You're playing with dice

When you're done talking plot points, read Jaime Weinman on the music of Mad Men

Instead of posting “You Only Live Twice” after last night’s Mad Men, here instead (thanks to a friend who linked to it) is the demo recording of the song that John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse originally wrote for that spot in the movie. Same title, but a completely different feel – basically another “Goldfinger” type of love/death song. The ballad they finally went with was much better, especially in the lyrics.

Analyzing Mad Men music choices can be fun, in part because this is (by necessity) one of the few current shows whose cultural references are mostly to things from a much earlier period; it sends people running to Wikipedia and YouTube to look up the references. (Some of the interactive fun people have with the show – fans and critics alike – is taking to Twitter to try and be the first to announce what that reference was, or searching the next morning to find people explaining the “John and Marsha” joke.) The James Bond references last night were not among the obscure ones, of course. But I thought they had a surprising amount of resonance for one of the themes of the show that interests me the most: the changing nature of what it means to be cool and powerful.

I read that Weiner has been wanting to use “You Only Live Twice” for some time, and waited until the show hit 1967 to do it. The title is so appropriate for the lead character that it runs the risk of being on the nose, but it worked beautifully. And it worked, I think, partly because it was preceded by an earlier scene where characters are watching the other James Bond film of 1967, the absurd Bond spoof Casino Royale. The cultural relevance of having so much James Bond in the episode is that 1967 was the year James Bond lost his mojo. From 1964 to 1966, James Bond dominated popular culture almost totally – him and the Beatles. His movies were the biggest blockbusters, and every movie studio in the world flooded the market with Bond ripoffs and Bond spoofs. For grown-ups, as opposed to the teenagers who followed the Beatles, James Bond was the king of culture. And then in 1967, it sort of started to crumble. It didn’t crumble completely, as You Only Live Twice was a hit, but it wasn’t as big a hit as the last two films; the public’s appetite for Bond-style movies and TV shows started to wane; Sean Connery announced he was leaving the franchise; the Italians had moved from flooding the market with low-budget Bond knockoffs to low-budget Westerns. By the following year, Bond had almost been erased from popular culture influence.

So while I don’t know if it was intended that way, the Bond references work very well for the mid-life-crisis aspect of this show. While this is by no means all that the show is about, one of the things it does is that it traces the trajectory of how notions of “cool” changed in a few years. The older idea of cool was that being the mature, amoral guy in a suit was cool. By the late ’60s, everyone wanted to be young, and (as one speech in last night’s episode made clear) people no longer readily agreed with the idea that age brings maturity – and therefore compensates for the disadvantages of growing older. It made a lot of sense to fill the soundtrack with James Bond circa 1967, the epitome of old-school grown-up coolness, at a time when he was still popular, but losing his grip on the culture.