The Good Listener: How Do We Pick 'Our Song'?

You can tell they both studied lyric sheets before picking their song. (
You can tell they both studied lyric sheets before picking their song. (

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the assortment of coloring books for grownups is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts for an engaged couple who can't decide on their first wedding dance.

Peter writes via email: "My fiancée and I listen to music differently. I listen to beats and rhythms, while she listens to lyrics. Because of this, we don't have "a song," and this has caused us some trouble as we look for a first-dance song at our wedding. My question: Am I right, or just lazy? Should I pay attention to lyrics, or is my form of musical enjoyment just as valid as hers?"

[Before we get started, a quick note: If you have questions you'd love to see answered in The Good Listener, email Stephen Thompson at! We're always looking for column ideas.]

You've set up a couple of false choices here. You can be right and lazy; your form of musical enjoyment can be just as valid as hers and you'd still do well to pay attention to lyrics. Neither question you ask has to be an either-or proposition. In this case, the issue as I see it isn't a matter of whose tastes are more valid, but of where you each set your priorities in constructing your wedding playlist. Beats and rhythms are great and important, but are they more important than picking something thematically suited to the event at hand?

I don't want to get too precious about the first dance at your wedding, because you can absolutely enjoy a lifetime of love and happiness no matter what song you pick, if you even bother to pick a song at all. Last year, I heard from a couple who closed their wedding with The Mountain Goats' "No Children" — with its chorus of "I hope you die / I hope we both die" — and I'm willing to bet that they're well on their way to living happily ever after. You can dance to Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" or Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)" or whatever the holy heck you want, and your more sensitive guests may well get the vapors, and then you'll go right on being married for as long as you collectively want.

But "collectively" is the key word in that sentence. When you say your fiancée listens to lyrics and takes that into consideration as the two of you pick your song, I'm going to assume that she means she'd like you to help her pick something that signifies how happy you are to be spending the rest of your days in partnership. Maybe that means drawing up a list of beat- and rhythm-friendly songs you love, tracking down the lyrics to each, and suggesting the ones that are the most pro-devotion. Maybe it means kicking off your lifetime of compromise by letting her pick the song and relegating the one you'd choose to somewhere later in the evening's playlist. Maybe it means pulling aside a trusted ally and cribbing that person's suggestion.

If you go that last route, your old pal Stephen recommends Clem Snide's "Find Love," or The New Pornographers' "Go Places," or any number of songs by The Magnetic Fields ("The Book Of Love," "Nothing Matters When We're Dancing," "It's Only Time"). You have my heartfelt permission to pass any of those off as your idea, and then portion out the happy rhythms over the course of your lives together.

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