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Apr 2, 2012 12:32 pm

Rock 'n' Roll Sells Out on "Mad Men"



Due to popular demand, I'm going to continue to blog this season of Mad Men. And now, Episode 3! For my post on the two-parter season premier, go here.

When you get right down to it, it's the lucky among us who get old. At the risk of being morbid, I've always believed it's better to die at a hundred, with a lifetime of memories and experiences, than it is to die at twenty-five. That doesn't mean aging is easy, though, and for the first time since the show began, last night's Mad Men episode made the characters seem so ... old. From Betty Francis's cancer scare, to Roger Sterling finally realizing he's obsolete, to Don's awkward attempts to psychoanalyze the youth market backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, aging and its discontents are now front and center on the series.

Even Mohawk, the newly-signed airline that sparked so much excitement at SCDP (and highlighted the rivalry between Roger and Pete Campbell) is living on borrowed time. By 1972 Mohawk Airlines would be defunct, acquired by the company that eventually became US Airways. Almost none of the early regional airlines in America operate independently today (but, hey, even Pan Am eventually went out of business, ironically enough at almost the exact same moment as the final collapse of the Soviet Union -- December 1991).

It was certainly startling to be reintroduced to Betty. After two years of marriage to New York mayor John Lindsay's advisor Henry Francis (He got the best line of the night -- "Tell Jim His Honor isn't going to Michigan. [Pause.] Because Romney's a clown, and I don't want him standing next to us."), she's put on a bit of weight, which would in and of itself be unremarkable, but this is the woman who went on at length for years about how important it is to be pretty and thin. Her doctor finds a lump on her thyroid during a check-up for diet pills, and she spends the rest of the episode under the potential cloud of cancer (*SPOILER ALERT*: she doesn't have it). It's worth reflecting on cancer's once-immense social taboo -- people once suffered and died in silence. Remember, the episode is set eight years before Betty Ford went public with her battle with breast cancer. Interestingly, only Don can bring himself to speak the actual word (well, his "other" ex-wife did died of bone marrow cancer) -- every one else, even Betty's cancer-stricken friend Joyce, with whom Betty has lunch after a doctor's appointment, refers to it as a sickness or illness. Joyce's description of the experience of cancer is heart-wrenching, especially her seemingly shrugged-off line in response to Betty's horror: "No one's ever asked."

On to somewhat lighter fare. Part of the original fun of Mad Men was guessing how its very flawed characters would react to the changes of the '60s. Well, we now have a pretty good idea. Roger Sterling remains utterly, almost willfully clueless -- last week, he was completely oblivious to the fact that black people read newspapers and might want office jobs, too; this week, he told Peggy to hire the Woody Allen-esque Michael Ginsberg because having a Jew "makes the agency more modern." He thought the same thing in the first season, six years earlier. (He also assumed it would be a problem for the client to have a Jewish copywriter and was astonished that they didn't care.) Don and the now-hip (and incredibly irritating) Harry Crane, meanwhile, strike up a conversation (and a joint) with a pair of underage groupies at the Stones concert while waiting to recruit the band for a TV commercial for Heinz Baked Beans. In the past, Don would have played the seducer in this situation, but here he seemed genuinely befuddled and concerned. "What do you feel when hear [the Rolling Stones]?" he asks one of them. The girl shrugs. "Brian Jones ... he's a troubadour." (Too bad he'll be dead in three years.) She'll do "whatever he wants," though it's pretty clear she has no idea what that might be. When Don presses her, she dismisses him. "None of you want any of us to have a good time just because you never did," she tells Don (I can't think of a less true statement). "No," he responds, "we're worried about you."

And therein lies the generation gap in a nutshell. It's a lesson that's appreciate much more today than it was in 1966: even square people can do drugs and have sex.

Harry, meanwhile, mistakes the one-hit wonder the Trade Winds for the Stones. "They sounded just like them," he said, despite the Trade Winds sounding a lot more like the Beach Boys. But, of course, all pop acts sound the same, right? (Truthfully, I can't tell the difference between Ke$ha and Lady GaGa, either, but at least the Stones have staying power.)

The Stones, incidentally, actually did a Rice Krispies commercial in the UK in 1964, but it fell to the Who to actually record a Heinz Baked Beans.

In 1967, most pop bands were desperately trying to keep up with the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys nearly had a nervous breakdown after hearing the album. The Rolling Stones recorded the very mixed Their Satanic Majesties Request (one critic of the Internet Age called it "the worst of the major bands' takes on Sgt. Pepper ... full of self-conscious attempts to be weird"); The Who cut The Who Sell Out, which, judging by its packaging alone, could very well become Don Draper's favorite album of 1967.

The whole album is structured like a pirate radio broadcast, complete with ad spots recorded specifically for the album (supposedly the band actually tried to sell ad space on the album but couldn't get any companies interested, so they just a few gra is). Among the products to get plugged: Odorono (a popular English deodorant, the first marketed specifically to women), Charles Atlas's bodybuilding course, and, yes, Heinz Baked Beans.

And, as evidence that not everyone in the advertising world was brain-dead on race (and the fact that there were profits to be made from -- *gasp* -- actually selling things to African Americans!), I submit for your consideration this jingle for Coca-Cola, my personal favorite from a huge number of spots from the '60s featuring well-known acts, sung by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.



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