Friday, 28 January 2011

Advert | Music | The Finest Piece Of Ass You'll Never Have

An interesting thing about Mad Men is that both its fiercest critics and its most dribbling fanboys draw upon a similar vocabulary when making their points.

Both camps’ starting points usually centering on the word ‘knowing’ – and then spinning off into rant or rapture about how this ‘knowingness’ is either intolerably smug or the only viable aesthetic treatment of a culture which viciously attacked women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, men and women with even a passing interest in leftwing politics, whilst conceiving and celebrating new excesses of consumerism, vulgarity and kitsch. ‘Oh my, everything he says means something else too,’ murmurs a twenty-year-old identical twin halfway through Season One (the conquest of whom causes Roger Sterling to have a ‘coronary’) and truly Mad Men has become a by-word for winking doublethink. Take a recent CiF piece by Jonathan Freedland, discussing British republicanism and the King’s Speech:

Why do the Americans keep lapping up this stuff? Amateur psychology suggests it’s a collective case of projection. Americans take an aspect of themselves they don’t much like – in this instance, hierarchy and class difference – and dump it on someone else, in this instance us. Rigid, class-bound hierarchy can’t possibly happen in America, because look, there it is in Britain…with the US tacitly flattered by the contrast…But why do such stories work so well on us?...[There is] an element of Mad Men syndrome at work here. That excellent TV show flatters its audience, too: by exposing the gross sexism and racism of its 1960s characters, it implicitly praises the more advanced attitudes held by today’s viewers.

Another interesting thing about Mad Men is that seldom has this recognition of its effortless layering of irony been applied to its soundtrack. Actually, that’s not quite true – numerous CLEVER PEOPLE have noticed that, like, the second episode of Season One concludes with a song, The Great Divide, by the Cardigans, a band who, like, weren’t around in the early sixties, were they? Ergo, not all of the Mad Men music forms a part of the PERIOD DETAILING that folk are so into focussing on, for some reason.

And a more sophisticated reading of RJD2’s track, A Beautiful Mine – a brief cut of which accompanies Mad Men’s title sequence – has occasionally been attempted. Making some sense of the fact that a hip-hip producer sampling Autumn Leaves by Enoch Light – a man who produced the vast majority of his music during precisely the period during which Mad Men is set – might, like, represent a sorta musical mirroring of early-60s objects, lifestyles, attitudes, fashions being blended into an altogether contemporary television show. For Mad Men is not, after all, a Western like Bonanza; it is not a rock‘n’roll show like Hullabaloo. It bears, in short, absolutely no resemblance to early-60s television in its construction, choosing merely to depict an era, not become it (although it does make affectionate references to doing precisely that – Joanie becoming Shirley Maclaine in the Apartment in Episode 10 of Season 1, having earlier talked about the film with Roger – but in a knowingly noughties way).

And so having a contemporary framing of a contemporaneous fragment of music as a theme song makes coherent stylistic sense…

...And that’s where the commentary stops. At the bloody obvious, in other words.
Of course, it might sound bloody obvious to point out that Mad Men is a show about an era, rather than a show pretending to be of an era. But it’s something that simply isn’t emphasised enough, I think – particularly where the show’s accepted-too-much-at-face-value soundtrack is concerned. That there is residue all over the internet of people complaining about the fact Episode Two of Season One closed with a song by the Cardigans is concerning. Why shouldn’t a show utilising gorgeously contemporary cinematography, and laced with undertones of modern, liberal ideology, also play around with its own music? To say it shouldn’t is to suggest that music has no purpose to play in filmmaking beyond establishment of time, place, context atmosphere…

Indeed, atmosphere is at the heart of the standard complaint about 1.2 – that introducing the Cardigans at the end of an impeccably dated episode was a jarring, uncomfortable, emotionally confusing moment.

It’s easy to see where such a complaint comes from: one of the most original things about the Mad Men soundtrack is that it’s often impossible to tell whether the music you’re hearing is also being heard by the characters in a scene, from a jukebox or a radio. The man who scored the series, the excellently named David Carbonara, actually appears in an episode, as a member of the band in that hilarious beatnik club, what sing about weeping for Zion etc. In the publicity material orbiting the series, the music is often characterised as being chosen by the characters, rather than the producers. Here, for example, is Don Draper’s very own iTunes ‘radio playlist’ (as chosen by creator Matthew Weiner, but that's not important):

Misery – Barrett Strong
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters
Late Freight – Dave Hamilton
The Big Wheel – Howard Crockett
More – Kai Winding & Claus Ogerman

(There’s a bunch of these and they’re actually pretty fun. Albeit in a rather cartoonised way: Savlatore’s features a track by Liberace, for fuck’s sake.)
In short, everything about Mad Men’s music is telling you that its only aim is to be swallowed up by the show’s created world – to be assimilated within it, rather than to mess about with it from the outside. Everything about Mad Men’s music is suggesting that there’s no reason to unpack it in the way one feels compelled to unpack the show's other components. Even those moments when you’d have to be blind, deaf, stupid and dead not to realise the music is referring to the content of an episode – Pete Campbell looking out over the New Yoik skyline whilst Manhattan by the Buddy Bregman Orchestra skips into the foreground, Peggy, erm, vibrating to an accompaniment of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ – are framed in such a comforting, almost silly way, that they feel like a flamboyant closing flourish, rather than a representation of how the show works as a whole.


To let oneself think this way is, I think, to fundamentally miss the point of the show though – both its soundtrack and its totality. To not, indeed, think hard enough. To forget that, as well as being a show about the early 60s – more than being a show about the early 60s – Mad Men is a show about advertising. About adverts. Every cliché, every stylistic over-emphasis, every full-of-itself moment of every episode can be (not that they necessarily need to be – but they can be) justified as a reflection upon the framework of gorgeous, glamourised manipulation that was conceived and brokered by the Mad Men of the 50s and 60s. A framework that continues to define our every decision, opinion, choice, to this day. The things we think we choose to like about Mad Men are the things Mad Men is telling us to like about it. It is perhaps the world’s greatest advertisement for the potency of the aesthetics of advertising.

Which include, of course, music among their number. There’s a wonderful moment in an episode towards the end of Season One when Kennedy’s presidential advert is favourably compared to Nixon’s – Don describing the latter as ‘an advert made by a public relations team: message received, and forgotten.’ The difference: Kennedy’s ad comes with music, and ‘catchy’ music at that. One of Don’s underlings goes on to convey the effect of Nixon’s music-less advertisement via – what else? – a song:

Ethel, go get the ice-pick: that Nixon ad is on TV again.

The music of Mad Men is a constant reflection on the power of music to influence, to affect, to convince – in advertising, in television, in one's own imagination. That's why when Weiner explains, in the sleeve-notes accompanying Mad Men (Music from the Television Series) that the show’s soundtrack ‘is never an accident,’ that it attempts to ‘enhance the feeling of the period while offering an artistic commentary on the themes of each show’ (my italics), he isn’t referring to a cheesy coincidence of content and lyrical accompaniment, or to an underwhelming commentary on the coming together of old and new. He’s referring to the fact that when Christina Hendricks jessicarabbits through the Sterling Cooper offices, all 39D-30-39 of her, it is the trumpets and swing of Carbonara’s theme, choreographing her every movement with a kind of delicious intendedness, that ensure she truly is the finest piece of ass you'll never have. Unless, of course, you're Roger Sterling.
Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

I should add that this is a reading of Season One of Mad Men, and Season One only. I'll write about the others when I've, y'know, watched them like.


  1. *UPDATE*

    The closing scene of Season One is, potentially, a better representation of the complexity of the Mad Men soundtrack than any of the above - some splendid person has uploaded it onto YouTube here:

    Note the way that what Carbonara calls Don and Betty's theme melts into a contemporaneous soundtrack actually only audible via a television in Don's house - a contemporaneous soundtrack which provides a classic, Hollywood backdrop to the apparently happy conclusion of Betty laughing and Don holding his kids.

    And then the soundtrack dies with an echo. Don returns to an empty house, cold with an echoing silence, and sits on the stairs. The manipulation of music, of advertising, is over, and there is nothing to take its place.

    Nothing, that is, until Bob Dylan flickers in, and the cycle begins again.

    I don't know whether to be pleased that the second half of the final episode kinda proved me right, or annoyed at myself for trying to write about Season One before watching the second half of the final episode.

  2. If you're looking for a solid contextual ad company, I suggest you have a look at Chitika.