering. For example, this was the early 90s, and I was in Washington, DC, where Fugazi was at that moment spearheading a punk revival. I had no idea, none, that this was happening. But then, neither did most of my friends. The truth is, most people are not music snobs. They just want to hear songs they like and know, and if the mood is right, that’s enough to get them dancing. My main concern, my only concern, was keeping people on their feet by any means necessary, up to and including succumbing to a request for “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
If you find yourself presiding over a dance floor, and you don’t know what to play, here are three unlikely dance songs that will keep the party hoppin’:
Being a DJ is not that hard. If there are a bunch of half-drunk people happily bustin’ moves on the floor, and you want to keep them that way, play a song that is a) one they know the words to, b) one they like, and c) fast. That’s really all there is to it.
The trick is, a lot of artists that we associate with good dance music don’t actually make good dance music. Take Madonna. You’d think she’d be great to play at a dance party, right? Nope. Most of her songs are too slow. If you don’t believe me, put on Immaculate Collection and try to sustain a fast dancing pace. “Material Girl,” “Papa Don’t Preach, “Get Into the Groove,” all down-tempo. The only track on there that works is “Like a Prayer,” which is kind of a crappy song.
“Hard Day’s Night,” on the other hand, is a song people know, and a song people like. It’s the Beatles, after all. It’s fast enough to keep people moving, and short enough to be over before anyone realizes they’re dancing crazily to such an un-dancey dance song.
True story: I was at a bar in Georgetown with my buddy Roman in 1993 or so. We were leaning against the wall, nursing our drinks, checking out the scene. This song came on the stereo, loud as hell. We’d never heard it before. Neither had any of the other guys there. But all the ladies—every last one of them, as if it were imprinted on their double X chromosomes—knew it, probably because it opens on such a note of female empowerment:
This bed is on fire with passion and love
The neighbors complain about the noises above
But she only comes when she’s on top
While the guys drank their beers, oblivious, every women in the bar jumped up and started dancing. It was stunning to observe. Roman and I looked at each other, and then at the dancing gals, and then back at each other, and said, “We have to play this at our next party.”
If you needed further proof that I’m not joking about the not being cool thing, here it is. The only reason John Denver isn’t on Sean Beaudoin’s “Bands in Hell” list is because he’s too goobery. Indeed, John Denver might be the least cool pop star of all time. There’s nothing remotely menacing or dangerous about him. He makes Ann Murray look like Nico.
But people like John Denver, is the thing. At least in very small doses. And this is a song everyone knows but hasn’t heard in years. It’s fast, it’s short, it’s fun, and it never fails to bring down the house. My wife Stephanie and I demanded that the DJ to play this at our wedding. He looked at us like he would’ve been more comfortable with human sacrifice (and this DJ was not to be confused with a music snob; he wanted to end the night with “The Last Dance” like the rest of the Wedding DJ Union). It went over so well, he wound up playing it twice in a row.
Moral of the story: successful dance music, like life, ain’t nothing but a funny funny riddle.
Listen to The Official Weeklings Power Trio Playlist on Spotify.