As my project winds down to the less profound shorter entries, I wanted to give due credit to the show’s equally amazing use of music during an episode. They may be more situational, and not as cathartic or cumulative as a climactic tune, but these choices are still quite memorable and are far ahead of most other TV music.
“A Beautiful Mine”, RJD2
In a project about Mad Men’s music, it’s impossible to overlook the show’s iconic, stirring theme song. It was sought out for its impeccable balance of retro and modern elements, turning sonic components of a chamber music string quartet into a trip-hop shuffle. It’s glossy yet nostalgic, suggests the melancholy and intrigue to come, and plays alongside some striking metaphorical visuals in the title sequence.
“My Way”, Frank Sinatra
The Strategy, Season 7 Episode 6
The Strategy’s scene of Don and Peggy discussing their work and lives while reworking the unsatisfying Burger Chef pitch is a coded way for them to apologize for their respective slights and rekindle their friendship. They look back on their accomplishments and evolution, as the audience remembers all the conversations they had in this office, particularly in The Suitcase, which is a companion piece to this episode.
And then something magical happens. A Frank Sinatra song starts playing on the radio, evoking the era that lay behind them in a symbolic and literal manner. Though it was a huge hit at the time, as Peggy remarks, “My Way” tells a tale of past victories, fondly reminiscing on an uncompromising and successful career. It is a beautiful tale of sentimental bombast, orchestrated in a steadfast and classic fashion. For our two leads and the musician, it represents the culmination of a life, and a message of gratitude and resilience for both parties.
In a playful, yet reverent turn, the colleagues share a dance, at last on equal footing after a crazy decade. Peggy nestles up to Don for comfort, and Don cradles Peggy for stability. This moment is so staggeringly powerful and climactic that it should have by all means closed out the episode, and not doing so was an unfortunate miscalculation. Yet I won’t hold that against it too much, as this is still one of the show’s greatest sequences.
“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the Beach Boys
Far Away Places, Season 5 Episode 6
Jane and Roger’s LSD trip is a seminal moment for the latter’s character development and for the series, welcoming abstract expressionism with panache and pathos. The sad and prosaic revelation that it engenders makes the Beach Boys a superb pick for an introspective breakdown. Their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds was an emotionally intimate and sonically vivid diary of an album, and Brian Wilson’s childlike evocations of longing suit Roger to a tee. Every plotline and conversation he has seems to be a power struggle, so determined is he to prove his mettle and earn the admiration of his peers. Therefore, it makes sense for him to dive headlong into youth culture accompanied by this rueful song about feeling out of place. The cinematography of the whole sequence is stunning, to boot. Another one of the series’ best scenes.
“Ebb Tide”, Ken Griffin
A Little Kiss, Part One, Season 5 Episode 1
Mad Men’s effective introduction to the swinging Sixties, following a child’s dreamlike excursion through her period-furnished home to the strains of an acid-tinged pop instrumental. It’s brief and disconnected from the episode it precedes, almost like a wordless prelude.
“Zou Bisou Bisou”, Jessica Pare
A Little Kiss, Part One, Season 5 Episode 1
If the last song didn’t do the trick, this bravura full-cast set piece and musical number definitely will. It’s perhaps the most widely seen and remembered scene of the entire show, and though the cultural revolution gradually penetrates the story in dribs and drabs, this is its guns-blazing statement of purpose. In fact, it’s so outlandish for Mad Men up to this point that it unsettles Don (well, technically it’s the fact that his wife is more gregarious and free-spirited than he, but either one works). Megan’s performance is sexy and daring, not to mention beautifully choreographed, with phenomenal set design and great reaction shots in cutaways throughout.
“I’m A Man”, Spencer Davis Group
Time Zones, Season 7 Episode 1
Don’s arrival in L.A. in the season seven premiere is extremely rousing. It’s not even that important theme- or plot-wise; it exists as pure iconography. A Mysterious Man in Sunny California greets the Beautiful Starlet in Slow Motion in a Red Convertible while she takes the Wheel.
The song only reinforces this, with groovy sensation & sexuality that’s already an anachronistic throwback, before either character knows that this venture is headed south. Don goes from being a weary traveler clumsily shaving on a plane to a facsimile of the confident sex symbol he once was. Megan may not be having the success she appears to project, either. This sequence is a ravishing introduction to a brave old world.
“Band Of Gold”, Don Cherry
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1 Episode 1; In Care Of, Season 6 Episode 13
Singer Don Cherry’s “Band Of Gold” is a stately swing ballad. It shows up a few different times, notably in the first scene of the series, and with Don at perhaps his lowest point in season six spending a night in jail for assaulting someone. It’s a full-circle scenario, and encompasses his failed marriages and circular behavior in one lyrical image. Its idealistic, archaic sound also evokes memories of the past, a tactic I’m aware the show uses a lot. But this track is its apotheosis.
“Hi Lilli Hi Lo”, John Slattery
Lost Horizon, Season 7 Episode 12
This tune pops up in brief, rudimentary fashion as a diegetic performance in one of Mad Men’s most emotional, fun and surprising stories. It’s easy to overlook, as Peggy flits about on roller skates while Roger accompanies on miniature organ in the gutted remains of SC&P. But basic research into the lyrics reveals a sweet goodbye of a children’s song whose heartbroken wisdom, put charmingly and plainly, is a fantastic button on Roger’s story. “A song of love is a sad song, for I have loved and it’s so.”
“The Twist”, Chubby Checker
The Hobo Code, Season 1 Episode 8
This scene is important for many reasons. It establishes Peggy and Pete’s adversarial, sibling-like friendship after their ill-advised tryst. It’s also an early indicator of the show’s effortless showmanship and style. There are many nuanced character moments amidst the dancing and canoodling. And, more than any song featured up to that point, it reinforced the pivotal role 1960s music would have during the series’ run.
“Bye Bye Birdie”, Ann Margaret
Love Among the Ruins, Season 3 Episode 2
The narrative linchpin of a season-long ad campaign, this clip (from the movie of the same name) opens episode two of season three. Its anachronistic cheeriness and tame sexuality is amusing, and its mysterious allure is remarked upon by all the male characters. The Ann Margaret performance serves a sort of mantraic function in the season, being repeated in various contexts. In fact, the Patio Cola spot it inspires gives Sal Romano a satisfying spotlight arc.
“September In the Rain”, the Wedgewoods
Lady Lazarus, Season 5 Episode 8
Far from feeling like a stab in the heart, as Ginsberg says, this charming little pop tune is a favorite of mine. To be fair, it’s a dated relic of the moptop era, but that quality is important to the bait and switch of the episode’s plot.
“Baby Jane”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels
For Immediate Release, Season 6 Episode 6
This brief clip fills a pop music vacancy in an otherwise tremendous, eventful episode, serving as a brash transitional lubricant. Even when the song wasn’t the centerpiece or a didactic cornerstone of an episode, Mad Men knew how to use a quick fill in a practical and stylish way. This one obviously references both the city the ad men are in and the pitch they’re fighting for.
“C’est Magnifique”, Christina Hendricks
My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3 Episode 3
This performance of a traditional number shows an idiosyncratic talent of Joan’s (and Christina’s!) while conveying some deep regret through her vocals and mannerisms. The episode it appears in also has an amusing a cappella diversion with Paul Kinsey, as well as a brilliant dance sequence for Pete and Trudy. With these many memorable melodic interludes, it does seem at times like Mad Men truly was all about the music.