september

There is one perfect song. Every wedding DJ is legally obligated to play this song at every wedding. You are not actually married if this song doesn’t play. It is the exception for even the people who most resolutely do not dance; it is, of itself, an entire dance floor. The song’s time of year is now, but its time of year is also always, everywhere people get married and any time a group assembles in a barn or a hotel ballroom or a repurposed museum or a living room or a big lawn under the stars. It is infallible, and it is “September.” 

“September” was recorded by Earth, Wind & Fire in September of 1978, in the sessions for the album I Am. I looked up the lyrics in order to write this and they are significantly different than I thought they were, but it doesn’t really matter. According to legend, in the recording session, Allee Willis wanted to change the repeated ba-dee-ya lyric and asked Maurice White “what the fuck does ba-dee-ya” mean. “Who the fuck cares,” White supposedly responded. Willis later would cite this as a great songwriting lesson: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”

“September” shimmers like an oil slick on a hot day and sounds like hoping the party never ends. For the brief radio-length of the song, one can believe there is nothing else outside a single sweaty room. Most great songs sound even better if you listen to them in a car, but you can’t play “September” in a car because you can’t dance in a car. It suggests dance steps even to people like me who hopelessly cannot dance. 

It was released just before Thanksgiving in 1978. Maybe it played in the white-hot slick-chested discos of New York City over that long holiday weekend. Maybe a bunch of kids and people too old to be kids still huddling into the category danced to it on Thanksgiving, while everyone with staid and settled lives, outside the magic, was eating turkey at heavy dinner tables before heavy naps. Maybe while a million families served a million groaning, obligated meals, some glittery crowd somewhere was already throwing their hands in the air and howling ba-dee-ya along with the music. Maybe it was a wedding, then, even if no one was getting married, because “September” is always a wedding. 

Since its release, “September” has been repurposed several times as a British football chant, for reasons that are beyond my ability to explain. First it was for Newcastle United, and then for the 2018 World Cup, where fans sang the lyrics Woah, England are in Russia / Woah, drinking all the vodka/ Woah, England’s going all the way, because apparently football chants for large international world-renowned teams are like when I make up songs about my cat. England did not go all the way, the football did not come home, but everybody did get an excuse to sing “September,” which I guess means the members of the British World Cup team are all married to each other now. 

I went to a lot of weddings this summer so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to dance to “September.” “September” is always a relief because I know it’s coming, and, when it plays and everybody dances, it feels like things are happening the way they are supposed to happen. I worry a lot about getting things right, about what is the right thing at the right moment. I have carried into adulthood far too much of the lingering sense that everyone else got some kind of memo that I missed. Maybe it’s for this reason that I like “September” at a wedding so much, because “September” at a wedding is always and unquestionably the right thing at the right moment, the relief of the obvious. “September” is the literal opposite of social anxiety. If you have never experienced social anxiety, try to imagine the furthest distance from how you feel when “September” plays. 

Or maybe it’s just a jam. The DJ at the wedding I went to last weekend called himself DJ Party Starter; he had a laminated sign in front of his set-up with the name on it, and a phone number without an area code. It made the whole thing feel like a seventh grade dance, but when you aren’t in seventh grade, it’s surprising how much a seventh grade dance turns out to be what you want. At the end of an emotional and elegantly-lit evening, we were all overjoyed when DJ Party Starter turned the dance-floor laser-lights on and played “September.” It felt entirely of a piece with the evening’s sweeping emotions. We all ran onto the floor, even those of us who claimed we weren’t going to, we were all messy and foolish and no doubt looked like giant dorks. We all waved our arms in the air and yelled ba-dee-ya. I wish the times in my life when I wasn’t trying to impress anybody were less rare, more numerous, but here we were, for the three minutes and thirty-five seconds of “September.” 

There’s only one person besides Thomas who I ever thought I wanted to marry. Our relationship was sordid and fraught and ugly, too exaggeratedly horrible to be believed. He was like a straw man someone might invent in order to clumsily win an argument, except that he was a real person whom I loved desperately, in a way that obliterated my whole legible self. I had known him for the first time when I was a teenager and then he had come back into my life ten years later and there was a dangerous and irrational and larger-than-myself power to the coincidence of this return, and I let it mean more than it should have. After it went every kind of wrong, he sat in my living room and I told him I was seeing someone else already - it was true, but I told him because I wanted to hurt him, and when it worked I wished that I hadn’t, despite the vast ways in which he’d hurt me. I’d given him his stuff back and he was about to leave. We’d wound down all the conversation there was left to have and so, in the way where one reaches for the most generalized and useless words because there are none that are precise, or useful, enough, I said I wanted us to be friends. It’s astounding to me, now, to think that I meant it, but I did. I could not imagine the ongoing of my life without him. He said he couldn’t do that. Again at so much of a loss for sufficiently precise words that only ridiculous cliches came to mind, I said “I just always thought you would dance at my wedding.” 

Where had I even gotten that phrase? Who even says that? Neither of us could dance; I didn’t really, then, ever intend to get married. But dancing at a wedding, as something larger than itself, was what I meant when I imagined us healed up, able to survive the worst of one another, with the permanence of love big enough to pass from one category to the next, the kind of accumulated community that weddings celebrate as much as they celebrate a couple’s union, bringing into a room the people out of whom we have built the history of ourselves, and all of them dancing to “September.”