A seasoned DJ can craft a memorable reception setlist


MASTER OF CEREMONIES | Jess McDowell says a good DJ can set the tone for a reception and even cue guests when to leave. (Photo Hank Henley)

For years, the LGBT community has been waiting in the wings for the opportunity to walk down the aisle. For some, it has been the conundrum of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride;” but for Jess McDowell, it’s more like, “Always the DJ, never the groom.” But McDowell has been OK with that.

“Everyone — gay, straight, bisexual, transgender or questioning — loves a great party,” McDowell says, and as a wedding DJ (for straight and same-sex unions), he’s spent many a Saturday helping make that special day more special — with the gift of good music.

But what, exactly, is good music for a wedding … especially a gay one? That’s the task we set McDowell to. Here, then, are his tips for making your reception one that everyone, including your grumpy Aunt Ruth, will remember as being a fabulous time.

Here come the brides … or grooms. “The couple’s first entrance to the reception should be nothing short of a spectacle,” McDowell says.

“This is their first public appearance as husband and husband, or wife and wife. I love to tug at the heartstrings before everyone is too liquored up to remember it.”

It may fall to the best man to tell a short story of how the couple met that is funny and/or heartwarming, but a well-informed DJ can do the honors as well. Then a drum roll (real or virtual) to welcome Mr. and Mr. X-Y. And now the music comes into play.

“This is a golden opportunity to have one of your favorite songs play,” he says. “Make it up-tempo, as it will set the mood for the rest of the event. Think of something that you can dance into the room with — for instance, the chorus to Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ (I‘m beautiful in my way / ‘Cause God makes no mistakes / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way).”

A song you can eat to. If it’s a sit-down or buffet, dinner time is the time to play (wait for it) dinner music.

“You do not want to be playing loud club music at this time,” McDowell cautions. “This is a time when everyone is enjoying the company around them. We all know how hard it is to talk on the dance floor at S4 — don’t ask the DJ to create that mood during the meal.”

This is the time when we dance! After toasts from loved ones and once Aunt Ruth has finally taken her teeth out so she can dive into the wedding cake, start getting people out onto the dance floor. McDowell recommends beginning with the couple’s dance. “You did not spend eight weeks at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio to be shown up by your nephew,” so dance while everyone has to watch you. “This song will mean a lot to you, so choose it carefully.”

McDowell often spends a good deal of time before the big day consulting with couples, but in general he suggests starting with something recent and contemporary: “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele; “A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri; “Baby Now That I’ve Found You” by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Or you can keep it classy with “At Last” by Etta James, or mix the two genres and play “At Last” as covered by Beyonce.

Parent-child reunion. “Here is where it can get confusing for gay couples,” McDowell says: The “traditional” father/daughter or mother/son dance. Does your supportive but Republican pop really want to lead his son around the dancefloor? Or do both men (and women) dance with their opposite-sex parent at the same time?

“While these dances are special, they are not necessary,” McDowell says. “I have seen some couples do just mother/son dances for each respective groom at the same time, and you can also do daddy/daughter dance for each bride. If you decide to do these, remember the most important thing is choosing a song that fits for the people who dance to it. This is an acknowledgment of one of your first loves — your parents.”

Everybody cut loose! Cue Kevin Bacon from Footloose. It’s a party — people should get their asses movin’. There are several ways to get people out on a dance floor.

“This is where a DJ needs to be worth his weight in gold,” McDowell says. “He or she should have gotten to know the couple well enough in advance that they know what their friends and family will dance to. I tend to go towards something that everyone will know, like Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ or “Happy” By Pharrell.”

Be a tosser. Your party will go on well into the night with a great DJ, who will take requests but not play everything that some drunken cousin shouts out. A DJ “must be a filter for good taste. The couple should provide him with a ‘do not playlist’ — the last thing you want are clichés like  ‘The Chicken Dance,’ the Macarena, a conga line, ‘YMCA’ — yes, even at a gay wedding — the Hokey Pokey, ‘The Locomotion,’ or a limbo.”

As the night moves on, if you want to do the bouquet and garter toss, do it. Just make sure Aunt Ruth has her glasses on. “’Single Ladies’ by Beyonce is great to call all your single friends, gay or straight, to come vie for the prize,” McDowell says.

Finishing up. There are multiple ways to end the night (i.e., to get the guests to leave), but McDowell has a clear favorite.

“I will clear out the reception area and allow guests to be staged outside to send you on to the honeymoon. I have the lights turned down low and let the couple have one last dance by themselves in their reception hall. All staff, even the DJ, should be out and allow the couple a moment to dance to a song and reflect on the day.”

Michael Buble’s “You Look Wonderful Tonight” is a good idea, he says, as are “Your Song” by Elton John and “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry. “Make it memorable. Then make you way out the door to get bombarded by birdseed.”

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 11, 2014.