Monday, June 4, 2018

Summer Man (2)

“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

“The Summer Man” is an episode I expect I’m going to need to revisit a time or 20 before I decide how I ultimately feel about some of its stylistic departures from the “Mad Men” norm – not just Don’s film noir voiceover narration from his sobriety journal entries, but other moments like the use of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the soundtrack in mid-episode, or the camera showing Don’s world suddenly feeling very far away after he has a drink in the office. 
Okay, let's do that.  We'll start with "Satisfaction". If you take sixties mythology seriously, rock and roll and especially a song like "Satisfaction" was rebellious music running against the mainstream culture. And yet this episode begins with someone in the New York Athletic Club, a bastion of the establishment, listening to the song on a transistor radio.

I think that's both wrong and right. I suspect it's wrong because I doubt anyone brought a transistor radio into the locker room at the New York Athletic Club in 1965. It wouldn't have mattered what you were listening to, it wasn't done. In polite society, no one would submit others to their musical choices like that. On the other hand, I suspect it's right in the sense that men who went to the New York Athletic Club probably listened to the song on the radio, more likely the car radio than a transistor radio. Why am I so sure of this? Because everyone listened to Satisfaction in the summer of 1965. It was on the charts all summer long and almost everyone listened to the same top forty radio in those days.

That is worth lingering on. There was a common culture in those days. There was a big split brewing under the surface that would really hit home in 1968 but in 1965 it was still intact.

Looking around, I see that most of the commentary on Satisfaction focuses on two things: the sexual content and the anti-commercialism. Not much mentioned is that phrases to the effect of "I can't be satisfied" traces back to a number of blues songs, one of which would have been very familiar to Jagger and Richards.

This isn't a complaint but a selling point. That he he can't be satisfied is a challenge and a (sexual) promise. That is a long way from the smug superiority of 1950s liberalism and the whiny victim olympics of post-1960s liberalism. And that is pretty much what you get from Mick Jagger's lyrics, 1940s blues swagger mixed with anti-commercial folk music attitude that sounds like straight out of a Pete Seeger song. Like a lot of brilliant ideas, it seems ridiculously simple in retrospect. But it wasn't simple. The proof being that no one else had done it before. 

And that brings me to what I consider the central question about Mad Men. Scott Adams has suggested that the Trump era is characterized be a tendency to see two different movies on the same screen. I'm increasingly convinced that Mad Men anticipated that. There were two Don Drapers. One was the one the creators seem to have set about consciously creating and the other was the one a lot of fans of the show actually saw. There was something unintentional about him. 

By "unintentional", I mean that he sprang out of the way the ingredients that made up his character were assembled rather than out of what the creators planned. 

The conventional view of Draper is driven by what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion:
I liked the idea of Don writing a diary. What I don’t like so much is having Don read to us from the diary, in a voiceover. For starters, the device undercuts one of Mad Men’s greatest strengths, which is its use of irony and understatement to show how characters word and actions often belie their real thoughts and meaning.
On this view, the real Don Draper is always someone less impressive than the false and flattering account he gives of himself. The first thing to note about this is what a trivial observation it is. Is there any one whom that is not sometimes true of. The second, more important thing to notice, is that Don is a guy who doesn't talk about himself. And it's not surprising that he doesn't because bad things happen to him almost every time he does.

That's the movie TV show half the population watched or, at least, it's the show a lot of critics watched. In this version, the surface meaning covers another, less flattering account. Well, less flattering to the people being watched; it's immensely flattering to the clever people using their secret decoder rings to interpret "what's really going on".

The other movie is an esoteric one. It too has a hidden meaning but it's a hidden meaning that has to be concealed because it would be dangerous to admit to liking this message. It's a TV show that appealed to men in an era when being a man was to be the subject of suspicion. At the centre of all this is a man. A man of action. People who dislike him say, "a deeply flawed man", as if there was any other kind.

Final note, I said above that the anti-commercial attitude in Satisfaction sounds like it comes out of a Pete Seeger song. Take a closer look at the verse the show episode uses:
When I'm watchin' my TV
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarrettes as me ...
If you remember 1960s ads, you'll know how big a part the need to fit in played: the reason you needed a white shirt was so you wouldn't stand out. You needed a well-manicured lawn for the same reason. The song doesn't object to commercialism so much as it objects to conformism. It's a declaration of ... well, a declaration of what? The natural tendency would be to end that with "independence" but that's not where the song goes next.
I can't get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that's what I say
I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no girl reaction
Now there is a concept: "girl reaction". Is that what he sings or is it "girly action"? Either way, that ain't independence.

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