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The Rise and Fall of the Creepy Daddy-Daughter Dance Song

How unknown iTunes artists engineered SEO-friendly song titles into a wedding-season cash grab

At the 2020 Grammys, Camila Cabello, the pop star who broke up Fifth Harmony, debuted the single “First Man” — an ode to her father, the first man who loved her. As real-life dad Alejandro teared up in the front row, Cabello, wearing a baby pink dress styled with matching Barbie-like accessories, crooned about going over to smash boyfriend Shawn Mendes but assuring her father she’ll be home soon.

Though heavy-handed and more than a little cringe-inducing, “First Man” fills a much-needed musical void. There’s a dearth of father-daughter dance songs for weddings, quinceañeras and bat mitzvahs. And in that limited category, it’s even harder to find one that isn’t, well, creepy. With few decent options, lots of fathers and daughters end up dancing to benign love songs like “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Brown Eyed Girl.”

“The biggest thing that everyone is really hypersensitive of is ideally trying to find a song that doesn’t have lyrics that are overly romantic,” New York DJ Gary Hoffman tells MEL.

Which is why, for years now, “I Loved Her First” by country band Heartland has served as the go-to father-daughter-dance song. Hoffman says he plays it at far too many weddings. The song chronicles a possessive relationship from the father’s perspective: He informs his daughter’s groom, “I was her No. 1, she told me so,” and “She still means the world to me.”

Mary Nisi, founder of Chicago DJ company Toast & Jam, tells MEL she’s tried to steer couples away from the track. “It’s almost stalking you from a distance for the rest of your marriage,” she says of “I Loved Her First.”

Nisi read the lyrics to Cabello’s “First Man” and noticed the same possessive theme. “It’s really gross: ‘I’m fucking him,’ basically,” she says.

“First Man” and “I Loved Her First” feel harmless compared to the popular wedding track “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle, a father’s lament as his daughter gets older and doesn’t want to kiss Daddy like she used to.

How did we end up with such creepy father-daughter odes? Blame Apple and Google. In the ’90s and ’00s, when people still bought music, several independent singers saw an opportunity to profit off easily searchable songs written specifically for weddings. SEO created this monster, Hoffman says: “They all have terrible, very long titles so [they can] pull from search engines.”

Unassuming dads who search Google or iTunes for good father-daughter wedding songs will come across “Daddy Dance With Me” by Chris Keith (about a teenage girl sneaking a dance with Daddy before her prom date arrives) and “My Wish Came True (Father Daughter Wedding Dance Song)” by Reid Michaels. “The parents listen to it, and they’re like, ‘The sentiment is so amazing. This is just how I feel!’” Hoffman says.

One of the most popular songs created solely for weddings is “A Song for My Son” by Reverend Mikki Viereck. She released it in 1992, after years as a wedding singer overhearing mothers complain how there wasn’t a perfect song to express how much they love their son. A year later, she released “A Song for My Daughter” for — you guessed it — fathers.

Hoffman isn’t a fan of either song, but he often spins them at weddings. “It’s really so cheesy. It’s so Hallmark-y,” he says.

Surprisingly, Viereck herself agrees. “That’s all right, sonny boy,” she tells me on the phone. “When you get married, somebody is going to play it for you and your mom.”

Viereck found so much success by marketing “A Song for My Son” to local Connecticut newspapers and radio stations, she scored a Today Show segment with Katie Couric and was the audio Daily Double on Jeopardy. However, the advent of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, which offer countless songs with a subscription, curtailed her songwriting career. “A Song for My Son” is not on Apple Music or Spotify — but it did play at both of Viereck’s sons’ weddings.

Cabello’s “First Man” is available to stream, though. The song is featured on her new album, Romance. But even after her sentimental Grammys performance, “First Man” isn’t charting… yet. That shouldn’t stop Cabello from becoming the next go-to wedding songwriter: There’s a few months before peak nuptials season hits, and she’s got lots of promotion to do until then.

“Oh, brother, this is too cheesy for me,” Hoffman says when I ask him to play “First Man.” “But I bet I will see it on request lists going forward.”