The Music of Mad Men: A Recap

The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, and The Kinks -- everyone's gone Mad.


    Over the last 10 years, music placement in TV has become an increasingly higher profile part of entertainment. As TV has become more cinematic, the music industry has diversified, and Internet chatter has amplified the ways obsessive fans communicate about both of these mediums. As a result, music supervision is no longer a little-known profession.

    It’s hard to think of a show more reliant on the historical reminders offered by pop songs than Mad Men. The show’s songs, selected by renowned music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, often tend to jump out because the drama of the series is so reserved, unfinished, and understated. Sometimes, particularly in the early seasons, a recognizable song is the most immediate element of the show.

    The most ever-present theme of Mad Men is the loss of innocence and gradual downward trajectory of its main characters. The soundtrack to the early years of the show is suitably heavy on standards, crooners, and popular jazz. Youth culture and rock and roll burst onto the scene with Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again”, the latter of which memorably ushered in Season 2.


    Another cultural sea change, the arrival of psychedelia into mainstream society, was symbolized by The Beatles in episode 8 of season 5. The most event-like music placement thus far, Don’s listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” was actually written into the script (Don plays the record at Megan’s suggestion). The scene was totally absorbing and a little embarrassing at the same time; it was kind of like a big “DEEP SUBTEXT ALERT” flashing across the screen.

    The show has included a reasonably diverse selection of music to represent the ‘60s, with interesting bossa nova, country, and doo-wop choices alongside massive hits like The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe”. However, I think the show’s music probably works best for those who have neither lived through the ‘60s nor listened to that much of the decade’s music. Mad Men’s haunting sense of determinism is strong enough to be oppressive at times. If you can bypass its tic-like winking, the music cues will be all the more powerful.

    A few of Mad Men’s songs come from prior screen projects, which may be cheating a little bit; they have a built-in link to visual representations of the era. Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice”, is used to close out Season 5, while The Monkees’ best stab at psych-rock, “The Porpoise Song”, accompanied the final scene of last season’s penultimate episode. A Goffin/King composition, “The Porpoise Song” is heard in the title sequence to The Monkees’ film Head (1968). This opening features the band members falling through the air in slow motion, not unlike the animated executive in the Mad Men titles.


    Even if the all the cultural/historical references sometimes threaten to push Mad Men into Forrest Gump or Bill and Ted territory, an interesting feature of the production is that the songs are used sparingly; the soundtrack still allows for plenty of quiet moments and even silence. It differs from the approach of someone like Martin Scorsese, who underlays each second of his films with recognizable music.

    In some cases, the program uses songs that are just too sacred, even for one of the best shows of all time. The Beach Boys‘ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” accompanies Roger’s comical LSD trip, adding a layer of meaning, but not leaving much room for interpretation.

    Occasionally, the producers have opted for anachronistic but retro-sounding songs such as The Cardigans’ “The Great Divide”. For the most part, though, the songs have been chronologically fitting. Here, then, are seven songs released in 1969 that I could see popping up somewhere in the final season.

    David Axelrod – “The Fly”


    Pretty much anything off the beatmaker’s goldmine Songs of Experience would work well. The songs are crammed with atmosphere and intrigue.

    Marianne Faithful – “Sister Morphine”

    The series loves to incorporate druggy moments, and this quiet Jagger/Richards blues is both spooky and sad. Faithful’s quavering vocal is downright unsettling.

    David Ruffin – “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)”

    A shining moment from Motown’s master of sad. Ruffin wails this tale of personal decline, which bears a celebratory-sounding facade.

    The Stooges – “Real Cool Time”


    The first Stooges album always sounds like a wake-up call. It’s raw, abrasive, depraved, and at odds with most simple accounts of what 1969 sounded like. This track straddles garage and art-rock and anticipates the future.

    Elvis Presley – “Kentucky Rain”

    Elvis’s comeback era could fit analogously with the story’s history, portraying the before and after of “The Sixties” as a concept, and this is one of his best, broken moments.

    Scott Walker – “Boy Child”

    This is prime Don Draper theme material, complete with split identity, demons, and a smooth exterior.

    The Velvet Underground – “Jesus”


    A muted cry for help, Lou Reed puts his pop-art revolution on hold to ask for redemption. The most New York of New York bands, the VU should make an appearance in the portrayal of the increasingly weird ’60s.