The Wedding Reception is a liminal space where uncool people dress up and dance like that's something they’re used to. It’s a weird brew of intensely personal moments combined with unquestioned ritual.
Some wedding songs are absolute classics, some belong in the dustbin of nuptial history.
I reached out to No Macarena DJs, who I used for my own wedding back in 2012, for help compiling the core list of wedding songs. Founder Kim Alexander says, “No Macarena was born at the height of the line dance craze. I wanted to create an alternative to the typical wedding DJ experience by staying away from the clichés like “Celebration”, “YMCA”, “The Chicken Dance” and so on.” But today, our subject IS the clichés. My much gentler position is that the line between ritual and clichés is a thin one. There’s joy to be had in having canonical songs and dances associated with marriage rites. But the harsh truth must be laid down, and judgement will be rendered upon the corny and lame. Here are the core classic wedding songs, scored on a scale of 1 to 10, from worst to best.
The Bird Dance — The Emeralds: 0/10
The fact that wedding are basically the last refuge for corny garbage such as the Bird Dance is a solid argument against weddings, generally. This song is also known as The Chicken Dance, and its winding journey from a 1960s German Octoberfest classic to UK/US pop chart success in the 1980s is worth checking out. But it’s long-since time to put this poultry out to pasture.
Old Time Rock & Roll — Bob Seger 1/10
In the context of a wedding, this song is essentially just the cantankerous old uncle giving the finger to the rest of the playlist. Fuck you dude, it’s a wedding, of course it’s going to be dance music. Just stay home with your old records next time.
The Hokey Pokey — Ray Anthony: 2/10
The multi-decade journey of The Bird Dance is surprising, but The Hokey Pokey’s history puts it to shame. The song’s forbearer, the Hokey Cokey, can be traced back to British folk music to at least 1821! But its long roots do not change the fact that it should have stayed in the past. The only reason this song gets a two is that it’s simple enough for children to dance to. So is The Bird Dance, but…..well at least it’s not The Bird Dance.
Wonderful Tonight — Eric Clapton: 2/10
I know it’s outside the scope of this article, but solo Eric Clapton is probably the most overrated artist of all-time. This song is inoffensive on classic rock radio, but at a wedding it’s just an unoriginal way for guys to lean over to their date a mouth-along with the refrain. Corny AF.
Macarena — Los Del Rio 3/10
It’s weird to remember that, for one brief moment, this was actually cool. That time has long since passed. Its coolness was undone by legions of uncool parents attempting the dance. As a recent uncool parent myself, I now understand the temptation. There are countless pop-culture Macarena references, but this real-life cringe moment is my personal favorite.
Africa — Toto: 4/10
This ultra-campy 80s ballad has come back with a vengeance in recent years. The lyrics paint a questionably idyllic, arguably primitive, image of the continent which apparently has something to do with picking up his girlfriend from the airport at 12:30 (AM or PM not specified). 80s ballads are generally great wedding material, but this feels more ironic than sincere.
Billie Jean — Michael Jackson: 4/10
I feel crazy rating one of the greatest pop songs of all-time so low, but GOOD LORD is this not an appropriate wedding song. It’s adamantly denying a paternity accusation and all about how much he doesn’t want to be with this girl. It’d be tougher to write a less romantic song.
New York, New York — Frank Sinatra 5/10
This is the perfect take-a-break song. Great-grandma will be happy to hear it, and everyone else can refresh their beverage. Functional, but not what you came for.
YMCA — The Village People 5/10
Lots to like here. It’s a banging track with a dance you can do standing or seated. The tough thing about this one is the specificity. We are not at a YMCA. We are not even at a “young man”-centric event. The fact that this was such a universal hit at all is somewhat strange to me. Maybe I’m overthinking this one, but I can’t give it more than a 5.
Cha Cha Slide — DJ Casper/Mr. C The Slide Man 5/10
Maybe in 50 years this one will be downgraded to 2 along with its fellow instruction-driven dance The Hokey Pokey. But today is not that day. It’s super catchy, but a little too complicated for a line-dance.
Cupid Shuffle — Cupid 6/10
This was the only song on this list I was not familiar with. But No Macarena DJs specifically singled it out as the one line dance they’ll play. That’s high praise.
The Electric Slide- Marcia Griffiths 6/10
I believe this is the greatest of all the line dances. It’s simple enough to follow along to, but tricky enough to tell the joes from the pros. I wanted it to be the one line dace allowed at my wedding, but alas, my wife is a lot cooler than me and would tolerate no such corniness. And she made a fair point: once you open the door to The Electric Slide you open the door to the the possibility of a Chicken Dance. And nobody wants a Chicken Dance.
Celebration — Kool and the Gang 7/10
The flip side of the YMCA coin. Where YMCA feels weirdly specific and out of place, this is a one-size-fits-all dance song. We are celebrating good times, so let’s sing the song that says “celebrate good times”. And that “woohoo”? What’s not to like!? But the lack of any specificity whatsoever also prevents it from reaching higher heights.
The Locomotion— Little Eva 7/10
The Locomotion is essentially a conga line. A conga line is corny, no doubt. But when the mood is right, it can be magic.
Grease Soundtrack — Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey 8/10
With quite a few great tracks, Grease is just a wonderful combination of nostalgia, dance songs, and nonsense words (Chang chang changitty chang sha-bop!). Also one of the few chances for the musical theater nerds to let their flag fly. Full-disclosure: I’m a musical theater nerd, so maybe I’ve rated this too high.
Brown-Eyed Girl — Van Morrison: 9/10
Again, a nostalgia-laden classic. Peak Americana imagery backed by a brilliantly singable “sha la la” hook. Only thing keeping this from a perfect score is the specificity. What if the bride doesn’t have blue eyes? Might seem picky, but I can’t give it the full 10/10.
And now, we are on to the true masterpieces. The only thing that gives me pause here is how to distinguish a pop masterpiece from a “wedding song”? A lot of amazing Top 40 songs get played at weddings, but most have not ascended to the rarified air where the reception hall becomes their primary place of reference. Perhaps someday bops like “Uptown Funk” and “Hey Ya!” will themselves be considered wedding songs. But today, here’s my picks for the true wedding classics.
Sweet Caroline — Neil Diamond: 10/10
BAH BAH BAAAAAAAAAAAAH! Need I say more?
Don’t Stop Believing — Journey: 10/10
When you see all the gritty imagery in the lyrics, you wouldn’t necessarily peg this one as a wedding classic. But it captures a spirit of hopefulness and joy thats far more important to the festivities than specific verses. The fact that it opens with a lovely boy-meets-girl moment doesn’t hurt either.
Shout — The Isley Brothers: 10/10
This is the moment in most of the great weddings I’ve been to where the floodgates open and everyone finally lets loose. Manages to be truly wild musically but still incredibly sweet lyrically. Never seen this one fail to deliver.
Hava Nagila — Traditional: 10/10
The scale only goes up to 10, but this one is my all-time personal favorite. There’s something incredibly powerful about everyone in the room clasping hands and moving in a circle to the beat. It was a favorite moment of mine from my own wedding. I’m not a religious man, but songs like Hava Nagila make me ever so briefly get it.
And there’s my only-somewhat definitive guide to wedding classics. Any flagrant omissions? Any songs I’ve underestimated? Any songs that I must be crazy to like? Feel free to sound off below.