Like a few million others, I'm a fan of the TV series Mad Men, set in and around a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the nineteen-sixties. The show's use of music is both pointed and subtle, highlighting personality traits rather than generating clichéd moods. A few episodes ago, there was a Beethoven moment, in which Pete Campbell seemed aroused more by the power of his hi-fi system than by the music itself. Last Sunday, the Beatles entered the picture: at the end of the episode, Don Draper, the outwardly debonair and inwardly troubled star of the firm, listened to "Tomorrow Never Knows," from Revolver, at the suggestion of Megan, his hip, young wife. He then turned it off, seemingly unimpressed. Mad Men evidently paid $250000 for the rights to the song; permission is very rarely granted for the use of original Beatles recordings in television and film.
The scene has stirred much discussion, particularly among pop critics. Ann Powers, one of my favorite voices in modern music writing, has a blog post questioning the premise: she argues that an ad man of Don Draper's background and reputation would have "loved the Beatles from the minute they hit Ed Sullivan," and would hardly have been alienated by the mild avant-gardism of a song like "Tomorrow Never Knows." (I wrote about Xenakis, Stockhausen, Sibelius, and the Beatles here.) I have to disagree with Ann: I found the scene entirely believable. Yes, you'd expect Don to dig the Beatles, but taste is mysterious, personality is mysterious, and the character grows more real by resisting stereotype. Furthermore, I like how the scene resists the master narrative of Pop Conquers All. Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, made the customary genuflections toward the Beatles in the Times — "they are the band, probably, of the 20th century," etc. — but the scene sends the more complicated message that no music is everywhere beloved. I've read people saying that Don's lack of interest in the Beatles shows him growing old, growing cold, dying inside. But, believe it or not, it's possible to be a fully developed human being and still remain indifferent to the Beatles. Or Beethoven, for that matter. Schopenhauer notwithstanding, music has never been and will never be a universal language. It is too rich for that.