MAD MEN JUKEBOX: B-SIDES

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         I know these first ten entries of Mad Men Jukebox have been a bit exhaustive and overreaching. The poetry and subtlety of this show tend to inspire my more artistic leanings. But in all honesty, it isn’t always superb in its musical choices. So to keep my praise grounded and lighten the proceedings, I assembled a brief overview of song selections that for one reason or another, struck me as inadequate or lackluster. To make myself clear, these still certainly function as meaningful story climaxes, but may not work as compositions, or vice versa. Mostly, they just don’t live up to the towering success of the series’ best moments, which isn’t a crime. Regardless, here is a sampling of Mad Men’s less powerful closing songs, which are still worth mentioning in brief.

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“Hawaiian Wedding Song”, Elvis Presley

The Doorway, Part Two, Season 6 Episode 2

            Although it is an unwieldy, indulgent piece of songwriting performed by a washed-up has-been, “Hawaiian Wedding Song” is instructive and meaningful in that regard. It’s a song by a man out of place and time, deceptively placid despite his turbulent personal life. Such is the lot of Don Draper at the end of 1967, having slipped back into his unfaithful ways, as we see at the end of the installment. A hotel client sends him to Hawaii, and while there he even stumbles into being a witness at a wedding, making this one of the more literal episode enders. Yet its tinge of moroseness is also telling. Megan is a TV star and growing apart from Don, and not even a tropical paradise can make him feel better – his final ad work is suggestive of death and oblivion. At this point, he seems to be entering a twilight phase. Despite the outward success and glamour, Elvis has left the building.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, Roberta Flack

The Forecast, Season 7 Episode 10

            Despite Mad Men’s prevailing melancholy mood, this similarly affected song is too low-key, boringly traditional and meandering to work in a dynamic sense. But as a thematic resolution to a story about reminiscence and loss, it’s quite fitting. It was an iconic song for the era, too; there’s no getting away from that. During the episode, Pete and Don muse on the hopelessness of all their attempts to start over. Glen bows out of the series by enlisting for Vietnam, bidding Betty farewell and just missing Sally. Don picks the brains of the people he’s worked so closely with on the subject of the future, in a personal and professional sense. After having one last disastrous client meeting and selling his apartment, he takes a moment to reflect on what’s in store for him. What he sees doesn’t seem good.

“If 6 Was 9”, Jimi Hendrix

Field Trip, Season 7 Episode 3

            An (intentionally) abrupt and confounding song for a similarly hasty story ending. This track, a very unpredictable pick for such a familiar icon, is too indulgent and sleepy to resonate. It consists of lots of dead air, punctuated by sharp stabs of guitar and hissing hi-hat, and it relays Hendrix’s trippy revelations that given laws and quantities are the opposite of what they seem. Fitting, given Don’s uncharacteristic humbleness in accepting the conditions to work as SC&P once again. Tunes like these work nicely to cap mid-season transitional episodes and keep momentum going, but rarely stand out on their own as highlights and unforgettable moments.

“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”, Waylon Jennings

The Runaways, Season 7 Episode 5

            This was also a contemporary hit – the 1960s were very inclusive, making stars out of everyone from blue-collar British moptops to European art schoolers to down-South rednecks to budding young black performers. But beyond its representation of an important genre, this is another time-marking, plain song choice. Its significance has to do with Don taking a hard line in negotiations despite his contract forbidding it. Such boldness was his only tactic to avoid getting elbowed out of the agency, and it seems to work, hence the self-confident country pop tune.

“Is That All There Is?”, Peggy Lee

Severance, Season 7 Episode 8

            While not particularly satisfying in a musical sense (it’s practically spoken word over string interjections), this song succeeds as a moody, thematically apropos Mad Men ending. It finds the characters struggling with their own post-Sixties Altamont-esque malaise. That existentialism is encapsulated by this hit song from the period, while Don reflects on the ghosts of the life not lived. It seems as though the Seventies haven’t officially started yet, not until these people can let the past go.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Rolling Stones

The Summer Man, Season 4 Episode 8

            Matt Weiner and Co. had the opportunity and the budget to use a song from the second biggest band of the decade, and they blew it. Not only does this Stones masterpiece awkwardly arrive halfway through the episode, it’s scored to a montage which even I can’t deny lacks any sort of subtlety or spark, in terms of its content or visual presentation. It’s not artistically offensive, since you generally can’t go wrong with that band or this show, but it could have been so much better. Don literally can’t get satisfaction, he’s literally the man coming on the radio to advertise, he literally wears white shirts, he literally smokes different cigarettes than the other guy, he literally can’t get no girly action, and he literally rebels uneasily against all this. Then there’s a sequence of shots that shows the exact same things, in a goofy episode where he narrates in purple prose his struggle to open up and be a better person. Plus, they picked the most overused song by this band. It was a necessary and interesting story direction, but with unusually lazy execution.

Original soundtrack

Various episodes

            Not to denigrate the show’s composer, but his original efforts pale in comparison to the licensed music. It’s true that there are a few pleasant themes, and he knows when to underscore a moment in an unobtrusive way. However, his slight, melodramatic interjections don’t have a fraction of the power and nuance that the closing tracks do. In fact, they get predictable and simplistic at times, although the show thankfully relies on them less and less as it goes.

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