How ‘Mad Men’ Used Music to Recontextualize ’60s Pop Culture

For a TV show to be as instantly canonized as Mad Men has been throughout its seven-season run, nearly every aspect of it needs to serve a distinct purpose, to be thoughtful. For that TV show to be historical in nature, the details need to be meticulous. And for that TV show to be about the 1960s, one of the most controversial and turbulent decades in American cultural history, it needs to walk a very specific tightrope — one that carefully navigates the generational divide that defined the late ‘60s. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, one of the most influential players in the music-on-TV revolution of the early ‘00s, have achieved all of this — and with plenty of irreverence, humor, and hidden meaning to boot.

The music of Mad Men adds historical accuracy to the show, reshapes how people perceive the music of the ‘60s, and conducts a sophisticated dialogue with the characters and plotlines in a way few TV shows have achieved. As a music fan, I’ll deeply miss the new context I’ve been given by watching every week. As a TV lover, I’ll hope that another show will come along that can shake me back to reality the way that Mad Men’s closing credits do when a milquetoast golden oldie like Johnny Mathis’ “What’ll I Do” immediately follows a moment of abrupt drama.

Mad Men was never a show specifically for music fans, of course, but the 1960s were synonymous with a few very specific styles of music. The rock’n’roll canon — British Invasion and otherwise — was largely assembled during the show’s fictional run, from March 1960 to late 1970. Folk music found a mainstream audience. Psychedelia thrived as the music of the counter-culture. Motown and Phil Spector both hit their strides. All of these styles find a home in Mad Men, but it’s never exactly what you expect.

As NPR’s Chris Molanphy pointed out in an excellent and exhaustive piece on the music of Mad Men:

In telling the story of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper, Weiner has strived to capture the 1960s as they were lived, not the decade many selectively remember — the hagiographic “Sixties” from countless documentaries and public-TV pledge drives — and that extends to the songs. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” hasn’t appeared once, nor has his “Blowin’ in the Wind.” There’s been no “For What It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield, no “A Change Is Gonna Come” from Sam Cooke, nor even the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie.” The Beatles made a (very expensive) appearance in one episode, but it had nothing to do with Sgt. Pepper or the Summer of Love; another time, when the Fabs’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was featured, it was only briefly whistled by lead character Don Draper. You’d think the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” would have been a gimme, since the show is set in the dirty streets of pre–fiscal crisis New York, but nope.

Avoiding these great but overused songs would just be contrarianism by Weiner if he weren’t so exacting about the songs he does include. Though they are unlikely to pop up on oldies radio today, many of Mad Men’s songs were megasmashes in their day. The fact is, on the radio and the charts, the ’60s was generally a pretty schmaltzy decade, not the nonstop Boomer-rock paradise of repute. (Yes, even the late ’60s.)

For those of us who didn’t live through the 1960s, the decade can take on a certain look from afar — one that accentuates the cultural rebellion afoot. Instead Mad Men reminds us that, for example, 1962 was the year three No. 1 Hot 100 singles were instrumentals by synching two of these songs — Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” and the Tornados’ “Telstar” — in season two. Through instrumental pop and easy-listening hits (some of which sounded dated even upon release), Mad Men reminds us that the ’50s were not so long ago, both in actual proximity to the ’60s and in ideology.

The historical accuracy of Mad Men‘s music stretches to extremes, only including a handful of songs that did not synch up with the show’s progression. When it came to Weiner’s attention that Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” was released mere months after Mad Men’s season five premiere was set, he pulled it from the episode. When The Decemberists’ “Infanta,” a song released in 2005, soundtracked a brief montage in a season two episode (“Maidenform”), there was clear intention behind it.

“As you know, Matt [Weiner] has all of the big songs in mind,” Patsavas told Flavorwire last year. “I can’t speak to how he decides on these songs, but I know he’s a big fan of music from the period and has so many of these songs in mind as he’s writing the script. They do a lot of research out of my office. And The Decemberists were clearly current day, rather than period. And we do spend a lot of time making sure that when these period songs were released, that they would have been on the radio if the song was playing on the radio in the scene. We have a really good time with it, actually. It’s really a pleasure to be able to work with these older gems, and the research process is interesting and fun, to speculate on when exactly a song would have hit and how that plays into the Mad Men universe.”

And finally, on a more cerebral level — one that I imagine Mad Men fans crave — the show’s music talks to its plotlines and characters. Sometimes the song selections are slyly funny, like when Peggy walks away from Sterling Cooper despite Don’s begging and the iconic riff of The Kinks’ “You’ve Really Got Me” — one of rock’n’roll’s greatest songs about (potentially unrequited) lust —  soundtracks her leaving the building. Other times, particularly in Mad Men‘s early years before the ’50s dream hadn’t quite worn off, the soundtrack’s pop lightness counteracts a darkness on screen (or sometimes, vice versa).

The point of music on a show like Mad Men is to stir something more inside of its viewers. But the smart and unexpected ways in which music factored into the Mad Men universe was more than scene-setting and mood-building. In season five’s final moments, when Don Draper once again appears to be the man who has it all, the song selection — Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” — reminds us that our protagonist may be on his second stab at life, but he — like Bond — lives like there’s no tomorrow.