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The Ultimate Wedding Playlist

In early May, I asked FiveThirtyEight readers to send in their wedding reception set lists, and good God, did you deliver. I received 163 playlists1 with 9,281 songs among them.

As a result, I’m pleased to introduce FiveThirtyEight’s ultimate wedding playlist, based on the most popular songs among the reception set lists people sent in:

SONG SET LIST APPEARANCES
1 Hey Ya! 69
2 I Wanna Dance With Somebody 57
3 Uptown Funk 55
4 Shout 54
5 Crazy In Love 50
6 Don’t Stop Believin’ 45
7 Billie Jean 44
7 Get Lucky 44
7 Twist and Shout 44
10 Shut Up and Dance 43
11 September 41
11 Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough 41
13 Yeah! 40
14 I Want You Back 39
14 You Make My Dreams 39
16 Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) 38
17 Sweet Caroline 36
18 Happy 34
18 We Found Love 34
20 Call Me Maybe 33
20 Ignition (Remix) 33
The ultimate wedding playlist

Before we dive into the data, let’s go back to those responses, because they were really something else. There were winery weddings and ski lodge weddings, destination weddings and barn weddings. There were big weddings, small weddings, straight weddings, same-sex weddings, secular weddings and big church weddings. I heard from the top live wedding band in California — all three of them. I received playlists designed for Polish weddings, Indian weddings, French-Canadian weddings and Brazilian weddings, along with the necessary musical additions for weddings in Buffalo, New York. I heard from someone who distributed my analysis of the proper rate of descent during “Shout” at his nuptials, which was pretty rad. I had someone send me “The Rains of Castamere” from an anonymous email account, which as a “Game of Thrones” nut I should have seen coming. One person sent me a 20-song playlist composed entirely of “Rock Lobster,” which is a far longer song than you likely recall. My heart was warmed by all the stories that couples sent in and then re-frosted when I saw how few of them played “Danza Kuduro.”

And the variety of responses really came through in the data. Even though the list of the most popular overall songs suggests a consensus, there was far from total homogeneity. There were 3,358 unique songs in this set. The top 359 songs accounted for just half of the plays. The point: Wedding playlists consist of a core of songs that appear very regularly, plus several more unusual songs that are informed by the choices of the couple and — based on what people told me in their emails — the often emphatic recommendations of family.

It’s very much the same way with the artists:

ARTIST SET LIST APPEARANCES
1 Michael Jackson 202
2 Beyoncé 130
3 The Beatles 120
4 Stevie Wonder 108
5 Outkast 94
6 Queen 88
7 Rihanna 85
8 Van Morrison 74
9 The Jackson 5 73
10 Justin Timberlake 71
10 Whitney Houston 71
12 Daft Punk 69
13 Prince 64
14 Pitbull 63
15 Lady Gaga 59
15 Mark Ronson 59
15 Usher 59
18 Journey 58
19 The Isley Brothers 57
20 Elvis Presley 52
21 Earth, Wind & Fire 50
21 Frank Sinatra 50
21 Kanye West 50
21 The Temptations 50
25 The Rolling Stones 49
26 Daryl Hall & John Oates 48
26 Madonna 48
28 David Bowie 47
29 Jay Z 46
30 Flo Rida 45
30 Taylor Swift 45
32 Walk the Moon 44
33 Katy Perry 43
33 Sam Cooke 43
35 R. Kelly 42
36 Billy Joel 40
36 LMFAO 40
36 Neil Diamond 40
39 The Black Eyed Peas 39
40 The B-52s 38
41 Bruce Springsteen 37
41 Kesha 37
43 Carly Rae Jepsen 36
44 Elton John 35
44 Miley Cyrus 35
44 Missy Elliott 35
47 Notorious B.I.G. 34
47 The Beach Boys 34
47 The Cure 34
Top wedding playlist artists

Michael Jackson appears most often, but even that understates his essential role in wedding dance parties given that the Jackson 5 are No. 9 on the list.

Just as important as the stuff that gets played, though, is the material that couples make unambiguously clear will not be played under any circumstances. We didn’t get “do not play” lists from everyone, so take this with a grain of salt, but a few trends appeared. Line dances are a big presence: Guess some people got burned by the “Cha-Cha Slide” and don’t want to mentally go back there. Other polarizing songs include Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” “Sweet Caroline” and the detestable “Blurred Lines,” as well as the entire catalogs of Dave Matthews Band,2 Maroon 53 and the Village People.4 Hey, it’s your party.

There are several distinct eras evident in the data. You’ve got your Motown and oldies: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” by Stevie Wonder; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; and “At Last,” by Etta James. There are hits from the 1970s and 1980s, including Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” — the song with the most interesting popularity trajectory in pop music5 — and the B-52s’ “Love Shack.” There’s a robust contemporary contingent — “Uptown Funk,” “Shut Up and Dance,” “Happy” and “Shake It Off” are hot right now — plus some established modern icons, including “Get Lucky,” “Ignition (Remix),” “Hey Ya!,” “Single Ladies” and “Yeah!”

One thing this data doesn’t tell us is how wedding playlists have changed over the decades. When new songs join the canon every year, we don’t extend receptions to accommodate them: There’s a finite amount of dance floor time, and all we’ve got is a snapshot here. Still, I am endlessly curious about how these generic set lists would change over time.

My first thought was that different songs get phased out survival-of-the-fittest style. In 10 years’ time, perhaps “Low” will be the sole vestige of 2007, and its contemporaries — “Cupid Shuffle,” “Paper Planes” and “Electric Feel” — will be lost to time. But then I saw the distribution of release years, and I contrived a new theory.

hickey-weddingplaylist-1

There are peaks centering on the mid-1960s, the early 1980s and (obviously) the last few years. Now, I don’t have any hard proof for this theory besides [expressively waves hand at that chart], but here’s what I think is causing the funky trimodal distribution above: Everyone at the wedding — the couple, their parents, their parents’ parents — gets a few songs from when they were in their late teens and early 20s. Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math. According to the U.S. census, the median age at first marriage for the bride is about 27, so for a 2016 wedding, we can approximate that she was born around 1989. That means her parents would have gotten married in the late 1980s — let’s just say 1986. Mom would have been 22 or so back then based on the census data, which would place her birth around 1964. That would put the 2016 bride’s grandparents’ wedding around the early 1960s, when the median marriage age for women was 20.

So it isn’t so much that “‘Uptown Funk’ will be absent from weddings within 10 years,” but rather “‘Uptown Funk’ may be absent from weddings within 10 years, but it could make a hell of a comeback in 25 years when the 2016 couple’s offspring starts getting married.”

In the end, receptions are another reflection of the whole point of weddings: starting something new and uncertain and kind of frightening, but beginning it in something traditional and established and fundamentally familiar. As the old saying goes, “something old, something new, something borrowed, to the window, to the wall, ’til the sweat … [redacted],” or some crap like that.

The top 200 are here:



Footnotes

  1. The response was so great that I’m being a bit choosy with what we’re including here: I pulled playlists that have been played (or will be played) during the dance portion of a wedding reception. Thank you also to all the DJs who sent in their generic set list — I plan to write a separate story on that data.

  2. Good call!

  3. Good call!

  4. What the hell, Brendan?

  5. When I was reporting on trends in classic rock two years ago — a thoroughly subjective genre when you get down to it and an exercise not entirely dissimilar to this one — a programming director told me that “Don’t Stop Believin’” jumped from barely played to one of the most in-demand songs on terrestrial radio since the mid-2000s thanks largely to the series finale of “The Sopranos.” It went from bench warmer to star player lightning quick. My favorite metric to show this is to look at the song’s placement on the annual ranking of the top 1,043 rock songs put together by New York’s classic rock station WAXQ (104.3 FM). In 2004, the song was ranked 485th on the list. By 2011, it had moved up to 75th. Obviously, the 1981 song itself did not change between 2004 and 2011. We did!

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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