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A Brief Guide to Pop Culture in 1968

The sixth season of Mad Men premieres April 7. Mod styles and Jon Hamm’s (controversial) slim-fitting suit reflect the late 1960’s period the show is entering, estimated to be 1968. “[There is] anxiety that is created by all of these characters wondering why they are the way they are,” creator Matthew Weiner said of the upcoming episodes. “Maybe you’re a fraud. Maybe you’re facing all the bad things you’ve ever done in your life. But you are back in a place where you are the issue. In the first episode when someone says, ‘People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,’ that’s what this season is about.” The theme is befitting of the buzzing time period.

This was the year of an idealistic generation marching in protest while the world’s struggles shaped the sociopolitical changes that would rock the years to come. The assassinations of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brutal images from the Vietnam War on television, and a startling photo of a police chief general shooting a handcuffed Vietcong prisoner at point-blank range shocked the nation. African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympic Games, Yale University admitted women for the first time (while women’s lib groups formed across America), and the summer of love would pave the way for Woodstock the following year. Movements were formed and crumbled as the world caught fire.

We took a look back at the year and all the biggest pop culture moments of 1968. See what clues, literary references, music, and madness awaits us in season six of Mad Men.

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Film

The top grossing films in the US in 1968 were:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Funny Girl
3. The Love Bug
4. The Odd Couple
5. Bullitt

The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Carol Reed’s Oliver! — an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about a an orphaned boy raised in a miserable London workhouse (also turned into a stage musical by Lionel Bart). Reed also won Best Director that year. Meanwhile, the Cannes Film Festival was canceled due to the turbulent student and wildcat strikes in Paris that almost crushed President Charles de Gaulle’s government. Paranoid movie classics Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and Night of the Living Dead hit theaters. The MPAA ratings system was introduced.

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Music

The biggest hit singles of the year across international charts:

1. “Hey Jude” — The Beatles
2. “What a Wonderful World” — Louis Armstrong
3. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding
4. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” — The Rolling Stones
5. “Lady Madonna” — The Beatles

The songs that topped the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles:

“Hello Goodbye” — The Beatles

“Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” — John Fred & His Playboy Band

“Green Tambourine” — The Lemon Pipers

“Love Is Blue” — Paul Mauriat

“(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding

“Honey” — Bobby Goldsboro

“Tighten Up” — Archie Bell & the Drells

“Mrs. Robinson” — Simon & Garfunkel

“This Guy’s In Love With You” — Herb Alpert

“Grazing In The Grass” — Hugh Masekela

“Hello, I Love You” — The Doors

“People Got To Be Free” — The Rascals

“Harper Valley P.T.A” — Jeannie C. Riley

“Hey Jude” — The Beatles

“Love Child” — Diana Ross & The Supremes

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — Marvin Gaye

While psych and prog rock bands like Deep Purple, Rush, and Led Zeppelin were forming, popular 1960’s groups like The Zombies, The Shangri-Las, and The Righteous Brothers were disbanding.

Jimi Hendrix was getting thrown in jail for trashing a Stockholm hotel room, Johnny Cash played Folsom State Prison (and married June Carter the following month), and The Beatles were hanging out with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Their White Album was released that year. Artists like Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell debuted albums. James Brown and Nina Simone took to television and stage to dedicate their performances to Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated by James Earl Ray that April.

A leather-clad Elvis made a bit of a comeback. His television special was one of music’s earliest “unplugged” moments and found the King opening the NBC show with a memorable performance of “Trouble” and “Guitar Man.”

Hair narrated the “Age of Aquarius” on Broadway to the amusement of the counterculture.

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Books

New books released that year (in no particular order):

Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal
Couples, John Updike
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Public Image, Muriel Spark
Enderby Outside, Anthony Burgess
Airport, Arthur Hailey

A few reads that made number one on the New York Times Bestseller List (in no particular order):

The Chosen, Chaim Potok
Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
Topaz, Leon Uris
Testimony of Two Men, Taylor Caldwell
Airport, Arthur Hailey
Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal
Vanished, Fletcher Knebel.
Couples, John Updike
True Grit, Charles Portis
Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford

The literary world said goodbye to notables like John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and Helen Keller — who wrote about her early struggles in The Story of My Life. Abbie Hoffman wrote Revolution for the Hell of It, which landed him a five-year prison term.

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Television

About 78 million American households owned television sets in 1968, which allowed audiences to watch the Apollo 7 and 8 space missions. One Life to Live, 60 Minutes, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Hawaii Five-O, and Laugh-In (where Richard Nixon famously appeared and said, “Sock it to me?” before narrowly winning the election) had debuts that year. Fans said goodbye to Batman, The Lucy Show, and The Monkees. A television appearance by Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte caused a stir amongst sponsors when the English singer touched the arm of the King of Calypso, during their duet of the anti-war song “On the Path of Glory,” because of their different races. William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols shared the first interracial kiss on US television during an episode of Star Trek. James Brown appeared on national television following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to ease the anger and suffering of a nation.

Some other shows that people gathered around the television set to watch:

Bewitched, Jeopardy!, The Dick Cavett Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Dark Shadows, Doctor Who, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mothers-in-Law, and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.

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Fashion

“Fashion is self-consciously sociological and frankly featherbrained. It’s classic and immediate. Nostalgic and now. Worldly and other-worldly. Whatever’s happening you are part of it and at last you can be yourself and look as you choose.” — English Vogue, 1968

Fashions mirrored the year of change, and the hippie/youthquake movement introduced androgynous, daring styles. Miniskirts and maxi coats with round-toed boots (chunky heels) were seen on women, and men favored long, slim-fitting suits. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was released the previous year, and 1930’s fashions were still trending. Berets, soft curls, and silk scarves hinted at the decade. Everything was fit and flair (or fling), and wide belts squeezed waists tight. Wide-legged pants, fringe, velvet, animal prints, and transparent fabrics were must-haves. Hair was long, straight, and shaggy, or Twiggy short.

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