‘Mad Men’ Week: 18 Maddeningly Marvelous Musical Moments From the Show
With just over three days left to go until the finale, our celebration of all things Mad Men continues with a look at the show’s finest uses of music, from “Zou Bisou Bisou” to “Space Oddity.”
In no particular order, we present 18 of our favorite musical moments from all seven seasons of the show. Shall we begin? Let’s count it in! And a five, six, seven, eight…
“Zou Bisou Bisou” from “A Little Kiss” (Season 5)
We kick things off with what might be the show’s most iconic use of song. In the Season 5 premiere, Don and Megan have just married after a (very) brief courtship. The audience has yet to get to know Megan, and Megan, apparently, has yet to get to know Don. It is with good intentions that she throws him a surprise 40th birthday party, which includes her burlesque performance of Gillian Hills’ “Zou Bisou Bisou” (“Oh! Kiss Kiss!” in English). This moment became a major talking point both in the world of the show and in the real world, and understandably so. Just watch it. Unfortunately for Megan, Don finds the performance embarrassing, causing a violent fight that shows cracks forming in their still-very-new relationship. So popular was this scene that it became a massive meme. It also made Jessica Paré a hit recording artist: her full-length version of the song shot up to No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music chart.
“Rivers of Babylon” from “Babylon” (Season 1)
Many episodes of Mad Men have ended with an immaculately-selected song playing over a montage of scenes featuring many of the show’s characters, but the final scene of “Babylon” was one of the first (and one of the best). In the episode, Don is dragged by his mistress and her beatnik lover to an open mic night in the Village. After enduring some awful slam poetry, Don and company are presented with “Rivers of Babylon,” an original song, while vignettes of Roger and Joan concluding a tryst and Don’s mistress Rachel alone in her department store play. The music speaks to the characters’ constant search for a home in the world and their desire to feel less lost.
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from “Far Away Places” (Season 5)
Roger’s first LSD trip is one of the show’s most surreal, visually-arresting scenes, and The Beach Boys’ woozy “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” helps it achieve those very effects. Mad Men tells stories about people who feel they don’t belong (and about people who despise change), making the song selection (“I keep looking for a place to fit…”) extra fitting.
“The Best Things in Life Are Free” from “Waterloo” (Season 7)
The first half of the seventh and final season of the show ends with a hallucination: Don sees Bert Cooper, who died earlier in the episode, appear and perform a surreal rendition of “The Best Things in Life Are Free” from the musical Good News. It is a fitting tribute to the character and to the actor, Robert Morse, who is known for his work on the stage. In a show that often tries to reconcile its characters desires for wealth and materials with their desire to find happiness, the song was a perfectly apt and bittersweet choice.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” from “Lady Lazarus” (Season 5)
Fun fact: the show paid $250,000 for the rights to use this classic song by The Beatles. It was money well spent. After quitting her work in advertising so that she can return to acting, Megan buys Don Revolver on vinyl (those hipsters!) and tells him specifically to start with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” She leaves him alone in the apartment, and as he listens to the song, a montage of scenes (Peggy smoking pot, Megan lying corpse-like on the floor at her acting class) plays, the visuals melting into the music. When Don switches the record off before the song ends, it perfectly sums up his struggles the changing culture — and his struggles with Megan. Kids these days…
“C’est Magnifique” from “My Old Kentucky Home” (Season 3)
Poor Joan. When we meet her in the first episode of the series, her main interest seems to be finding a man and getting married. Though she ultimately achieves her goal, it is with walking garbage heap Greg Harris, a man who rapes her before they’ve even taken their vows. As illustrated in the scene below, Greg continues to force her to do things she does not want to do. Though it is rewarding for the audience to learn about Joan’s hidden accordion-playing talent and to watch her hold court, it is also heartbreaking to see her endure yet another uncomfortable incident at the hands of her horrible husband.
“The Twist” from “The Hobo Code” (Season 1)
Perhaps even more than Don, Mad Men is about Peggy Olson. At the end of the series’ very first episode, Pete Campbell arrives at Peggy’s apartment, thus beginning their tense affair (which, as you might recall, resulted in a surprise pregnancy). Several episodes later, in “The Hobo Code,” the office heads to P.J. Clarke’s to celebrate Peggy’s successful work for Belle Jolie. “The Twist,” a song that comes complete with its own dance, begins playing, and the crowd goes wild with excitement. While dancing, Peggy spots sullen Pete sulking in the corner and seductively twists her way toward him. The clip below cuts off before the big emotional blow in which Pete, especially cruel and obnoxious in those earlier seasons, crushes Peggy’s advance with a devastating, “I don’t like you like this.” Elisabeth Moss, an incredible actress who is capable of demonstrating great pain with nothing more than a slight facial twitch, slowly retreats back into the crowd, her eyes filling with tears. This is all made more brutal by the joyous music still playing.
“You Really Got Me” from “The Other Woman” (Season 5)
This Peggy sequence is equally as incredible as the last, though for totally different reasons. After having an emotional and game-changing conversation with Don in which she reveals she is, after much abuse, leaving the agency, Peggy packs up her things and heads out of SDCP for what she thinks will be the last time. The entire office is celebrating landing the Jaguar account, so she slips out mostly unnoticed (though Joan throws a knowing glance Peggy’s way). When she hits the elevators and looks back, proud of all she’s accomplished and unsure of the future, a smile overtakes her face and the opening riff of The Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me” kicks in. It is an absolute rush. That the audience did not know for certain whether we’d ever see Peggy again made this an especially impactful moment. (The song plays at the very end of the clip below and over the credits of the episode.)
“Early in the Morning” from “A Night to Remember” (Season 2)
Another classic “song playing over a montage” moment came in Season 2, when Father Gill, a visiting priest (played by Colin Hanks) who has taken an interest in Peggy, picks up his guitar and starts singing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Early in the Morning.” His solo performance, however, grows outside of his bedroom and becomes the soundtrack to a series of scenes including Don drinking a Heineken alone at the office after Betty has (finally) kicked him out. (The clip below features only the beginning of this scene before moving into a fan-made montage. Sorry!)
“You Only Live Twice” from “The Phantom” (Season 5)
Despite a season of ups and downs, Don and Megan seem to be in a good place at the end of Season 5. Don helps Megan secure her first professional acting gig, apparently having come to terms with her leaving advertising and finding a life and success outside of him. But has he really? As he walks away from her on set, out of the light and into the darkness, Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” swells up. Don makes his way to a bar, where he is approached by a woman who asks what might be the series’ most appropriate question ever: “Are you alone?” And cut to black.
“My Way” from “The Strategy” (Season 7)
The moments between Don and Peggy are arguably the best moments of the show, period. In an echo of “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy find themselves alone at the office, talking about work and life. After a touching exchange in which Don tells Peggy he doesn’t worry about her because he knows she’ll be alright, he asks her to dance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” She hesitates initially but eventually relents, and the camera pulls away as these two platonic soul mates stay locked together, swaying to the music. If it looks like we’re crying, it’s because we are.
“Is That All There Is” from “Severance” (Season 7)
The second half of Season 7 opens with Don instructing a chinchilla coat-clad model to show him how she feels. We don’t know the context of the situation — is this another affair? No, as it turns out. Don and the model are not even alone in the room; she is there to audition for an ad campaign. So much of what we see on this show is not what it seems at first. In the middle of all of this, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” begins to play, and it’s a perfect fit, just like the fur coat, and not just for the scene but for the series itself. “Is that all there is?” could serve as the show’s motto. After seven years of watching these characters chase after the things they want only to continue feeling empty and lost, one wonders how Matthew Weiner waited seven years to use this piece.
“Bye Bye Birdie” from “Love Among the Ruins” (Season 3)
A good portion of Mad Men’s third season focuses on the use of the opening theme from “Bye Bye Birdie.” The Sterling Cooper team is attempting to remake the film’s iconic opening sequence for use in an ad for Patio, Pepsi’s diet cola. That the song appeared so many times, in so many forms (let us not forget Sal Romano’s flamboyant, eye-opening rendition) throughout the season is incredibly meaningful: Don’s pet name for Betty was “Birdie,” and by the end of the season, their marriage over, he will have to say “goodbye” to her. Below, Peggy gives her try at imitating the Ann Margret scene in a sweet and funny interlude.
“Both Sides Now” from “In Care Of” (Season 6)
Most people know Joni Mitchell’s version of “Both Sides Now,” and though she did, in fact write the song, Judy Collins was the first to record and release it. For the final scene of the sixth season finale, Collins’ version is used as Don takes his children to the dilapidated former whorehouse where he spent many of his formative years. At this point in the story, Don and Sally are somewhat estranged, with Sally still reeling and angry after catching her father having sex with Sylvia. “This is where I grew up,” Don says, and then he and Sally exchange a look. Sally is seeing Don from both sides now for the first time.
“Tobacco Road” from “Public Relations” (Season 4)
“Left me here to die alone / in the middle of Tobacco Road.” Thus opens the song that closes out the first episode of Season 4, and boy, is it appropriate. The series’ obsessions with death and money (from tobacco companies, especially) come together in this scene where Don is at his most, well, Don. Tobacco would later become an important plot point in Season 4, with SCDP losing the Lucky Strike account and Don penning an epic takedown of the tobacco industry in The New York Times. There it was, all spelled out in the very first episode of the season: “Only you know how I loathe Tobacco Road.”
We were unable to find the actual clips from the show for the following song selections, so instead we’ve just embedded the songs and included a description.
“Space Oddity” from “Lost Horizon” (Season 7)
At the end “Lost Horizon,” it becomes clear that Don has no intention of returning to New York or his job at McCann. After a less-than-fruitful search for Diana the Waitress, he decides to continue driving west and picks up a hitchhiker. David Bowie’s eternal “Space Oddity” begins playing as Don drives off, away from his old life, once again shedding a persona that no longer suits him. Bowie, of course, is one of pop culture’s most infamous chameleons, having changed his look and sound many, many times throughout his career. Sound familiar? Dick Whitman would approve of this moment.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from “The Summer Man (Season 4)
Like “Is That All There Is,” this Rolling Stones classic seems tailor-made for Mad Men, a show in which every character, try as he or she might, struggles to find and know any kind of lasting happiness. The timing is perfect too: “Satisfaction” shows up when Don is trying to pull his downward spiral of a life together through journaling and healthier living.
“Ladder of Success” from “Waldorf Stories” (Season 4)
When you get right down to it, isn’t Mad Men all about people who are trying to climb up, up, up the ladder of success (at the cost of everything else)? Are these characters not perpetually asking themselves, “What actually matters?” This Skeeter Davis song appears in a flashback that explains how Don conned his way into a job working under Roger at Sterling Cooper, the beginning of his life in advertising. “Look, there goes my happiness,” goes the song. And, oh, how we’ve watched it go…
Stay tuned for more Mad Men week goodies ahead of the series finale this Sunday, May 17!