'Mad Men' culture: 'When did music become so important?'

On last night’s Mad Men, the ad agency sought to please a client by doing what was described as a “Hard Day’s Night campaign” — that is, a youth-oriented pitch that would leech off some of the Beatlemania energy that was in the 1966 air. Don Draper and colleagues faced a mop-topped fop of a client who wanted some cool music in the ad, and after he left, Don said to Megan, “When did music become so important?”

It was a good question, even as it once again illustrated how casually, almost arrogantly, disengaged Don is from the society that’s changing all around him. At the end of the episode, in a weary attempt to get clued in, Don takes the copy of the Beatles’ Revolver that Megan hands him and drops the needle on it. By the time he emerges from his reverie, we were listening to the final cut, the trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the tape-looped, John Lennon-led number that would have been the song Don might have been least likely to “get.” (Now, George Harrison’s “Taxman,” on the other hand… )

Other cultural referents in this episode written by show creator Matthew Weiner included Pete reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s one that, while at first seeming not to fit with Pete’s self-styled squaresville image, could appeal to him for what it was — an example of a new modernism that is relatively easy to digest, it being Pynchon’s shortest novel. But even stretching the comparison to the breaking point, there’s no way guest star Alexis Bledel could be compared to that book’s questing female protagonist, Oedipa Maas.

Don is seen watching TV at one point — an episode of Perry Mason, then in its final season. As excellent as that series was — and, no kidding, Perry Mason really holds up — it was nobody’s idea of cutting-edge television. Indeed, the very notion of cutting-edge TV wasn’t something anyone other than Rod Serling and Ernie Kovacs might have conceived possible up to that point.

In general, 1966 was very much one of those years in which the old and the new mingled freely in the commercial world. Yes, the Beatles exerted great influence, but so did Frank Sinatra, who extended his career into a new act with the success of his single “Strangers in the Night.” Yes, the episode took its title, “Lady Lazarus,” from a poem by Sylvia Plath, but this was the same year that John Ashbery published his collection Rivers and Mountains — more radical American poetry than anything from the tidily florid Plath.

Megan’s acting career took center-stage this week, and her Off Broadway auditions could have included try-outs for The MAD Show (a revue based on MAD Magazine) and Dames at Sea (starring future Smash guest star Bernadette Peters). I don’t quite understand why Megan didn’t stick around to nail that Cool Whip pitch — after all, she could have gone on to star in the commercial, which might have led to further acting offers. As it stood, her brunette legginess was in vogue — see Stefanie Powers, then starring in The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

Of course, she may have been more attuned to another show that premiered that year: The Newlywed Game.

Twitter: @kentucker

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