It's a time steeped in meaning, when shared memories meet shared dreams. Such a moment calls for a great, nostalgia-boosting soundtrack. So why do virtually all schools play, again and again, the mind-numbingly clichéd marching tunes such as "Pomp and Circumstance," which was composed in 1901?
The ceremony is at least as much for the proud parents as it is for the graduates. So why not honor Mom and Pop boomer by striking up tunes that really mean something to them? Band directors should arrange a graduation soundtrack of hits from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.
With so many melodies from the golden age of rock 'n' roll to choose from, we need guidelines to narrow the choices. Each song should:
•have been recorded between 1960 and 1980.
•be from a Top 10 album.
•enjoy widespread recognition. We want people singing along.
•have an uplifting melody. So Lou Reed's "Heroin" is out.
•be topic appropriate. That cuts Don McLean's "American Pie." You can't celebrate graduation with a song lamenting the death of three young men in a plane crash.
•not have been overused at boomer weddings, which nixes The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."
•not be an intensely annoying piece of commercial pap, a criterion needed if only to exclude Cliff Richards's "Congratulations."
Further winnowing yields the following "10 Best Tunes to Play at Graduation." Play in this order:
1. "School's Out," Alice Cooper. It's an obvious rocker to get things rolling.
2. "Heroes," David Bowie. Its lyrics – "We can be heroes/ Just for one day" – subtly breaks it to the students that this may be as good as it gets.
3. "Time Is On My Side," The Rolling Stones. Most economists agree that the current recession will end before today's graduates reach retirement age.
4. "Dancing in the Street," Martha and the Vandellas. We need to restore the festive tone.
5. "White Rabbit," Jefferson Airplane. Back in the day, hip boomers listened to the Airplane; squares didn't. Aging hipsters will feel cool again for recognizing the song and getting the joke; they might even start singing "Feed your head" in unison. The squares still won't get it.
6. "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry. The quintessential you-can-do-it morality tale.
7. "Another Brick in the Wall," Pink Floyd. A terrible song, but everyone can enjoy the postmodern irony of using this tune at graduation.
8. "Get up, Stand up," The Wailers. This one's nonnegotiable.
9. "With a Little Help from my Friends," The Beatles. This will work nicely with the commencement address, regardless of who gives it.
10. "Celebration," Kool & the Gang. This should be played as the new grads march into the world. By now, people will be so into the music they'll be laying bets on what comes next. Everyone will be predicting this one, so we mustn't disappoint them. Better to make them think they're smart. The ironic alternative is to finish with Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" and see who catches the allusion.
With this playlist, a good concert band should be able to get the audience clapping and singing along in a way they never would to the old chestnuts. What's more, the songs invoked by the tunes have meanings appropriate to the occasion and messages we can all still benefit from.
Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University.