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(Ad) (Bad) (Cad) (Clad) (Gad*) (Lad) (Plaid) (Sad) Mad Men

Warning: check for elevator before stepping in.

Sometimes, TV is literature. Mad Men certainly is.

More than almost anything on the bestseller list, Mad Men lends itself perfectly to literary analysis—certainly the ol’ reliable high school English quinquepartite of Plot, Character, Symbolism, Theme, and Setting. Mad Men’s premise could have been a simple soap opera—the same boring story of a handsome man who is more than he appears, and his affairs, in every sense of the word. But instead, Mad Men has consistently, in the mantra of every fiction writing workshop ever, excelled in showing more than telling, using ambiguity, implication, narrative structure, and design to draw the viewer in, to force us to read closely. And for me what makes Mad Men great is that, like the best novels and poems, it evokes multiple, simultaneous feelings. The problems, and the pleasures, arise when these feelings seem to contradict each other, creating a frisson, a sense of ambivalence.

Jon Hamm’s acting can seem repetitive, as this Youtube montage nicely and funnily demonstrates:

But I think the clips also show the opposite: the “What?”s are distinct and surprisingly diverse, in different takes conveying interest, surprise, incredulity, annoyance, distress, anger, reluctance, dismissal, inquiry, dejection, or disbelief.

Even more complexly, look at Don’s facial expressions during the opening episode of Season 5, as his second wife Meghan dances Zou Bisou Bisou in front of him and his colleagues, during a birthday party that everyone except Meghan understood that he didn’t want.

In this scene alone, which went viral immediately after the show aired, we see, and ourselves feel, Don’s ambivalence: the complexity that protocol demands a happy and flattered husband—going by Roger Sterling’s and Youtube viewers’ comments, the obvious response—while at the same time, he is trying and almost but not quite succeeding in not looking mortified. Don wants people to see him as the active seducer, and he is visibly uncomfortable being made into the passive spectator—that is, in some ways, feminine object of seduction. Yet at the same time, as returning viewers know, behind closed doors, he likes pain and humiliation, being made the object. (Warning: link is steamy.) So: Don likes but is embarrassed by the dance because Meghan has confused Don’s ironclad distinction between public and private. And I wonder if viewers feel something like that also: the dance is funny but genuine, goofy and embarrassing but sexy, a gift from a woman who seems not to know her new husband at all but may in fact know him better than he knows himself. She  doesn’t care what other people think—and doesn’t want Don to, either. But he still does. Whew.

And to get all this, viewers need to remember and piece together dialogue and images from previous episodes, often previous seasons, in order to understand what we’re seeing now. If anything, this season has, like the best novels, married the form of the story with the content, so that, in one of the more overt examples, a recent episode centering upon Roger Sterling’s LSD trip is narrated out of chronological order, making the viewer feel the slight sense of something askew from the very beginning before realizing that the chronology itself is trippy.

Yet I think Mad Men’s setting has been its initial attraction. And the era—in Season 1, about 1960; by now, in Season 5, 1966, the year the Beatles’ Revolver was released—like everything else in the show, evokes mixed reactions from the viewer. On the one hand, it’s easy for us in our enlightened presentism to respond badly to the raging yet casual sexism, lazy knee-jerk racism, and stifling cultural ignorance. One of the best gags this season was the simple display of rampant smoking at the benefit for the American Cancer Society. On the other hand, it sure looks glorious, and I did not find myself disgusted by the constant drinking as much as nostalgic for it, despite that I never got to experience it (although I’ve found myself drinking more cocktails since I became a fan). Why else launch a whole Banana Republic Mad Men line?

Not pictured: cigarette, drink, mistress, real identity.

Or entice viewers with a Mad Men Yourself feature? The opening page asks you to choose “Suit” or “Skirt,” another example where the line between reality and synecdoche is blurred.

This is me on Mad Men. Vest and coffee are accurate. Face and hair less so.

And this cultural moment, 1960-1965, remains under-recognized. For Gen Xers and after, the 1960s has been synonymous with one year: 1969. Yet on Mad Men, we get to see that the supposedly radical moment, when the stodgy grey flannel suit ‘50s tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, didn’t happen overnight, or over a year. The way most of the characters on Mad Men understand their tumultuous time is the same way that we still do today—through the media, through the same images that the ad men traffic in themselves. For most of the characters, the seemingly transformational impact of riots, mass murders, or wars overseas comes to them through television, newspapers, and radio, background chatter, subtext that seeps its way into the text itself, not the times a changin’ as much as a perceived anomaly. As Roger asks, in typical Mad Men dramatic irony, “When are things going to go back to normal?”

In the end, the show has managed to balance social realism with literary symbolism, which is usually the big turnoff for the average reader. (From many of my students’ course evaluations: “Does EVERYTHING have to mean something?” I wonder what they mean by that?) “Don Draper” is a seemingly innocuous, believable name, yet it is also the perfect symbolic, literary name for a character who has assumed the name and identity—even, self-referentially, this exact name—of another man. “Don,” as a noun, means a man of great importance; as a verb, to put on or dress in. A “draper” is a merchant who sells cloth; “drape” means cover, hand, arrange, or adorn. As viewers come to understand, “Don” dons Don and sells yarns, as he assumes and covers his original name and identity, Dick Whitman. And like his literary namesake Walt, Draper Whitman very well contradicts himself. He contains multitudes. And through Mad Men, we get to hear America singing.

* Gad: to move restlessly or aimlessly from one place to another: to gad about.

Time: OK, eighty minutes. Next time I SWEAR to keep it to an hour.

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Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string –>pickup –> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording –> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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VH1’s Metal Fatigue

A typical '80s metal image

In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos.  Both late at night.  This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR.  To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone.  I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much.   Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes. 

It’s all too much, too late.

Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before.  The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet.  Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well.  The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right.  Which is to say everything wrong.  “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.

I get the end of the world angle.  This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness.  The videos?  Mere trickle down dystopia.  Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing.  Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.

But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power.  I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution.  But the song does not remain the same.  The images—the chains—do.  Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip.  But first they need to be tied up or tied down. 

I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones.  In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty.  Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.

The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way.  And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds. 

Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out.  For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on.   And life had much heavier things in store.  If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.

But I get to watch all the metal I want now.

Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes. 

Coming soon:  Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.

UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

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