'Mad Men' Is Set in the '60s, So Why Does It Use Music From Today?

A look at the most compelling musical anachronisms on a show that's usually obsessed with historical accuracy

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AMC

Woe betide Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner if this Sunday's season five finale includes anything teetering on historical inaccuracy. Audience obsession with history on Mad Men has ratcheted to new heights this season, beginning even before March's premiere when audience pressure compelled Weiner to switch out a Burt Bacharach song early viewers deemed historically mislaid. Only weeks later, a number of political historians entered perhaps the hippest discussion of their careers in debating whether New York City's then-Republican mayor would have actually called George Romney—Mitt Romney's father, then the governor of Michigan—"a clown," as happened on the show.

Counting others' mistakes, though, is but a cheap thrill. Real excitement comes from watching the producers of a television program so tightly beholden to stylistic parameters depart from those parameters on purpose. Although such instances on Mad Men are rare, it is though the show's occasionally anachronistic musical placement that the audience witnesses historical inaccuracies working in the show's favor.

With so many armchair historians in the audience, juxtaposing untimely music against a carefully painted 1960s backdrop is risky business. But it's also an incredibly effective way for Mad Men's writers to say that what's happening on screen is so important that they've got to risk everything expected of them to make a point. Here's a look at the most compelling musical anachronisms in the series so far and how the show used them to emphasize important moments:

"The Great Divide" by the Cardigans
Season 1, Episode 2: "Ladies Room"

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Great Divide by The Cardigans on Grooveshark

The first time a musical anachronism disrupts the show's historically accurate rhythm comes at the end of the second episode in the first season. Don has just spoken with Betty's new psychiatrist, who helps the adman realize he's more emotionally disconnected from his wife than he thought. As Don closes the door of his study to speak further to the doctor, the Swedish alternative rock band's 1996 music box ballad creeps through the Drapers' seemingly perfect 1960's home. A white double oven comes into view before fading quickly.

The Cardigans' "The Great Divide" is, of course, about division, describing "a monster growing in our heads raised upon the wicked things we've said." The 1960s was full of ditties about breaking up and falling apart. That Mad Men bucks history and pulls from the repertoire of the 1990's strongly emphasizes how a seemingly perfect midcentury family will come to reckon with the divides of modernity. From this point forward, the expanding gap between Don and Betty will drive the plot forward and force the protagonist to pose a series deeply existential questions. Their answers will shape the course of his family and the other characters at the agency.

"The Infanta" by the Decemberists
Season 2, Episode 6: "Maidenform"

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The Infanta by The Decemberists on Grooveshark

Hipsters loved this emphatic juxtaposition when it opened a mid-second-season episode on white-versus-black, Jackie-versus-Marilyn brassieres. The song underscores a three-way split scene in which Betty and Peggy dress in white bras while Joan wears a black one. The sequence opens an episode and divides a season in which all three women are forced to confront old notions of a woman's sexual role. Soon Betty will find she's pregnant with a third child, Joan will be raped by her fiancé, and Peggy will tell Pete she had his child.

By contrast, the Decemberists' modern "The Infanta" begins abruptly with the story of a woman in labor who's got quite an entourage: she enters the scene by "palanquin, on the back of an elephant, on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk, all astride on her father's line, with the king and his concubines, and her nurse with her pitchers of liquors and milk." The presentation of this contemporary tune with ancient-sounding lyrics against Betty, Peggy, and Joan getting dressed creates a situation as confusing as the 1960's must have been for women. It forces the audience to wonder if these characters will find solutions to their problems that are modern, like the Decemberists' sound, or if they will remain worshipped objects, as the lyrics suggest. At a pivotal moment in Mad Men's trajectory, this contrast hints at how, just as the producers replace a '60s song with a modern alternative, these women will defy their era's sexual norms to find modern alternatives themselves.

Presented by

Charlie Wells is a journalist whose writing has been featured in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times. He is currently working on a book about the town that was supposed to have been bombed instead of Nagasaki.

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