– Don Draper
Creating the soundtrack to a period piece about the 1960s, especially one that takes itself incredibly seriously, is a daunting task. Around every corner are songs that tempt you with nostalgia or personal connection, but if those songs are used in even slightly the wrong context it can destroy the dynamic you were hoping for. “American Pie” is one of my favorite songs, and it was released in 1971; a year that could be the last we see at Sterling Cooper & Partners. That said, if the final credits of Mad Men roll by to the sweet melody and soothing timbre of that Don McLean classic I will toss my TV out the window and promptly run Matthew Weiner over with a John Deere riding mower. Then I’ll come home, drink 10 Old Fashioneds and brood in the dark wondering if he had wronged me or I had wronged myself.
David Chase ended the Sopranos in such a fashion musically, using Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as either a fill in for his middle finger or a statement on American culture (or both); apparently we get to decide. Matthew Weiner, a Chase protégé, will hopefully take a different course. The music he has already used suggests he will.
Here are the defining musical moments of the first six seasons of Mad Men.
Season One Finale. Many critics, myself included, believe the high point of Mad Men as a series is the Kodak Carousel pitch. In this presentation, Don uses a slide projector to cast a beautiful and wholly false image of a happy life using photos of his own, very tenuously held together family. The pitch destroys the room, sends Harry Crane out in tears (his last sign of human emotion) and flips a switch in Don himself. He heads home to find his wife and children on their way out the door to the train station, heading to his in-laws for Thanksgiving. He surprises them with the news that he is going with them, and his young children bound into his arms.
But this is Mad Men…so that was a fantasy. He actually comes home to a house full of silence, longing, and rye whiskey. The way the line “I once loved a women, a child I am told, I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul” can sum up so much of Don and Betty’s relationship to this point makes the song that much more searing in the moment.
Season Two, Episode 12. Here is another example of Don Draper’s unbelievable ability to forgive himself. As he wades into the tumbling surf of the Pacific Ocean, the allusion to baptism is hard to ignore. Especially when the song starts with, “I say Christian pilgrim, my soul redeem from sin, called out of darkness, a new life to begin.”
Upon first viewing, we’re supposed to wonder if he is starting anew in California and leaving everything behind, or washing himself clean and turning back. Turns out it’s the latter. I love the scene and the song. There is a timelessness to plainly sung gospel music that really resonates with Mad Men.
Among the benefits of doing a period piece: you get to put your characters in black face and it demeans them, not the other way around. This episode, set on Derby Day, is one of my personal favorites.
It features not only the infamous “I’m Peggy Olsen and I want to smoke some Marijuana” line, but also Pete Campbell doing the Charleston (and more notably appearing happy), Paul Kinsey being told he is arrogant and can’t sing by a drug dealing Princeton alum, and the introduction of one of the show’s best small characters Conrad Hilton. The song choice and execution of the performance are flawless.
Season Four, Episode 1. This is the final scene of the season four premiere and if you like full-ego, balls out Don Draper as much as I do, it is probably among your favorites. After a disastrous interview in the opening scene, Bert Cooper sets up a second chance for Don with the Wall Street Journal. The reporter’s first question: is Don the man who defines his company? He answers, “Yes” with very little hesitation and then proceeds to tell the reporter how SCDP began.
When he reaches the part of the story in which he tells Lane Price to, “fire us,” the riff begins. This song is Mad Men soundtracking at its best. It’s a little known sixties gem that not only relates directly to Don Draper’s narrative, but fits perfectly in the scene. The raw garage sound of the guitar mirrors Don’s swaggering bravado and the opening line of “I was born, in a trunk, Momma died and my Daddy got drunk” is basically a summary of the root of his problems. It falls into the rare category of songs in TV or film that I had never heard before and now listen to on a regular basis.
Season 5, Episode 8. In what was, in my opinion, far and away the best moment of Mad Men season 5 and maybe the best musical moment of the series, Megan hands Don a copy of Revolver and tells him to start with this track (on a side note, if you’re married to Don Draper, don’t you tell him to start with “Good Day Sunshine”? It’s like she prefers him miserable.) He puts it on, pours a drink and reclines in his perfect mid-century modern leather lounge chair.
Unfortunately, the magic of psychadelia is lost on him. The scene confirms Don’s worst fear: maybe he really is out of touch, maybe the world has passed him by. Two people the world has not passed by are the remaining Beatles who charged Lionsgate (Mad Men’s production company) a cool quarter of a million dollars to use 90 seconds of one of their B-sides. So much for love being all they need. Still, finding the perfect Beatles song for a scene is a tougher job than it seems and they nailed it here. The song is just obscure enough. It fits in context without being too on the nose. And most importantly, it is a song that takes the listener a while to decide on. You could see someone from Don Draper’s generation giving it a serious shot before becoming either scared or annoyed by it.
Season Six, Episode 8. One of the hardest things for Mad Men fans to watch has been Don’s relationship with Sylvia Rosen. Maybe it’s because Dr. Arnold Rosen is the first friend Don has other than Roger, and he promptly starts banging his wife. More likely, it is because Don becomes fixated and his confidence cracks for her in a previously unseen way. Matthew Weiner has described her as, “The woman who can bring Don Draper to his knees.”
I am a huge fan of TV and film that can take a simple, innocuous song like this and turn it into something about lust and obsession. The song is playing in the whorehouse Dick Whitman grew up in just before he loses his virginity, in what I would call a soft rape scene, to a prostitute. It is meant to inform us why he is the way he is sexually, and also why he is so obsessed with Sylvia. If Mad Men has one failing it is the flashbacks – they’re too specific in predicting future behavior. The song works way better than the scene itself for me.