Mad Men music

I’ve been indulging in a Mad Men marathon. Many friends and acquaintances have recommended the series to me, so I  watched all 52 episodes over the past few weeks – a visual distraction and personal reward after the submission of my dissertation. The show is a visual feast – a glorious tribute to the glamour, style and aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s. But more than this, it is a multivalent feast to my ears, beginning with the opening music and credits.

The theme music is a small sample of the instrumental track, “A Beautiful Mine” by the producer/DJ/musician RJD2, who produces some really interesting funk/hip-hop/electronica (see http://www.myspace.com/rjd2).  The choice of artist is matched by an equally engrossing visual: a silhouetted male executive approaches his office, attaché case firmly clasped in his right hand.  As he takes a few final steps and places his case on the floor, what appears to be advertising boards begin to fall, closely followed by the entire office falling (some say it melts away).  Cut to the next image: the silhouetted man is free-falling past huge glass skyscrapers, covered in stylised advertising imagery.  According to Gary Edgerton (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2009/04/19/falling-man-and-mad-men-154), the images include seductive women, whiskey, hackneyed advertising slogans, a nuclear family, hands wearing wedding rings and four vintage photographs – as Edgerton so rightly points out, “a lot going on in just thirty-six seconds”.

As deceptively simple as the music may appear on the surface, a lot is going on not only in the imagery, but also in the music, and that this element also plays a crucial covert imprimatur for setting the scene of the entire series. In support of this hypthesis, let’s to Matthew Weiner, the creator and Executive Producer of the series.  Weiner discusses the opening sequence for the program “Inside Media at the Paley Center: Top TV Stars in their own words” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqX_WMNi_gM).  In the interview, he states that the initial concept for the opening sequence involved the live action of a man jumping out of a window and freezing the frame with a title coming up.  This idea was put to the network (AMC), and they came back with justifiable objections on the ground of feasibility. In relating this story, Weiner expresses a sense of respect at this reaction, seeing it as an indication of the the interest and commitment of the studio.  He goes on to explain the consequent rigorous process of refinement for the concept of the opening sequence, leading to the stylized end result.  Then comes the crucial statement regarding the music:

“… and then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything. Once we got the piece of music … and the image at the end of the titles was in the presentation that they gave us, and it was a cut out of that shot that Alan Taylor and Phil Abraham constructed for the opening of the pilot.  Once I saw that image I’m like ‘we want to work to this’ …”

Weinberg goes on to explain that the imagery on the buildings was about the internalized fears to be found within the faceless silhouette; and that the image of falling man, while perhaps still a raw image in public consciousness after 9/11, was even more a uniquely American symbol from an earlier era.

My writing here is not going to enter the debate on the iconography of the falling man in the opening sequence and its relationship to the erased image of the falling man in 9/11 photography (airbrushed out of press reports after countless objections); nor the more obvious reference to iconic newspaper reports of suicidal actions of stockbrokers and businessmen during the 1929 crash.  You can read about that stuff on Gary Edgerton’s post, and the comments following his article are engaging and interesting. What really interests me is the process of hearing RJD2’s track on the radio crystallized the abstract concepts in Weinberg – to reiterate his words, “then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything“. What is it in the track that makes this music serve so well its programmatic context? How does the music reflect the imagery and metaphor that makes up the opening credits?

Initially the instrumentation appears traditional: for the first four measures we hear a string quartet, with the addition of a subtle rhythmic pattern on the closed high-hat cymbals, with an occasional open cymbal punctuation towards the end of the pattern.  A very subtle synthesized element is added at the sustained last note, conjuring in our audial imagination the slowed-down pattern of some sort of automated machine (timed with the image of a fan).  As soon as one notices this, a fairly complex rhythmic pattern is introduced (full drum kit and bongo accompaniment).  The quartet reiterates the four bar pattern without modification underneath this new rhythmic movement, as a harp figure cuts a counter-melody in what appears to be a coda.  The music concludes with a tonic pedal note, movement in the string bass and then a final iteration of the last two bars of the string pattern.

Harmonically and melodically, the music appears very conventional.  The accent on the suspended melodic pattern is a figure known in conventional musicology as an appoggiatura – each note is leaning towards resolution on the following note.  There is a rising bass which switches octaves unexpectedly; the harp’s counter-melody spans a large range with some pleasant dissonances.  The most interesting dissonance is in the concluding chord – an added diminished 7th gives an air of unease.

Overall then, the music presents a solid conventional structure constantly being undermined by subtleties and counter-claims: the ground is shifting.  What appears at first to be a very clever, snappy quasi-classical offering, morphs into something far less stable.  The addition of a rhythmic section that sounds live (but feels grounded in an electronic rhythmic genre) undercuts the expectation of a traditional presentation.  We expect some sort of rhythmic syncopation in the string section when the percussion is introduced, but the strings continue on intransigently, jarring against the new rhythmic form and making us even question if they are ‘acoustic’ or acting as a sample for the greater work.  The harp counter-melody parallels the fall of the the string melody, but in a completely different and unpredictable way.  Synthesized sounds take us further out of the comfort zone, and the final harmonic clash completes the feeling of unease, uncertainty and displacement.

All of this music contributes to my perspective of Mad Men as a show about displacement, unease and uncertainty. For all intents and purposes, the primary characters present as insiders, but underneath they embody the turbulent changing times. Don Draper is the consummate slick, intelligent and handsome WASP advertising man, a war veteran and self-made man. But the writers have drawn a character that hovers precariously between self-made and invented.  Peggy Olsen challenges the stereotypes and negotiates her way to a position of power, constantly compromising her own inner independence because of necessity in this very male, very heterosexual world. These are the characters of greatest interest in the script, although there are many other minor characters who also encapsulate such tensions.  What is most wonderful about the music is that embedded within it is the kernel of dissemblance that operates to unite this brilliant, engaging work.  A final word about music: one of the aspects of Mad Men I most appreciate is the space for silence and words, away from some sort of dull musackal undertone that seems to be present in so many of today’s dramas and comedies.  It allows us to appreciate the very fine writing for what it is, without unnecessary distraction.  This feature alone deserves praise …

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Filed under Music Reviews, Nostalgia, TV themes

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