9 .”Wonderful Tonight,” Eric Clapton
This soft rock “classic” makes the playlist at a lot of wedding receptions, and it shouldn’t. Here’s why: on the surface, “Wonderful Tonight” sounds like a sweet, loving tribute from Eric to his then-wife (and George Harrison’s ex-wife), Pattie Boyd. But listen to the words, and there is definitely something darker going on: “It’s time to go home now, and I’ve got an aching head. So I give her the car keys, and she helps me to bed.” In other words, Clapton tied one on at the party and is too drunk to make love to his beautiful wife, or even drive her home. He just keeps murmuring “You were wonderful tonight,” before finally passing out. Is that any way to start out a marriage?
8. “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be,” Carly Simon
Ugh. Carly Simon is a beautiful, talented woman, so why did she have to record this grim number about shedding your identity and conforming to social norms? Was she trying to warn James Taylor that their marriage was going to be a dud? “You want to marry me? We’ll marry,” Carly drones sleepily, like someone who has been mixing their antidepressants with too much alcohol. A wonderful theme song if they ever decide to make another re-boot of The Stepford Wives.
7. “You to Thank,” Ben Folds
Ben Folds has been to the altar four times, which has enabled him to build an impressive catalog of songs about shitty marriages. The couple in “You to Thank” is doomed from the start. Their first Christmas together, they manage to put on a brave front for their parents, but both man and wife are already contemplating exit plans. “I’ve got you to thank for this!” Folds wails at his imaginary partner while banging out a few angry chords. If you happen to invite Ben Folds to your wedding reception, you might keep him a safe distance from the piano…and the liquor.
6. “Everybody Hurts,” R.E.M.
This 1992 hit from when the Athens, Georgia band was at the height of its powers reads like one of those brightly colored pamphlets you might find in your grief counselor’s waiting room. “Hold on,” and “Don’t throw your hand,” is Michael Stipe’s advice for us, even though the day is long and tomorrow’s going to be another crappy day, and there isn’t much worth living for. I listened to this song a lot after breaking up with a college girlfriend. It didn’t help.
5. “Cats in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin
Not specifically about marriage, but just an all-around downer about career pressures and family life. The CliffsNotes on this 1970s folk hit: Dad doesn’t make time to do things with his son, then gets all bent out of shape when the kid, now grown, doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. Karma’s a bitch, and Harry makes sure we get the point, over and over again, with a sentimental but catchy chorus.
4. “Carry On,” Fun
I threw this one in here because I heard a mom humming it to her three-year-old in the park today, and I was reminded of what a terrible, terrible song this is for any occasion. Yet another piece of unsolicited advice from a twenty-something pop star on how to endure this long slog through the muck called life: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry o-o-o-o-on!” Somewhere out there, Michael Stipe is flapping his arms awkwardly.
3. “Ball and Chain,” Social Distortion
Title says it all, doesn’t it? The protagonist in this song copes with his failing marriage by holing up in a cheap motel, drinking all day at the bar, and telling anyone who will listen about his troubles. “You can run all your life, but not get anywhere,” he says, apparently too depressed or drunk to pick up the phone and tell his wife it’s over.
2. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band
One of the bleakest, most depressing songs from a man who has written a career’s worth of bleak, depressing songs. Deception, humiliation, unemployment, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts–“Darkness” covers all the elements that can turn a marriage into a living nightmare. Word has it even The Boss himself had to ingest a couple of Valium after recording this 1978 classic.
1. “Just the Way You Are,” Billy Joel
“Baby, don’t go changin’ to try and please me. Because, I’ll tell you, this is one hombre who ain’t changin’ for no one! What you see is what you get, that’s what I say! And what if you start changin’ too much, maybe tryin’ to improve yourself by going to the gym or takin’ night classes? Well, then, I’ll be forced to change into an angry little man who’s gonna need to know what his wife is up to every single second of the day. Nobody needs that, right?! So quit your yappin’ and let’s sit down and watch Rockford Files together, okay?”
Editor’s Note: No Pink Floyd, Nirvana or country music songs were considered for this list because, well, what would be the point?