Arts & Entertainment

The Good Listener: How do I play DJ without embarrassing myself?

Look, she did such a great job picking music that they don't even need to keep their eyes on the road!
Look, she did such a great job picking music that they don't even need to keep their eyes on the road!
Monkey Business Images/

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the brick-sized bale of bills that arrived during our recent vacation is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on how to play DJ from the passenger seat of a friend's car.

Lee C. writes via email: "I don't have a car, so I spend a lot of time in the passenger seat of other people's cars. Usually, the fare for such a ride is being handed someone's phone and asked to pick music. I am not a person who feels super-confident about their taste in music, and I am generally motivated by a strong desire to not embarrass myself in social situations. What do I play in the car of a friend I want to impress? What do I play in the car of my boyfriend, who asks me to pick music on a regular basis and is getting sick of my hemming and hawing and eventually just picking the Weepies again?"

[Before we get started, a quick note: If you have any questions you'd love to see answered in The Good Listener, email Stephen Thompson at! We're always looking for column ideas.]

First of all, there's no shame in picking the Weepies! If anything, your friends may be asking you to pick the music because you're astute enough to play the good stuff. In fact, if you want them to stop asking, a steady diet of "(You're) Having My Baby," "We Built This City" and the complete collected works of MC Skat Kat ought to shut that right down, though you may have a trickier time finding rides going forward.

I'm assuming that, when someone hands you his or her phone and asks you to pick music, you're using an app like Spotify rather than an individual's MP3 or cloud library, right? Because an indecisive music-picker's best friend is limited options. Faced with the virtual infinity that is Spotify — or the seeming near-infinity of a 20,000-song iTunes library — it's easy to freeze up and get bogged down. If you're able to narrow the possibilities down to something you can scroll through easily, you'll have a much less difficult time landing on go-to Weepies equivalents in a pinch.

For years, I've sorted my 40-song year-end best-of sets into iTunes playlists, which come in supremely handy as background music, fallback options, road-trip music everyone in the car can agree on, and so forth. In recent weeks, as I've begun to explore the cutting edge of technology circa 2012, I've tinkered around with Spotify to create playlists of my favorite songs of 2015's first half, instrumental music to filter out distractions while I'm editing, and songs I enjoyed as a grocery-store stock boy in the late '80s. In the weeks and months to come, I'll add old year-end lists, all-time favorites and high-concept lists I concoct on a whim — not only because my bosses at NPR Music asked me to, but because I too am sometimes overwhelmed by the listening options at my fingertips.

Finally, I will always push back against the idea that one's musical tastes should be the source of shame, social pressure or embarrassment, and will happily remind you that the people you're trying to impress — the cool friend, the romantic partner — are often asking you to pick music because they don't want to subject their taste in music to ridicule. But you can absolutely inoculate yourself against embarrassment by preparing playlists in advance, whether they're Spotify lists you can access from a friend's phone or MP3 folders you keep stashed on your own device.

Go ahead and start writing down the names of the artists, albums and songs that you love and would enjoy sharing — if you feel you must, don't be afraid to crib from other sources — and then build yourself a master list you can call on in a pinch. Before you know it, you'll be fielding requests like a real DJ.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @idislikestephen.

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