A (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide To The Music Of 'Mad Men'
Pay a visit to New York City's Museum of the Moving Image to see its blockbuster show Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, and toward the end of the exhibit you will find a lonely kiosk. It's easy to overlook — by the time you've waded through the throngs of museumgoers, and snaked your way through the lovingly preserved costumes and meticulously recreated sets of Don Draper's office and Betty Draper's kitchen, this standee with a screen and two sets of dangling headphones feels like an afterthought.
This modest display commemorates the music of Mad Men — touch the screen and pick a song. Show creator Matthew Weiner will tell you why Mr. Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," a strangely sultry instrumental by a British clarinetist that happened to be Billboard's No. 1 song of 1962, appeared on the show. Twice.
Given how much bric-a-brac is packed into the MOMI exhibit, it's understandable that they couldn't devote more space to Mad Men's music — but really, this forlorn kiosk should be a surround-sound amphitheater. The music that Weiner has employed over seven seasons of his acclaimed AMC advertising-industry melodrama, which began its final half-season of episodes Sunday night, has been every bit as integral to the show's thesis about 1960s America as its actors, costumes and production design. Especially if you're a pop-chart nerd like me, the music of Mad Men has felt smart, iconoclastic and (mostly) right on.
In telling the story of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper, Weiner has strived to capture the 1960s as they were lived, not the decade many selectively remember — the hagiographic "Sixties" from countless documentaries and public-TV pledge drives — and that extends to the songs. Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" hasn't appeared once, nor has his "Blowin' in the Wind." There's been no "For What It's Worth" by the Buffalo Springfield, no "A Change Is Gonna Come" from Sam Cooke, nor even the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie." The Beatles made a (very expensive) appearance in one episode, but it had nothing to do with Sgt. Pepper or the Summer of Love; another time, when the Fabs' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was featured, it was only briefly whistled by lead character Don Draper. You'd think the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" would have been a gimme, since the show is set in the dirty streets of pre–fiscal crisis New York, but nope.
Avoiding these great but overused songs would just be contrarianism by Weiner if he weren't so exacting about the songs he does include. Though they are unlikely to pop up on oldies radio today, many of Mad Men's songs were megasmashes in their day. The fact is, on the radio and the charts, the '60s was generally a pretty schmaltzy decade, not the nonstop Boomer-rock paradise of repute. (Yes, even the late '60s.) Pick up any Billboard book commemorating the Hot 100 hits of yesteryear, and as you leaf through the '60s you'll be presented less with classics by Jimi Hendrix or The Who than by curios like the Singing Nun, The Tornados, Kyu Sakamoto, Paul Mauriat and Jeannie C. Riley. All of these one-hit-wonder acts have been showcased on Mad Men, alongside a handful of undeniable classics by the Stones, The Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra.
The show's fans have noticed, and appreciated, Weiner's attention to musical minutiae — they have crowdsourced lists of every detectable song in every episode. One time, just before the show's fifth-season premiere, some attentive critics even got Weiner to swap a Dusty Springfield song that was anachronistic to the season's 1966 timeline by just a few months; he changed it just before the episode aired, thanking the critics and attesting to his "deep appreciation for details." (You don't say, Matt.)
Below, I've collected a bunch of the show's cleverest song choices since its 2007 premiere and, where applicable, run down some Billboard chart stats. I've stuck to original recordings (so there's no Megan Draper cooing "Zou Bisou Bisou" here, captivating as that is) and grouped them by theme, to help try to answer to question of why the music in this show is so rewarding. As critic Hanna Rosin astutely notes this week in Slate, "Weiner has a genius for making scenes that are stagey and mannered yet nonetheless emotionally affecting, by capturing the small moments." Indeed, the music of Mad Men is often the stagiest thing about the show, and yet these small musical moments, many under a minute long, consistently pay off with delight and satisfaction — even when the song is as obvious as "Satisfaction."
Sure, the '60s had Motown, British Invasion, psychedelia — but the pop instrumental was a greater chart presence than many remember. Billboard's No. 1 song of 1960 was Percy Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place," and the aforementioned "Stranger on the Shore" was tops for 1962; both have appeared on Mad Men. Trumpeter Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass also make a brief appearance — they were the second-biggest album-chart act of the '60s, after the Beatles.
So while most of Mad Men's orchestral soundtrack is provided by the show's longtime composer , Weiner has also seeded the show with instrumentals that were the aural wallpaper of their day. In 1962 alone, three instrumentals topped Billboard's Hot 100 — the most ever in a single year — and in season two, set in '62, two of these songs make appearances: Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," and the short-lived British band the Tornados, with their space-age ode to a communications satellite "Telstar." (Oddly, the only '62 instrumental chart-topper left untouched by Weiner is David Rose's bawdy "The Stripper.") "Telstar" is a particularly clever Easter egg, playing at the end of an episode in which adman Don Draper strong-arms his way into a West Coast aerospace conference.
Even as the show enters the politically charged late '60s, soothing instrumental hits keep on coming — Weiner juxtaposes heavy events with frilly mass culture to depict how America's Silent Majority pacified itself. In the season five finale, as Draper visits a local movie palace, Alpert's suave "Casino Royale" plays over the opening credits of the 1967 James Bond spoof of the same name; its appearance is incidental but also plays wittily off of Draper's status as the show's faux-Bond and serial bachelor. By 1968 — the year of fiery protest, national tragedy and blues-rock — French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat was atop the charts with his baroque harpsichord jam "Love Is Blue." It's the closing song of the episode dealing with the Martin Luther King Jr., assassination, the same episode that finds Don back at the movies with his son, taking in Planet of the Apes.
Central to the premise of Mad Men is that it is told through the eyes of pre–Baby Boomers, for whom the 1960s' folkways and cultural uprisings come less as shocks than as irritants. The character of Don Draper was born in the 1920s, Roger Sterling in the 1910s; even young copywriter Peggy Olson's birthdate precedes America's entry into World War II. While some of the show's sharpest moments find Draper, at the cusp of his forties, confronted by rock (we'll get to that Beatles moment in a minute), Weiner also cossets Draper's generation with songs they might find appealing — and not all of them were, at that point, oldies.
Scenes involving Don's first wife Betty are often soundtracked with prerock songs, starting right with Mad Men's premiere episode: As Don returns home to the suburbs after one of his urban assignations to an unaware Betty, the show concludes with a mid-'50s hit by crooner Vic Damone, "On the Street Where You Live" (taken from a musical, My Fair Lady, that was still commanding Broadway in 1960). Or in season two, after a tense client dinner, Don and Betty drive home with the radio playing the syrupy 1962 ballad "Roses and Lollipops" — bitterly ironic as the alienated Betty weeps. And not all of these easy-listening chestnuts involve the show's older characters. In season four, as Don gently flirts with (and is rebuffed by) the niece of his California secret-keeper Anna, he dances with the young woman to a Patti Page song that was a hit when he was 30 and she perhaps 12 — reinforcing the yawning generation gap between them.
One of my favorite musical moments of the entire series came in the first half of this final season, at a party thrown by Don's second wife Megan in her new L.A. home. It's the summer of '69 — the dresses are short, the party guests stoned. And what edgy, street-fightin' record is spinning on the hi-fi? The blowsy AM-radio staple "You've Made Me So Very Happy" by Blood Sweat & Tears, a nominal "rock" song with a schmaltz core that spent much of the prior spring parked in the Billboard Top 10. It is exactly the kind of unhip song that would be playing at a party in 1969 (and exactly the kind of record no other TV show or movie set in the '60s would have put on its soundtrack). As if knowing the song isn't quite cool enough for her party, Megan pulls the record off and implores her musician friends to play.
In a season one episode, four junior Sterling Cooper admen gather in oily executive Pete Campbell's office to listen to a comedy album. Not just any album — it's The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, 1960's top-selling LP and the first comedy disc to win the Grammy for Album of the Year (a feat repeated only one more time by a comedy disc, Vaughn Meader's Kennedy-spoofing The First Family). Here again is a side of the '60s that Weiner unearths and celebrates — the curiosities, the detritus, the cheese, some of it surprisingly enduring. It takes a puckish sense of humor to feature a song by peppy British hitmaker Petula Clark, and then choose not her enduring smash "Downtown" but rather its soundalike followup hit, "I Know a Place."
Many of these quirky hits are strategically placed for period-accurate ambience — and gentle commentary. When Don arrives at the apartment of his season three mistress, schoolteacher Suzanne Farrell, spinning on her turntable is the late-'63 French-language smash "Dominique" by the Singing Nun — a perfect encapsulation, for Don, of her alluring innocence. In season four, Shirley Ellis's tongue-twisting, banana-fanna-fo-fanning hit "The Name Game" plays on the jukebox of a diner where Don brings his kids. In season six, when the too-old-to-be-hip Sterling Cooper men visit L.A. and attend a house party filled with poseurs and hangers-on, in the background is Jeannie C. Riley's sassy, poseur-destroying 1968 chart-topper "Harper Valley P.T.A."
TV bloggers did catch one apparent anachronism in the episode that features Kyo Sakamoto's smash "Sukiyaki." This mistitled, oft-covered hit became the only all-Japanese song to top the U.S. charts in 1963. However, it appears in Mad Men's season two premiere, set in the spring of 1962. Leave it to detail-oriented Weiner to find an escape hatch: The song was in fact first released in Japan in 1961, under its original title "Ue o Muite Arukō," and in the episode, it's playing as Don breaks up with a client at ... a Japanese restaurant, one that could maybe, plausibly have had the record in its original pressing. As the Singing Nun might say, touché.
It would be nuts for Weiner to avoid totemic '60s artists fully. Generally, when he has decided to invoke the decade's folkie bards and pop eminences, he makes his song choices count — at least half the time, he chooses non-hits, invoking everyone from Roy Orbison to The Zombies without the accompanying duh moment.
Peter, Paul and Mary's 1962 debut album was a huge seller, but Mad Men avoids its campfire hits ("If I Had a Hammer," "Lemon Tree") for the more definitive opener "Early in the Morning." Speaking of PPM, they had the hit with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," not Dylan, but it's Bob's version that closes the show's first season, very memorably. Hall of Fame producer Phil Spector is represented not by the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" or the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" but rather the controversial, radio-banned and brutally ironic Crystals single "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)." The Beach Boys and the Monkees, each band a prolific hitmaker, are represented by two of their trippiest non-hits. And since "You Only Live Twice" was actually one of Nancy Sinatra's smaller '60s hits, the song may now be more associated with Don Draper — how great was that season five finale montage? — than James Bond.
As for the Fab Four, Weiner telegraphed the Beatles' influence on the show (Don buying his daughter Sally's affection with tickets to their 1965 Shea Stadium gig) long before he had the budget to license their music. When he finally did in 2012, he went with an especially heady Lennon cut — "Tomorrow Never Knows," the closing track on the quite literally pivotal album Revolver — and has an exasperated, unimpressed Draper lift the needle off the record before the song even finishes. NPR's own Ann Powers questioned Weiner's use of the song, and whether it would ever have alienated a savvy ad man like Don. But let's pause and admire Weiner's chutzpah one more time: You have one quarter-million-dollar budget to devote to licensing one Beatles song — the very act is guaranteed media attention — and you choose one of their thorniest and least radio-friendly (albeit one of their greatest)? Talk about meta: Weiner's "Tomorrow Never Knows" scene was his own tobacco letter, an advertisement for its own daring that became more about the show's influence than about the show's content. If it wasn't one of Mad Men's best musical moments, it was perhaps the show's most savvy — Don Draper himself could have dreamed it up.
Here's the other half of the "totemic" category — the dozen or so of times Mad Men has gone straight for the jugular, choosing songs that were not only huge hits but still clearly read as '60s iconography. One of the very best came early: flirty Peggy Olson sidling up to Pete Campbell to the strains of the 1960 über-smash "The Twist." Super-obvious, right? But for those of us with Billboard mojo, it's a clever moment — Chubby Checker's smash hit No. 1 twice (the only Hot 100 hit ever to do so), catching on first with teenagers before finding a toehold with club-going adults and topping the chart all over again. Peggy, Mad Men's ultimate liminal character, is a one-woman representation of both audiences, twisting her arrival into self-assured adulthood. No wonder the petty, controlling Pete doesn't want to dance with her.
"The Twist" is a rare early–Mad Men example of a signpost hit. Most of these expensive-to-license smashes appeared after season four, suggesting Weiner was more hamstrung by his fledgling show's budget early on than by any deliberate artistic choice. But even over the last few seasons, Weiner has spent his newfound clout on coveted songs just infrequently enough to make their appearance feel indelible rather than inevitable. If you've watched the show devotedly, I barely need to detail these killer scenes: Don "Summer Man" Draper roaming the streets to the Stones' "Satisfaction"; Peggy ditching Sterling Cooper with a sassy smirk to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me"; Pete toking up to the liberating yowl of Janis's "Piece of My Heart"; Megan picking up Don at LAX in a convertible as Steve Winwood bleats Spencer Davis's "I'm a Man"; Don and Peggy slow-dancing to Frank's definitive "My Way."
Most of these songs are not used diegetically — "My Way" is playing on an on-screen radio, but otherwise it's debatable whether, say, Peggy is thinking about the Kinks at her moment of freedom. But the fact that these songs were all big hits is essential to these scenes — they define the background of the characters' lives. If Sunday's first episode of season 7.2 is any indication, Weiner plans to keep deploying iconic tunes on his way to the exit. Peggy Lee's immortal late-1969 single "Is That All There Is?" bookended the episode, an inevitable, none-too-subtle evocation of the exhaustion of the '60s and the protagonists' emotional voids, even after getting everything they thought they wanted.
For me, though, none of these moments tops the most moving use of music in Mad Men's history, the finale of season six. Don has just been released by Sterling Cooper for self-immolating during a Hershey pitch, picking the worst possible moment to reveal his unhappy childhood and fraudulent biography to a key client. It's Thanksgiving Day 1968, and Don picks up his kids — but before driving them to dinner, the confessional and newly unfettered Don brings them to a derelict, abandoned Victorian house now surrounded by projects: the seedy brothel from his childhood. "This," Don tells the kids, "is where I grew up" — and up pops Judy Collins's achingly beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," its lyrics a dreamy fantasia pierced with self-lacerating regret (a Mitchell trademark). It's the dialogue in Don's head, in song.
One final detail: The week before Thanksgiving 1968, Collins's "Both Sides Now" leapt into the Top 20 on the Hot 100, on its way to a Top 10 peak just before Christmas. Teenage Sally Draper — or better yet, pubescent Bobby Draper — may well have owned the 45. Like every great musical moment over Mad Men's seven seasons, it's true to the story, true to the characters and true to life.
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