Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Don Draper, the Beatles and the accidental genius of Mad Men

Today is Martin Denny's birthday. He would have been 107. Don Draper liked Martin Denny but not the Beatles. The moment at the end of the episode "Lady Lazarus" when Don listens to the Beatles rather pretentious song "Tomorrow Never Knows" and rejects it is one of the greatest moment in all of Mad Men. The best part is that he doesn't dislike the song, he's clearly bored by it.

I suspect the moment was inspired by this:

Matt Weiner is my age. He, like me, was way too young to have experienced that movie in the theatre. He, like everyone else under the age of 70, saw it on a TV screen, either on late-night television or VHS, DVD or streaming. And when he did, it created a crisis. It was a crisis because it created a clash of authorities. When he made Mad Men, a series that is haunted by James Bond, he recreated that crisis.

The problem is that James Bond/Don Draper is cool, competent Daddy. Or perhaps cool, competent Grandad or even cool, competent Great-Grandad, depending on your age. No matter how desperately you insist that they are past it, neanderthal or whatever, they continue to have influence and authority. And the success of Mad Men makes it impossible to argue the point. Without Don Draper, the show would have been like the Beatles without Paul McCartney. You may like John, George or Ringo more but you never would have heard of them without him.

The trick with Don Draper is different because Don doesn't exist. He conquers not because of who and what he is as McCartney did, he isn't anyone or anything, but because of what we project on to him. He is that competent father figure we all either had or wished we had. That gives him authority. And when that authority rejects the Greatest. Musical. Geniuses. Of. All. Time™ it creates a crisis.

The worst/best part is that he doesn't rant against them like some out of touch fuddy duddy. And he doesn't desperately try and "get them" like some embarrassing Leonard Bernstein type. No, he's just not interested. That hurts.

Or, if we got over our need for authority, it could be liberating. His reaction wouldn't have caused any crisis in 1966. At that time there were respectable opinions both pro- and anti-Beatles. A couple of years later there were people who claimed that Bob Dylan and the nascent California scene had made the Beatles irrelevant, a view that's not crazy. It's only now that the Beatles's greatness has become a sort of gospel truth. Far more copies of their music have sold in the ensuing decades than in the 1960s.

That's the challenge that Don presents ... more to come.

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