How To Make a Halloween-Themed Dance Party Playlist — The Scalzi Way!
On Halloween I’m DJing a dance party for SFWA as part of their online Halloween festivities; it’s a two-hour slot so naturally I made a playlist that’s four hours long, with five dozen tracks. And you may ask yourself, “Well, Scalzi, how do you make a Halloween-themed dance party playlist?” I’m glad you asked! Here’s how I do it.
1. Have more music than you will use. I have two hours to program a dance; I will not need four hours of dance music. But I will probably need four hours worth of options — if certain sorts of music are working for the crowd but not others, it’s good not to be stuck with music that’s not working, and to have the option to do more of what is working.
Which brings me to the next point:
2. Have a real mix of styles/eras/genres/etc. The playlist has goth, R&B, psychobilly, EDM, rap, pop and even some metal, because, again, you never know, and you want it all at your fingertips. Likewise, the music on hand dates from the early 70s up until this year, because I expect a range of people showing up and I don’t want anyone left out for more than a song or two.
Also, because this is a dance:
3. Songs have to be songs you can dance to OR AT LEAST emote dramatically to for a few minutes. Whenever I DJ a dance someone will invariably come up and ask me to play a song that I know will absolutely kill the momentum on the dance floor. It’s not a song anyone can dance to, it’s just a song they like. And I tell them “no,” because, get this, I’m DJing a dance. Which means that I’m going to play songs people can dance to, and not play songs people can’t or won’t dance to.
(I also have a rule that anyone who requests a song has to be on the dance floor the entire time the song is playing. This often stops the “I know it’s not really a dance song but –” requests before they get too far, because the type of person who requests songs you can’t dance to often isn’t there to dance.)
When one is putting together a themed dance mix, the rule has to be: It doesn’t matter how “on theme” the song is, if you can’t dance to it, it can fuck off right into the sun. Because, again: It’s a dance. The only exceptions are songs that, if not strictly dance songs, are “dramatically emote with your all friends on the dance floor” songs, which often work just as well, especially if (as is often the case with me) your dance crowd is filled with nerds who are the next closest thing to theater kids in terms of having a total lack of shame on the dance floor.
As a (non-Halloween-themed) example, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is not a dance song, but it goes over hugely at a dance because everyone can hang on each other and pretend they are Freddie Mercury and/or David Bowie for four minutes, and who doesn’t love that. Hard rock and heavy metal songs often work the same way (although they have to be really well-known, like AC/DC, Metallica, Van Halen and Def Leppard). I have Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains” on my Halloween playlist — you can’t dance to it, but you sure can shuffle like a zombie to it. That will be fine, as long as you program a massively danceable song on either side of it.
4. Songs should be theme-ish. Now, what qualifies as a “Halloween” song? For the purposes of my playlist, here are the criteria:
a) It is explicitly Halloween-themed;
b) It has Halloween-ish themes, like zombies or vampires or mad scientists or ghosts or heaven and/or hell;
c) It concerns itself (or has a title that concerns itself) with spooky, scary, unsettling themes, very often but not limited to death and the consideration thereof;
d) The band/musician is themselves goth/emo/metal/otherwise spooky and/or lending themselves to themes that fit will with Halloween;
e) The song’s instrumentation is dark/spooky/all about that minor key vibe.
I give myself fairly wide latitude here and some songs are really only vaguely related to the theme, but at the end of the day I think they generally work in creating the mood of “dark and danceable,” which is what you want for a Halloween dance (although not all the songs are dark, but the ones that aren’t dark are themed and danceable, at least).
With that said:
5. Don’t put songs on the playlist just because they are theme-ish. For example, I did not put “Monster Mash” on the playlist, because one, I don’t like that song very much, and two, I don’t think anyone really does, it’s just one of those songs people think they should play because it’s Halloween and there’s, like, a law that you have to play it. You don’t have to! And I won’t! If you’re coming to the dance I’m DJing and want to hear it, play it for yourself just before you come into the room where the dance is happening!
This is not to say I don’t have some de rigueur songs on the playlist — I have “Thriller” and “Time Warp” and, yes, “Ghostbusters.” But the thing is, people actually like those songs. Fine! I’m not a huuuuuge fan of the song “Ghostbusters,” but I’m also not a snob about it, so if the vibe goes that direction, sure, I’ll put it on. I want the kids to have fun. Which is the point:
6. It’s supposed to be fun. I DJ mostly for nerds and the nerd-adjacent, which means the music that works best are big hits and accessible beats — nothing too niche or too obscure, or at least, if I do go niche and obscure for a song, I lead them right back to big hits and beats right after. I have my own tastes and I’m confident about what works on a dance floor and what doesn’t. But I’m not the “DJ-as-performance” sort of DJ, although there’s nothing wrong with that and people like it. I’m the “I’m playing you songs you can dance to, one after the other” type of DJ. It works for me, and so far at least people seem to like it. I like that they like it. I like DJing. I’m looking forward to DJing on Halloween, too.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s on the playlist, I’ll publish it after the SFWA party. Until then, know the three songs featured in the entry are on the playlist.)