It was a long wait for Mad Men’s fifth season to finally arrive on AMC, but the season kicked off with an episode full of memorable scenes, some surprising answers to the fourth season’s questions and a set up for what promises to be a tumultuous year in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the world at large. Welcome to 1966.
If you’ve seen the first three episodes (the two-part premiere and the Betty-centric “Tea Leaves” episode), then you already know one of the key themes the show will be exploring this season is the emerging generational culture clash, along with the idea of relevance in general.
So, let’s dive right into the music of the two-part episode “A Little Kiss.” Hey, Sally…what’s playing on your clock radio this morning?
Ebb Tide – Ken Griffin
Sally Draper awakes in a new year and in a new apartment. Don has seriously upgraded the bachelor pad since we last saw him around Columbus Day of 1965. We’ll learn soon enough that this is because he’s upgraded from bachelor to newlywed, too.
Sally’s alarm clock/radio provides an unexpected bit of musical curiosity to viewers who might expect to hear the pop music we associate with the era. The Space Age weirdness of this organ music actually isn’t as Space Age as you might think. The song was recorded at least ten years before the episode’s timeline (Memorial Day weekend, 1966). Ken Griffin was a popular organist who died in 1956. Think of him as the Tupac Shakur of melodic organs. He had recorded quite a stockpile of songs before his heart attack, so the record companies just kept releasing new material from him for many years after he had gone on to play the great pipe organ in the sky.
Griffin’s version of Ebb Tide plays as Sally wanders sleepily through the halls of her Dad’s new home. She is groggy and slightly disoriented after her sleep, as are we after an 18-month absence from the show.
Why the choice of Ebb Tide to start the show? Here’s my theory and I’ll look forward to hearing yours: the song represents the 1950s which are quickly becoming almost as ethereal and ghostly as the organ’s notes. That era is fading, whether our characters know it yet or not. The 1950s will come to represent “normal” for most of the adults in Sally’s life. For some, like Roger Sterling, it is the high water mark (pun very much intended) of their lives and careers.
The Ebb Tide then can represent the lessening power of the older generation, but I tend to think it actually is here to tell us that a lot of the tumult of last season – the agency hanging by a thread, the jarring decision to propose to one’s secretary after a trip to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, medical careers and marriages at crossroads, the decision of whether to keep a baby– has subsided. In the interim, while we were away chasing zombies or whatever else had our attention these long Mad-less months, the questions were answered and the ramifications (or most of them) were dealt with. The churning tide has pulled back but has not quite gone completely out. We are at a brief moment of peace and equilibrium before we reach low tide and the churning starts anew. Welcome to 1966, indeed.
For us as viewers, it is odd music — the music we might associate with “old people.” But, in 1966, the old people are going to be celebrating their 40th birthday…whether they like it or not. And that brings us to the song that was on everyone’s minds the next day after this episode aired…whether they liked it or not.
Zou Bisou Bisou – Gillian Hills
Don Draper’s new wife stunned the guests at Don’s surprise birthday party with one of the most memorable scenes in Mad Men’s five seasons. Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) surprises Don with her “gift,” a rendition of a 1961 bit of French pop known as “Zou Bisou Bisou” which in English means something like “Oh Kiss Kiss” and lends itself to our episode’s title: “A Little Kiss.”
I immediately recognized the song not from its original source but from a recording of it I’d heard before by none other than Sophia Loren. Gillian Hills‘ version is obviously the inspiration for Montreal-bred Megan Draper and would likely have been a version she heard as a 21-year-old student in Quebec in 1961.
First, let me confess something. I actually quite like the song. This makes me odd among my friends and family, but I suppose we can simply add it to the list of things that make me odd.
Reaction to this song was immediate from my online friends with everyone expressing an instant like or dislike immediately. It seemed there was no middle ground. And that’s okay, because that was the intent.
My belief is that people were reacting more to how the song was performed than to the song itself. Megan’s decision to publicly serenade Don with a sexually provocative song and dance number was shocking to everyone but Megan, it seemed. Everyone else at the party was a mixture of shocked, aroused, scandalized, embarrassed and giddy. Megan did promise Peggy earlier, though, that people who go to her parties will want to go home and have sex. I bet she was right.
After watching the episode, I was reminded of another musical moment in Mad Men history when a female character surprised us with a sexy musical talent and foreign language skills. Come on, you know you remember it…
Joan’s performance of Cole Porter’s C’est Magnifique from way back in May, 1963, (a little more than three Mad Men years ago) featured Joan performing a bit of pop music in French for party guests in a manner that turned on the men and shocked…well, nobody.
I believe Matthew Weiner wants us to remember this scene and to compare it to Megan’s performance. So, let’s do that. First, a memory refresher of Joan’s classic performance is in order. You can go watch Joan (Christina Hendricks) play the accordion and sing in French on YouTube. I’ll wait.
Now, let’s be clear, Joan has never been shy about using her sexuality to get what she wants. But, she also has rules for when and how that should be done. Unlike Don’s reluctance to have everyone see how Megan can “perform,” Joan’s husband Greg is practically pimping out Joan to help save his failing medical career. He needs whatever edge he can get since he’s a surgeon gifted with the hands of a circus clown.
Joan belongs to that older generation of Ebb Tiders. Sexuality, even when sauntering down the halls of the agency under the watchful gaze of clients and account executives alike, is a private thing to Joan. Enter Megan, the young woman who once worked at the reception desk but now seems to have it all, and her younger generation’s quite different attitude toward public displays of sexuality and sensuality. It’s not quite the Summer of Love in Manhattan, but the season is definitely changing.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Dusty Springfield
Dusty’s voice carries us over the end credits of the second part of “A Little Kiss.” The lyrics are pretty straight-forward in expressing their intent. “You don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand.”
I heard this song as an expression of the question of relevance that many of the characters are feeling. None of the characters seem satisfied with their particular lot in life at this moment, but none of them are quite ready to make a change either. Everyone is willing for a moment to settle.
Well, everyone except the guys at Heinz who won’t settle for Peggy’s bean ballet. Say what you will, but as square as the Heinz executive seemed, he had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in the culture. In fact, he seems more aware of it than any other adult on the show.
The song also hints that some of the alliances between partners of all sorts (in the agency, in the home) will be shifting. “It wasn’t me who changed, but you. And now you’ve gone away.”
I think this is one dynamic we’ll see at work in the Draper marriage as Don and Megan feel the tidal pull of loyalty to their peers in neighboring generations. Megan and Don are at opposite ends of what is sometimes called “The Silent Generation” which extends from 1925 to 1945. Older members of this generation were too young to fight in World War II and spent much of their professional careers trying to get out of the shadow of what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation.” You see this interplay at work in the early rivalry between Don (Silent Generation) and Roger Sterling (Greatest Generation). Roger never fails to remind Don that he fought in World War II, while “all Don had was Korea.”
Meanwhile, the youngest members of the Silent Generation, such as Megan, found themselves in the shadow of their younger siblings– the Baby Boomers. Megan and her friends will discover beatniks, Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and watch the Baby Boomers get all the credit.
Don and Megan are individually struggling to find a place in the world to create their own identity (a common theme for Don Draper/Dick Whitman, certainly). They will make their relationship work as long as is practical, but the tide is shifting and their loyalties will likely be forced to change.
Songs from this week’s episode are included on my Mad Music Spotify playlist. Feel free to pop over for a listen on the hi-fi.
Up next: Mad Music – The Kids are Different Today (Episode 3, Tea Leaves)