Songs In The Key Of “Mad”

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When we talk about Mad Men, and we do a lot (especially here at l’étoile), there are many things we talk about; the acting, the plot twists, the scenery, the costumes, and more. But there is one thing that we really haven’t touched on that much, which is an important part of what makes the show so iconic in my mind.

The music.

In talking about the music of Mad Men, it pays to remember that before this, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner’s previous job had been as a writer and producer for that other acclaimed drama of the ‘00s, The Sopranos (in fact, it was his spec script for the pilot of Mad Men that got him the job). Among its many accomplishments, creator David Chase’s biggest coup was in making musical choices that accentuated the drama to the point where listening to the song instantly makes you recall what has happened. Admit it, you can’t listen to Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” without instantly thinking of Tony Soprano driving home.

Chase’s influence obviously rubbed off on Wiener, as Mad Men’s musical choices have been as exacting as those of The Sopranos, with one key difference. With the exception of RJD2’s iconic theme song “A Beautiful Mine” (and one other time, which we’ll talk about in a moment) the show has scrupulously stayed with period music from 1960-1970 within the episodes. To be sure, Weiner and his team have used the music to comment on the action (often in ironic and hilarious ways), but it’s this scrupulousness to musical detail that has heightened the drama of the show, and the musical wallpaper of the show has helped to instill an ironclad sense of verisimilitude. As the show is winding down this Sunday, I have compiled my personal list of my favorite musical moments from the seven seasons of Mad Men. (Click on the name of the song to hear it.)

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“The Twist” – Episode 1:08
Long before African-American people showed up in the story (beyond being maids, doorman, and the like), the music of the show was getting decidedly less white with the first shot across the bow being Chubby Checker’s iconically sexy new dance craze. Watching all of the Sterling Cooper rank and file get their twist on was one of the most charged scenes in the show’s history.

“The Infanta” – Episode 2:08
Aside from the theme song, Weiner and company have staunchly avoided modern music in the show. That went out the window in this episode that was all about women. And what better way to underscore the battle that the women in the show have to go through then to use The Decemberists’ ode to a powerful woman, while cross-cutting between Betty, Peggy, and Joan armoring up for their daily battle in the morning?

“Early In The Morning” – Episode 2:08
It’s a shame that I never got to recapping the earlier seasons of Mad Men as I would have had a host of things to say about Father Gill (played to perfection by Colin Hanks), the literal embodiment of the Vatican II movement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this episode. After praying of guidance on how to solve the problem of Peggy Olson, he takes off his vestments, picks up a guitar, and then sings Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Early In The Morning” (which then dissolves to the recorded version). Vatican II was all about dissolving the stuffiness of the Catholic Church and embracing a more folksy, communal vibe, and there was no better shortcut for it than having a priest sing a song by one of the most Christian-influenced folk groups out there.

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“The Charleston”, “C’est Magnifique”, and “”My Old Kentucky Home” – Episode 3:03
While the world of Mad Men is a very musical place, very rarely do the characters themselves break out into song (with a few exceptions that come later in this list) and rarer still are they in any sort of “performance” mode. These three songs were all in the same episode in Season 3, centering around Roger Sterling’s disastrous Kentucky Derby party which featured Pete and Trudy dancing an energetic Charleston to a very drunk Roger himself singing “My Old Kentucky Home” to his second wife Jane (in blackface!). Meanwhile, to break up the tension at the dinner party from hell, Greg asks Joan to sing a song, so she gamely straps on an accordion and belts out the Cole Porter standard with all the skill of a French chanteuse. While the show would never dip so heavily into the performance well so heavily again, all three performances served a big dramatic purpose; in each scenario, everyone is performing for someone to show how happy they are – whether it’s true or not.

“Tobacco Road” – Episode 4:01
The end of the Season 4 premiere sees Don finally embrace the myth of “Don Draper” and starts to believe his own hype; sowing the seeds of his destruction in later seasons. And what better way to revel in the myth of a poor boy gone good than with The Nashville Teens’ ironic take on the tale

“Zou Bisou Bisou” – Episode 5:01
The debut of Season 5 gave us our first proper look at Megan Draper, and what a debut it was. Up to this point we knew barely anything about her; prior to this she was Don’s former secretary who he impulsively married. All of that changed when, at his surprise 40th birthday party she threw for him, she serenaded him with this song. It was a perfect shorthand for Megan (French Canadian dilettante actress with a taste for the finer things) by having her belt out the yé-yé classic, and Jessica Parré made it into a defining moment for the character and the show.

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“I Just Wasn’t Meant For These Times” – Episode 5:06
“Piece Of My Heart” – Episode 6:10
Though these episodes are in separate seasons, they’re both tied to characters taking drugs. As for the Beach Boys lovely song, it would signal Roger finally facing his age and running away from it in an acid-fueled sex trip (this was the episode he and Jane did LSD and realized they should divorce). As for the Janis Joplin number, it was an intriguing choice for the volatile nature of Pete, the whipping boy of SCDP. As he tuned in and lit up, you could tell he was trying to calm all the messy emotions that the song was saying for him.

“You Only Live Twice” – Episode 5:13
While not my favorite of all of the songs on this list, it is a fitting moment in the show, particularly as a capstone to Season 5 and the state of Don’s mind. Nancy Sinatra’s lilting theme for the James Bond film of the same name was a perfect capstone to signal the return of Don’s philandering ways in his second marriage. That being said, this wasn’t the song chosen for that moment. As they revealed in an interview, Weiner and starmJon Hamm revealed that they originally wanted Bjork’s cover of the song.

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“I’m A Man” – Episode 7:01
Was there any moment more full of swagger than in the Season 7 premiere with Don freshening himself up on the plane and then gliding through the airport to Megan, all set to The Spencer Davis Group’s strutting number? Of course it would be an extremely ironic choice of music, given what happens throughout the season.

“My Way” – Episode 7:06
If there is a more iconic number for both Don and Peggy than Sinatra’s ode to iconoclasm and individuality, I can’t think of it.

“The Best Things In Life Are Free” – Episode 7:07
For the mid-season finale, Weiner and company decided that it was finally time to address something; namely how there were no references to the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning play at all in the show. Then again, any references to How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying would have appeared to meta for the show; not only in terms of the plot, but also in the fact that the Tony-winning lead from that show was playing the head of the company! So when the time came to send Bert Cooper off to his heavenly reward, what better way than for Don to see him soft-shoeing with an army of secretaries? It was the perfect send off for both Bert and the great Robert Morse, who still have it.

“Is That All There Is?” – Episode 7:08
The 1970s are here, and what better way to express the newfound ennui of the new decade than with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s iconic ode to dissatisfaction. As sung by the iconic Peggy Lee, the number asks the question that all of the characters are thinking about in the second half of the last season.

“Space Oddity” – Episode 7:12
If you need a song to show that a character is adrift physically and emotionally as Don is when he starts his road trip, look no further than David Bowie’s iconic song. If you squint your ears so, it almost sounds like “This is ground control to major Don…”

“Tomorrow Never Knows” – Episode 5:08
Though they talked about them all throughout the show (particularly from the fourth season on), The Beatles would only have one song on the show, and it’s such an iconic moment that any list of the best songs on Mad Men can’t exist without it. Imagine you’re Don, and all you know of the Beatles at this point was their pop output from their first years. Now imagine slipping in Revolver and hearing this thrashing Indian-influenced freakout. No wonder he turned it off! If there was ever an image of Don not being with the times, this was it!

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“Both Sides Now” – Episode 6:13
If I had to pick just one musical moment for dramatic appropriates and emotional wallop, I can think of nothing better than Judy Collins’ iconic cover of Joni Mitchell’s standard at the end of Season 6. Standing in front of the whorehouse he grew up in, Don reveals to his children the truth about his upbringing. This song speaks to both Don (who is now looking at his past objectively) and Sally (who, for the first time, is looking at her father objectively). It’s a hell of a moment, capped off by a perfect musical choice.

Photo & Video Credits: AMC Television

Originally Published on 15 May 2015 for “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile

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