Friends, I like me some Mad Men. It’s one of the many television shows I ignored at first, smug in my resistance to marketing and hype, then watched in a marathon On Demand a few months after the first season ended, initially out of bored curiosity, then out of sincere excitement. It is an excellent show, written well and delivering subtle pleasures so consistently it’s hard to remember that the show is written and acted, and not just naturally generated from imagination, sunlight, and liquor.
Full disclosure: The show’s love affair with whiskey usually inspires me to drink a fifth of Rye during every episode, so my opinion of the show is … colored.
Anyways, I just watched episode “Lady Lazarus”, which I won’t bother summing up here because, why would I do that? Go watch it, you lazy bastards. Or find the eleventy-billion recaps out there waiting for your greedy eyes. This obsession with recapping the plots of TV episodes has got to stop. You know what’s really interesting about this episode? The fact that every single review or write-up about the episode I’ve seen mentions how much they paid to license Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles for it ($250,000).
Now, I’m a huge fan of Tomorrow Never Knows. It is a kick-ass song and is on a short list of songs that I think should never be seriously covered or re-imagined, because it is pretty much Awesome in musical form. And I think it was used wisely in the show, demonstrating to us that Don is not young and hip any more, and then demonstrating to us that he has no interest in being so any more. It’s important, I think, because Don is forty years old. In today’s age, forty is not so old any more. Forty year-old men today can be found at the same rock concerts as their kids. But back in 1966, friends, forty was fucking old. I’m sure there were some hip forty year-olds, but Don is certainly not one of them, and they used this song as a perfect way to demonstrate that: First of all, he can’t even tell a Beatles song from some horrible knock-off, and secondly, when he does give it a listen, he switches it off after a minute, disinterested.
All well and good, but for so many people, the big news was that they paid the whopping quarter-of-a-million bucks to use the song. Which is a lot of money. But why do we care so much? In today’s media-saturated world, it’s not so much that we’re so used to looking behind the curtain, there is no goddamn curtain any more.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just interesting. Writers and other creative folks making these books and shows and movies are basically flim-flam artists. We fool you, we con you. We make you feel for imaginary people. We get you outraged at imagined atrocities. We trick you, over and over again. So it’s disturbing to realize how many tricks are no longer, strictly speaking, tricks any more, since y’all seem to know all about them.
It’s a challenging time. You know how you read books or see TV shows from 50 years ago, and they seem kind of simplistic and dumb and you know how they’re going to end like on page 2? Yup, because the audience is smarter now. Not in a general-IQ kind of way. In a media way. The tricks don’t work as well as they used to. These days, you buy a license to use a famous pop song from the ’60s and not only does everyone comment on your choice of music and what it means to the narrative, they also know exactly how the business works. They know you have to pay for that song, they know the song is expensive because of who wrote it, and they kow that as a result it was chosen very carefully.
I mean: Fuck. Where’s the mystery?
Of course, in a novel I can reference songs all I want, as long as I don’t print the lyrics. Titles can’t be copyrighted, so I can have my narrator cue as many damn songs as I like and hope the reader just hums along. Assuming they know the song. If they don’t, it goes awry – although, in the age of Spotify, that really isn’t a problem. In fact, if you’re writing a novel with a lot of song references, why not put together a playlist and be all 21st century and shit? Why not. Your readers will figure it out anyway.