Welcome to The Playlist Project, where we’ll be posing musical questions to Paste staff, interns and writers and then compiling their responses into a handy playlist before opening it up for discussion in our comments section.
Prom season is upon us, which means soon high-school kids will be fumbling with corsages, guzzling punch and dancing at arm’s length or feeling each other up in limos across the nation. Which brings us to this week’s Playlist Project…
Sheriff, “When I’m With You”
A little bit of trivia: The word “prom” is derived from the ancient Anglo-Saxon “promswlwy,” which translates roughly to “mirrorball” and refers to a coming-of-age ritual in which the young men of the village would have contests to see who could make the most stilted small talk with the young women of the village. But proms as we know them today didn’t actually exist until 1982, when they were invented in response to the hit single “When I’m With You,” by the Canadian mullet-pop band Sheriff. Keyboardist Arnold Lanni based the melody on the old Scottish hymn “E’er Ye Spike the Punch, O’ Laddy,” and vocalist Freddy Curci set the world record for longest note held in a pop song.* He actually sustained the note for three full hours before he noticed that the band had all gone home and the studio had been closed for the night. On a personal note, this writer has fond memories of dancing to the song with his prom date, that cute French girl from Better Off Dead.
*This part is really true. Promise. Look it up.
The Avett Brothers, “The Ballad of Love and Hate”
2007, the year of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (”...ella, ella”) and Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” (“to the left, to the left”). I do remember dancing to the Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah.” But if I had my way, I would request The Avett Brothers’ “The Ballad of Love and Hate” from their 2007 album Emotionalism. So much sappy goodness.
Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Being the most popular girl in school, my AP English teacher’s daughter was my friend date to prom. The only song I can remember playing for sure in that hazy hotel ballroom in 2006 is Bubba Sparxxx’s classic love song “Ms. New Booty.” If I were to do it again, I’d have requested Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” The lulling melody is ideal for slow-dance swaying, and I’ve been drawn to the song’s repetition of the word “strange” since the first time I heard it as a kid in the ‘90s. There’s no better word than “strange” to sum up both my high school experience and the romantic notion of dissolving into someone else.
Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”
So I may have skipped both of my proms—on one occasion to watch the opening weekend of Spider-Man 2—but there really is only one answer. Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” dominated teenage romance in the late ‘90s. Parents loved it, kids loved it, and Canadians probably still present-tense love it. Know who didn’t love it? Teachers: the track was like some Jedi Mind Trick that automatically triggered a sea of brace-mashing, teeth-knocking make-out sessions. It was a giant red carpet for pioneering hormones. Having missed both proms, this is all second-hand knowledge from Mike Spinelli. Good tune, though.
Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On”
My pretentious private school in the suburbs would never let our virgin ears behold such raunchiness as Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” at the faculty-supervised prom in the refectory. Seventeen-year-old Hilary would have reveled in the subtle rebelliousness of slow dancing to a song so lascivious and classic.
Aerosmith, “Dream On”
It was, of course, my first slow dance. Those things imprint…in ways the boy, the room, the moment never do. Aerosmith, still skagged out, writhing around a melody that seemed to have no point, beyond just the slow twining up a—could it be?—stairway to heaven. But before Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and company got serious about machining hits, there was an innocence to this extended ballad that weighed the ravages of life, the inevitability of aging and the hope that we can invest in dreams. Not quite a “buck up and get on with it” notion, there was a siren’s song quality to “Dream On” that inspired slower, deeper, more humid breathing in your ear, a pooling of sweat on your body and yes, the awakening of desire to be explored. Though you’re sure you’ve got it figured out at prom, “Dream On” suggests that whether you do or not, whatever happens beyond this moment, press through, and yes, dream on.
Hunx And His Punx, “Too Young to be in Love”
To be completely honest I don’t remember many songs that played at my prom, or if we had a “prom song,” but I do remember dancing to T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” My dress was rad and full of tulle, and my date wore a top hat and bowtie, so we took up a lot of room on the dancefloor. If we could go back, I’d like to dance to Hunx and his Punx’s “Too Young to Be in Love” because it is reminiscent of teenage years and would have been a hell of a lot of fun. Thinking back, I hope prom DJs have gotten better.
The Magnetic Fields, “With Whom to Dance?”
Proms (as far as I recall, which ain’t too well at my advanced age) tend to be heavy laden with emotion. You’re looking at the end of your high school years and potentially the halting of whatever school-age relationship you might be in. A song like this will drive the memory of this one big even deep into your mind for, hopefully, decades to come. For two-and-a-half glorious minutes, sway to the gentle tune, get lost in the eyes of your partner, and sing the bridge (“And you, you look like heaven…”) with all the quiet emotion you can muster.
Harry Nilsson, “Without You”/Next, “Too Close”
Having been weaned the last few months on a steady diet of Harry Nilsson, I can’t imagine a more fitting tune to slow-dance to at prom than Nilsson’s performance of the Badfinger opus “Without You.” The song is essentially a tight-wire act of human emotion that would almost perfectly suit the hyperbolic passions of hormonal adolescents, everyone thinking, quite literally, that at the age of 16 they simply could not live if living was without the person whose waist they clutched in some sweaty gymnasium. This, no doubt, would be immediately followed by an awkward, but likely completely topical bent-waist boogie to Next’s classic “Too Close,” which for some reason high schools across the country feel is a sound playlist inclusion, despite its signing off for all the guys to go ahead and get boners while the girls feel those boners thanks to the close proximity of their dancing. Conclusion: Dress slacks are the worst pants in the world for proms.
The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love”
My musical taste has broadened drastically since high school, when I was mostly disappointed that a) there weren’t really any Pink Floyd songs appropriate for slow-dancing, and b) my classmates wouldn’t have voted for one anyway. (“Wish You Were Here” might have worked, but our senior prom theme lo those many years ago was Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” a song I’ve never particularly liked.) These days, I’d go the more directly sappy—but smart—route and lobby for “The Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields. Sure, the “wedding rings” bit at the end is a little intense for high school, but who didn’t think at one point that they might marry their high school sweetheart? Plus, it sure would keep the chaperones busy breaking up the teenage lip-locking, and everyone knows time goes by faster when you’re occupied.
Lonestar, “Amazed”/Brian McKnight, “Back at One”
I’ve been know to get my hand-to-hip sway on to two songs in particular: 1) “Amazed” by Lonestar. Until five minutes ago I thought this was a Tim McGraw song and had a really good joke about his black leather cowboy hat being surgically fused to his scalp ready to go…but alas, this was one-hit wonder Lonestar’s one hit. Regardless, “Amazed” was the go-to track if you wanted to get the juices flowing on any late-’90s Texas dance floor…And 2) “Back At One” by Brian McKnight. Where to even start with this one? Kills every time. So much passion. So much tenderness. Also easily the best farm-based music video of all time. Only B-Mac could turn a corn field into a sex field so convincingly.
David Lynch, “Bad the John Boy”
Prom was so stressful for me, because it fell right in that self-conscious sweet spot between the innocence of childhood and the confidence of adulthood. I knew the girl I was going to ask, and she knew I was going to ask, and so did all of our friends, but I delayed the whole process for about a month due to the resurgent crippling anxiety that spread like warm raindrops inside my head every time I even imagined how the process would go. Finally I made my big move, she said yes, and we went to prom. I think we had an “Under the Stars” theme, and I remember David Gray’s “Babylon” playing at one point. The whole thing was fairly awkward on my end, because at that point in my life I couldn’t dance (still can’t) or socialize under pressure (better). At one point, I was convinced that my date had a crush on this tall goofy guy who was wearing a zebra suit. At the after party, I did not hook up with anyone. My date began seeing the boy with the zebra suit later that summer, and if I had
Yo La Tengo, “Nowhere Near”
All I remember about my prom was trying to skank for the first and only time in my life. If you had let me pick a song to slow-dance to at the time, I probably would’ve chosen some sadsack indie-rock thing, like Yo La Tengo’s “Nowhere Near,” which is beautiful and wistful and could probably be described using some form of the word “ache.” I’d probably pick the same thing today, actually, because my tastes in almost everything are exactly the same as they were when I was 17.
Van Morrison, “Cyprus Avenue”
The only two things I really remember about my prom are that my friends and I got brunch the next morning in our PJs and took a picture with local WGN news anchor Allison Payne (who I’m sure was thrilled to have her brunch interrupted by a gang of pajama-clad teens in various states of disarray) and that our theme was “Time of My Life.” The latter is a little weird for a couple of reasons: First of all, the year was 2006, so it’s pretty surprising that the song from Dirty Dancing (which came out in 1987, the same year most of us were born) came away with the popular vote, but even in the pre-Buzzfeed era, ‘80s nostalgia ran deep, I guess. It’s also only really a slow song for a few seconds before the tempo picks up, which means that if you’re an awkward high schooler and not a professional dancer doing choreographed ballroom moves, it can present a few challenges. If I had it my way, I’d cap off my prom with a slow dance to Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue.” The lovely harpsichord sounds so innocent and collegiate, fitting for a bunch of kids drinking punch before shipping off to college, and while there are plenty of more romantic slow-dance choices (ask me and I’ll tell you them), prom’s not really about romance so much as it’s about being young and dumb and pretending you’re fancy, so Van the Man’s nostalgic ode to being 14 in Belfast, drinking cherry wine and dreaming of the other side of the tracks, seems like a perfect pick.
Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With”
The year was 2008 and I was sans-date. My high-school prom always had separate set areas for different genres of music: a room with a DJ for rap and a room with a full live band for rock ‘n’ roll. You could find me with the DJ—where there were no slow songs—attempting my uncultured version of Huey’s “Pop, Lock & Drop It.” I still have the egg-white, strapless silk dress that’s torn right down the back end. I can also distinctly remember dancing to Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” because who’s ever really at prom with the one person they actually wanted to ask/be asked by? “And if you can’t be with the one you love honey, love the one you’re with.” No one.
Alanis Morrisette, “You Oughta Know”
Oh jeez. The date was 2006, so I know we danced to “Yeah!” by Usher or “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake, but the slowest dance escapes me. That’s either because I skipped out on it to partake in whatever my post-prom, Straight Edge (some things do change) festivities were, or I just can’t remember because prom didn’t mean a whole lot to me. But if I could project the years that’d come ahead, there’s no amount of money I’d pay to have this song play while I shoot a dead-eye gaze at my prom date.
Old 97’s, “Question”
I didn’t go to my prom. I’d like to say it was by choice, but it wasn’t [cue opening strums of Old 97’s “Question”]. Instead I used this Rhett Miller acoustic classic for the first dance at my wedding. The lyrics to the sappy sing-along depicts a couple walking through the park, and the male character asking the question you should say yes to, once in your life. OK, maybe a little heavy for a prom…but it’s better than goddamn “Hold On to the Night” by Richard Marx!