It starts with strings — slightly rushed — that hint at danger around the bend, a looming uncertainty. Then, the drums kick in … frantically chaotic, settling into a deep pocket. And with that, you know an episode of Mad Men is about to start. When listing everything that makes the show (which ends this Sunday, you might’ve heard) great, the show’s theme song — an edited version of RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” — cannot be left out.
Television shows usually go one of two routes when it comes to getting started. There’s the cold open, where we jump right into the action; or there’s the theme song, the more traditional approach. Mad Men goes traditional, but does so in a not-so-traditional way.
For starters, it’s a period show, so one would assume the show’s theme would be from that period. Maybe something kind of jazzy. The show spans the 1960s, giving it a bevy of options to choose from. No one would have blinked if Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and overlord, had chosen a song more befitting of that time period, a Frank Sinatra tune or even something from the big band era. But Weiner seemed to never truly consider doing something that, as he initially considered Cake and made offers to Beck before stumbling across RJD2’s tune as it was played as bumper music on NPR.
“[W]e listened to it, and it had everything to it: Big old movie quality to it, and updated beat to it, it had drama. I just loved it,” Weiner told TV.com in 2012.
Mad Men lucked out. Choosing a modern song for a not-so-modern show could have backfired. Just look at Boardwalk Empire as an example of when theme songs tank. It’s not a knock on the song they chose, by Brian Jonestown Massacre, but more of a dig at how the song doesn’t sync at all with the tone of the show. It’s jarring; something that always bothered me, especially because the visuals of the show’s opening are really good.
In contrast to that, “A Beautiful Mine” works not just because of how well it flows with the graphics of the show’s opening, but also because it has hints of music from the show’s time period. The song concurrently sounds new and old, flirting with a sense of timelessness in the same way the show itself does. Mad Men has frequently tip-toed the line of familiarity, making you comfortable in thinking you might know what to expect, before abruptly pulling back and becoming something entirely new and different. It’s a trait all the best shows share: familiarity as an entry point, then something much more. The Wire initially felt like another cop show before it soon became a Shakespearean tragedy, The Sopranos fooled us into thinking it was a mafia show, and Breaking Bad had us all thinking it was just another run-of-the-mill teacher gets cancer and becomes a drug dealer story… you know, something we had all heard and seen thousands of times.
Coincidently, those three shows all had signature theme songs. Even Breaking Bad, whose theme song was brief, was still notable and recognizable. It seems to be something that goes with the territory when talking about the best series from the Golden Era of Television, as all the shows you could include in that conversation had good, if not great, theme songs.
“A Beautiful Mine” also sounds like Mad Men in that it sounds cool, sounds like booze, sounds like cigarette smoke swirling around a room. It matches the steely smooth aesthetic of the show, something a Sinatra tune might have failed to do.
Could Beck have done better? What about Cake?
But we’ll never know.