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TNK: It Is Not Dying

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There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:

“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”

The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarusafter a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.

The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.

In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.

With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.

With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.

Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.

In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.

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