In the fifth season premiere of Mad Men, Jessica Paré as Megan Draper forced a roomful of jaws to drop with an unexpected performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou.” The scene took place at Don Draper’s apartment during his surprise birthday party; his young wife, Megan, turned the shock quotient up to 11 when she grabbed the mic from the singer of the band she’d hired and launched into a confection of a ’60s pop song that Sophia Loren had previously lent her voice to. Megan Draper stopped both the characters on the show and its viewers dead in their tracks at the beginning of that season, and that moment — one that broke the fourth wall with its perfection as both a plot vehicle and a period-appropriate musical choice — forced the issue when it came to recognizing Mad Men as one of the most musically savvy shows on television. Any show with an RJD2 track for its theme song has to be, anyway.
“Zou Bisou Bisou” isn’t the only instance that stopped time with its downbeat: Roger Sterling donning blackface for an appalling (and appallingly character-appropriate) rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” in Season 3; Joan revealing her secret life as an accordion pro in the same episode; Don and Harry Crane failing to sneak backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in order to talk them into participating in a Heinz Baked Beans campaign in Season 5, etc. The show made history when it licensed The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (and only a portion of it, at that) in its fifth season for a hefty sum, making Mad Men the first television program to secure a Beatles master. Mad Men follows the triumphs and tribulations of a New York advertising agency, and though it closely sticks to the business, Draper and his colleagues, accordions, impromptu serenades, adventures at Shea Stadium and the most perfect sonic pairings have played such a huge part in framing historical context and humanizing the characters that tune in.
For Mad Men music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, “Tomorrow Never Knows” isn’t the only feather in the show’s cap. “I think that music has always been really essential,” she says. Together with Matthew Weiner, Mad Men‘s creator and executive producer, Patsavas works to perfect the sounds of the show’s scenes — especially the ones that tell a story without relying on dialogue. “[Weiner] has always intended that music play an important role. He selects the key songs, and I think he has them in mind for some time. Sometimes, things are written into the scripts; sometimes he selects them after the episodes have been shot. But music has always been key. Every season has had some interesting and unexpected choices that he selected that really comment on what happened in the episode.” (Of all the show’s characters, she thinks Sally Draper would make for the best DJ: “I think Sally might be growing into a fabulous DJ. She’s grown up in a wondrous time and is probably hearing a lot of great music at home and at school, and from Don and Magen, too.”)
Mad Men‘s about to kick off its seventh and final season Sunday, the most poignant and pivotal moments of the show are coming to the forefront, and their soundtracks aren’t playing second fiddle. Patsavas couldn’t divulge any spoiler regarding the final season — “You can look forward to some meaningful and unexpected choices!” — but if any of these great musical moments from the shows past are any indication, there’s a lot to look forward to.
“Zou Bisou Bisou” — Jessica Paré
“The performance was so delicious, really,” says Patsavas of “Zou Bisou Bisou.” “It definitely struck a chord. I remember our composer David Carbonara put together the instrumental portion of that.” Paré is perfect as Don’s Francophone vixen and the clip involves Harry Crane wearing a feather boa, and it makes for one of the most light-hearted, jovial scenes the show has seen to date.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” — The Beatles
It’s impossible to discuss the music of Mad Men without the monumental licensing of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as it’s not only a major television moment but a tailor-made fit for the scene unfolding in the song’s psychedelic build-up. “We definitely started to work on it before the season started,” says Patsavas of licensing “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “It was absolutely something [Weiner] had in mind, specifically, and thankfully The Beatles really embraced the opportunity and really loved how the song was used.”
“Cup Of Loneliness” — George Jones
This pick is one of Patsavas’ favorites, as “Cup Of Loneliness” is an apt pairing for Don’s revealing trek to California at the end of Season 2. With his marriage in shambles, the future of his family threatened and some major clients at Sterling Cooper hanging in the balance, the Dick Whitman/Don Draper connection gets the backstory it deserves, and it calls for more than just background music. “George Jones’ ‘Cup Of Loneliness’ scores Don’s cup of loneliness. His ocean swim has such symbolic meaning for me.”
“You Really Got Me” — The Kinks
Peggy Olson went from shuffling papers as a secretary to leading campaigns as one of the strongest copywriters and creatives at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and she leaves the agency after a particularly discouraging row of disappointments and frustrating fights with Don towards the end of the fifth season. She walks out of the office and into the future to the telltale riff of The Kinks’ “Your Really Got Me,” a natural fit for the show’s underdog and dynamo.
“Bonnie And Clyde” — Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot
The SCDP crew attends an awards ceremony that comes to a devastating halt when news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination ripples through the room, and tension is a constant in this episode from Season 6. The credits rolled to the tune of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s duet, “Bonnie & Clyde,” which recalls the explosive adventures of the infamous partners in crime. For Patsavas, the track is an example of the variability present on the unofficial Mad Men soundtrack and the unique challenges it presents. “Some of the rights are international, and it’s just about making sure that we can put together the clearances in time for the show, and reaching out to all those proper parties that we can get permission,” she says. “That’s a bit of a challenge sometimes, but we’ve really had a lot of luck with a lot of ‘Yes!’-es. The publishers and the record labels love how [Weiner] uses music and are really looking to try to say yes when they have the opportunity to have music on Mad Men.”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” — Bob Dylan
The conclusion of Mad Men‘s first season wrapped with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and Don sitting on the staircase in his home, alone, after he’s opted to work on Thanksgiving instead of spending time with his wife and kids. Dylan’s raw, solemn apology set to sentimental picking accounts for his wrongs in a way Don couldn’t in the season finale, and as he’s sitting there with his hat in his hands, one of the most gut-socking contributions from the Freewheelin’ bard simultaneously sums up one season while setting the tone for another — and, ultimately, the rest of the series.
The final season of Mad Men begins this Sunday on AMC.