Mad Men, a period drama about a 1960s advertising agency which ran from 2007 – 2015 on AMC, is superb. The magnificence of its writing, set design, characters, psychological insight and historical relevance can all be found in dozens of other worthy places. Every television fan knows, or should know, how good those things are. But since I’m a music nerd, I figured the most informative and unique thing I could write about this show is the thing I seem to treasure more than most other viewers: Its use of pop songs. I have only seen a fraction of modern TV “classics”, but I don’t think it is too controversial to claim that Mad Men has the most artistically complex, bold, and aesthetically pleasing uses of music in TV history.
To be clear, it certainly didn’t invent the wheel in this case. It’s a common and time-worn practice to use a catchy tune as dynamic emotional catharsis at the end of a TV episode, using its lyrics and atmosphere to reflect on what the story was about. However, Mad Men pulls this off in almost every hour, with unerring elegance and intricacy. Even if a closing song seems like superficial commentary, its oblique relation to the show’s continuing themes and each character’s individual perspective is uncanny. I say ‘closing song’ because that is the most common placement for such an interlude. This series used a lot of excellent, clever tunes in the middle of some episodes, but I’m focusing on the conclusions in this project, since they function as a series of theses on each installment and the show as a whole.
Mad Men uses all the typical tricks of music cues: ironic contrast, diegetic performance, dramatic resonance, literal lyrical interpretation, and so on, handling them all with aplomb. As with its marvelous symbolism, detractors like to harp on how it could be a touch obvious or heightened. To my mind, though, almost everything is played fairly and sensibly in the show’s world, and the same goes for the audio accompaniment.
The fact is, the Sixties were an explosive, bountiful decade for music. I’m surprised nobody else remarks on Mad Men’s genius for song choices, because the show subtly functions as a crash course on rock’s golden age, with just about every movement and mainstream genre represented using tracks and artists that are familiar, but not overplayed or too on the nose. The gradual changing musical styles reflect the era’s history beautifully, and what’s more impressive is that there are no unintentional anachronisms behind their usage. The show is very strict about its chronology and set design accuracy, and the auditory aspect is no different.
The viewing experience even benefits from details beyond the lyrics: knowing the significance of the performer and their ideology usually adds to the complexity of a given song. I’ll try to limit my thematic considerations enough to be informative in this regard. (This is only tangentially relevant, but the sound editing must be praised as well. Some of these tracks were remixed for modern sensibilities, and the use of background noise and other elements as contrast emphasizes the effect they’re aiming for.)
Finally, a key element to Mad Men’s aesthetic success is that these are all just delightful compositions. The first half of the decade features tracks from a perspective and cultural mindset that was just shrugging off the confident glow of Fifties commercial prosperity and Forties political servitude, and looking inward. The instrumental style of this era was nakedly romantic and theatrical, featuring the last vestiges of swing and classical crooning with the youthful pep of music hall and early rock, as well as basic blues and country influences.
Overall, that aesthetic paints a sonic picture of people searching for happiness and projecting success but never quite finding either. Its naïveté seems tragic and odd from our modern post-ironic sensibilities, which only enhances the show’s sense of melancholy over time. Furthermore, the antiquated quality of the recordings and arrangements seem very staid and dreamlike by today’s standards, as if we’re receding into an idealistic remembered past while reconciling its missteps. If those two poles don’t sum up the first few seasons of Mad Men, I don’t know what does.
Then we come to the second half of the decade, with the soundtrack showcasing its bold experimentation, radical change and soul-searching. Like the musical landscape of the late Sixties, the songs vary wildly in tone and content. These sequences often benefit from being a bit surreal or grandiose, using ambiguity even more to their advantage.
In fact, this is where my approach comes up short. The impeccable shot composition of this show ensures that the emotional power of its endings is from a symbiosis of sound and image, with transitions that highlight the meaning of each lyrical stanza, visual payoffs alongside musical crescendos, and tidy cuts to black right when the point has been made most effectively. Not to mention that the show usually declines to have characters speaking over the musical climax, instead letting the subtext serve as the counterpoint to the melody. For maximum effect, you just have to see these iconic scenes for yourself, and I will link to them whenever I can.
In Mad Men Jukebox, I will try to untangle the dense implications and allusions behind my favorite song choices, what they mean for the world of Sterling Cooper and its inhabitants, and what the context behind each track adds to the picture. These examinations will be full of spoilers and out of airing order, organized roughly by how complex they are and how long I ramble on about them. For the most part, I try not to mention plot lines beyond the episode in question, but this isn’t an absolute rule, so I would recommend reading this series of essays only after finishing the whole show. In addition, for some of the shorter entries, I made connections with other notable ending songs, briefly describing their similarities to the main piece. There will also be a couple off-format breather entries focusing on tunes that didn’t work so well and great musical moments besides endings.
As usually happens with my endeavors, this is probably way too long and took forever to finish, but I’m so excited to share it with you. I’ve thought long and hard about the show to write these pieces and listened to every track dozens of times. I hope that you’ll get something out of them. Now it’s time to drop the needle on the record…