Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 1
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2008, Volume 15, #8
Written by John Metzger
Fri August 8, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
What is a fan to make of all the attention that Mad Men has received of late? More important, what impact will it have upon the series? Mad Men, which just began its second season on AMC, enjoyed a quiet birth last summer. Although it was praised highly by critics, its presence on a niche-targeting cable station meant that the audience it reached was considerably smaller than it might have achieved elsewhere. Then again, now that the cinematic aspirations of televisionís recent revolution have been pushed aside by the major networks in favor of more reality programming as well as a return to airing an endless stream of vapid comedies and dramas, it all might be for the better.
Try as they might, executives for NBC werenít able to derail Friday Night Lights completely, despite their blatant and rather distracting attempts to boost the size of its audience by injecting unrealistic plot twists and an assault of pop tunes into the arc of its storyline. Nevertheless, the program did slip slightly in quality during its second season. AMC, of course, would like nothing more than to expand Mad Menís audience, too, and itís hard to blame the network for taking advantage of the publicity that the show has received in the wake of its 16 Emmy nominations. After all, AMC is part of a profit-oriented corporation. Such is the delicate balance between commerce and art, and forever shall they dance.
Fortunately, Mad Menís creators may have found a way to insulate the program from too much marketing interference. The first season was set in 1960, culminating with the presidential election, and it remained convincingly true to the era. Everything about the program had been established quite firmly prior to its having caught fire, and it certainly wouldnít be easy to take a dramatically different approach to the show now, at least not without completely sacrificing its artistic credibility.
While it was a simple decision to inject more music into Friday Night Lights, thus creating a secondary income stream by turning the program into a marketing vehicle for the major label system, Mad Menís framework makes it considerably more difficult to push the series toward the same end goal. In fact, for a show that revolves around a powerful advertising firm in New York City, it refreshingly has few opportunities for the placement of modern-day products. By refusing to allow the intrusion of todayís culture to infiltrate its fictional glimpse at the past, Mad Men has become a tastemaker in its own right, inspiring retro-minded fashion choices as well as a revived interest in the pop music that once played through static-filled, monaural radios.
At first glance, the idea of a soundtrack for Mad Men is enough to make fansí groan in unison. In reality, however, Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 1 provides further proof of the programís brilliant construction. Throughout Mad Menís first season, some liberties were taken, of course ó most egregiously the inclusion of The Cardigansí The Great Divide, which appeared at the conclusion of the second episode ó but thankfully, they were few and far between. Whenever music appeared, it served a purpose that was bigger than selling downloadable singles or randomly configured CD compilations. Without question, the songs were neither the focus of a scene nor a cheap emotional response to the events that were being depicted. Instead, they were hardwired into the script for the purpose of commenting upon the storyline.
It is amazing to glance through the track listing to Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 1, which includes performances by Vic Damone (On the Street Where You Live), Rosemary Clooney (Botch-a-Me), Ella Fitzgerald (Manhattan), and The Andrews Sisters (I Can Dream, Canít I?). Save for A Beautiful Mine, which serves as Mad Menís theme, the entirety of the set avoids any semblance of having a contemporary flourish. Both the aforementioned tune by The Cardigans as well as Bob Dylanís Donít Think Twice, Itís Alright are not featured on the collection, and whether or not this has anything to do with the costs of licensing the material matters little. The end result is that the endeavor benefits greatly from their absence. In effect, the songs that remain bind together to evoke the same kind of surreal superficial happiness that pervades Mad Men, and for followers of the show, itís impossible to hear them and not also be aware of the darkness that lurks ominously beneath the surface. In other words, for once, the release of a soundtrack is actually a reason to celebrate.
Based upon the premiere episode of its second season, too, fans of Mad Men have little need to worry. The show may have jumped forward slightly in time, but it has lost none of its edge, and unlike many returning series in search of a bigger audience, it has remained true to its core values. No big surprises were unveiled, and thankfully, there wasnít an influx of music that carried the viewer out of the moment and away from the realism of the program. Time will tell if Mad Men can sustain such a high level of quality for the duration of its run, but given the turbulent era in which it is set as well as the foundation that already has been laid, the odds are good that the fertile terrain on which it rides will be put to use in a rather extraordinary fashion. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 1 is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box