Mad Men and Underground Counterculture in the Early 1960’s

Mad Men and Underground Counterculture in the Early 1960’s

One of my favorite TV shows of the last few years, Mad Men, depicts “The Golden Age” of America through the lens of an advertising agency in New York during the early 60’s. Everytime I watch it, I seriously start craving a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. Though on the exterior, the idea of making a show about the Rat Race in an office doesn’t sound very original- or even interesting- stick with it.

Besides some badass vintage fashions, what makes Mad Men so interesting, at least to me, is the exploration of the underground, bohemian counterculture worlds that were percolating just beneath the surface during this time period in America. The Hippie era of the late Sixties has been covered ad nauseam by Hollywood and TV, but 1960-1965 has always been pretty unexplored material.

Most the characters in the show are living these rather prosaic lives, commuting to work everyday in their grey flannel suits. Outside of the office though, in the underbelly of Manhattan, all sorts of vices, double-lives and secrets are played out. When you peel back the rather banal veneer of conservative white-collar America, there were of course beatniks, gays, artist communes, reefer, infidelity, alcoholism, prostitution, junkies, draft-dodging, abortion, racism, sexism etc.etc.

The Past was never “The Good Old Days”, even though this time period is highly romanticized as a great time in the US. It might of been great if you were an upper-class white male, but that was about it, and most those guys in the show seem like just a bunch of miserable alcoholics anyway. Most of the characters enter many of these subterranean worlds and enable the social problems that existed during this time (and still exist today in many ways), but of course none of them would ever admit it.

(Source: Tinkers Moon via Flickr)

The main character, Don Draper, is a seemingly bizarre series of contradictions: raised a poor farm boy, and then grew up in a brothel. He plays the part of the gray-suit wearing corporate square, replete with the blonde model wife and a big house in suburbs. But he seems perpetually uncomfortable with this seemingly “perfect life”, and is always sneaking out of his straightjacket to see his drug-addicted painter girlfriend in Greenwich Village, drink himself stupid, impersonate false identities or attend a New Age retreat in Big Sur. Even though at work he can be a cruel, stressed-out taskmaster, he seems to have a softer sympathy for his closeted gay co-worker, Sal, or pregnant out-of-wedlock, Peggy, who gives away her child for adoption.

Also, if you’re a fan Mid-Century design and fashions, Mad Men will be completely up your alley replete with sleek sharkskin suits and skinny ties for the men and Grace Kelly looks for the ladies. Personally, I collect vintage suits and ties, so I freak out over this kinda shit.

Hilariously, someone actually went to all the trouble to document every single drink drunk in Mad Men (at least in the first few seasons) and then made a YouTube video about it. Holy Crap, my liver hurts just watching this…

Ironically enough, my Grandfather (who I never met) actually was an advertising executive in the 50s and 60s. His name was even “Don” believe it or not, and he left my Grandma for his secretary, smoked two packs a day, and dropped dead of a heart attack at age 59. Yes, a true Mad Man… My mom says she can’t even watch the show, “God, it just reminds me of my parents!”

Somehow in those days, I think it was probably much more exciting to be a bohemian on the fringes of society, or just simply “bad” on your nights off. Doing anything secretive is always more fun anyway.

In our modern world, how much of a conservative monolithic society do we have to rebel against anymore?

4 thoughts on “Mad Men and Underground Counterculture in the Early 1960’s

  1. ”In our modern world, how much of a conservative monolithic society do we have to rebel against anymore?”

    GEEZE!
    In our ‘contemporary’ (post-modern) moment in history we have much larger-broader needs or concerns to defend, rebel, and resist. The 60’s were fraught, but our actions via marching demonstrations and sit-in’s were voiced with the real belief that change was on our side. Our defense of free press, civil rights and anti-war actions were intertwined within our music, poetry, and baby boomed culture. I remember challenging our parents and all the rules. We did not go to war with ease when we knew we were being lied to. We sure knew it was not WW2. We were now (back then) the new Americans. No more putting Japanese Americans in camps, bombing without knowledge of full meaning or going into foreign lands for profits, or being blind to our own native peoples. I remember being very mad at my father for what I thought of as his (don draper) un-coolness… maybe a bit like draper’s TV daughter. My Don-dad was in advertising and he figured that his America needed ALL the soaps to be in competition for market shelf space_that that competitive striving for an established middle class was heroic + hip + ‘modern’. That guy loved Benny Goodman and fancied himself a good scat singer while he danced in our kitchen. In the 60’s my sister worked for him in London at the same time he told me that I could not go back to my art school in California unless I went to see someone he knew in television commercials to ask for work being a ‘face’ selling soap (or what ever). He knew that his was the most degrading and suppressive act to all I believed in + had been arguing with him about this for years. I saw advertising as a form of trickery or con rather than a helpfully presented open marketplace. To be a con man is a kind of art but it is not art. P.T.Barnum, Roy Cohen, and Regan all led us up to 2017 where we sit in time with the likes of tRump. Fake news, cheating votes, money as some horrific illusionistic piece of cake and what most of America feels is a religiously crazy fascistically right winged political takeover of our country as our lot at present.

    In response to MADMEN popularly as a series in the 90’s … I recon it helps to see some reflection of us even if only in a small puddle, ah but one can enjoy the fashions!

    I like to particularly consider the title MADMEN and how it can be interpreted as CRAZY-man, ANGRY-man or FAROUT-man.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Wow- interesting to hear that you were there for all of it and the show hits close to home! When I asked (rhetorically) if there is anything left to rebel against anymore, I meant that more the context of culture. Of course, every generation has had its political struggles to fight, from WWII, to Vietnam to terrorism, economic inequality and rising nationalism today.

      And I also wholeheartedly agree that advertising as an industry was developed to “sell a dream” to the American middle-class. It is indeed an industry of conning people, and of course extends its way into political thought and choices.

      I guess my post was comparing how things were back in the 50s and 60s for those who weren’t part of “Square/Polite” society. We’ve had a black president, gays no longer have to meet in Central Park at 3am, and women can and do have well-paying careers outside the home. Of course, we still have a long ways to go to reach a fully-equal society, but I think culturally, we have advanced in leaps and bounds the past 40-50 years. Its not an act of rebellion anymore to smoke reefer, have sex outside of wedlock, publish a book with racy content, or not join the military. So, in today’s day and age, I think the monolithic cultural dominance of the conservative old guard has been markedly diminished. What cultural taboos are now left to break?

  2. I loved Mad Men but my one of my favourite authors is Richard Yates so it figures. I think Don Draper embodies a lot of the angst evident in Yates’ protagonists. Your final question did get me thinking. Where is the space for counter-culture to emerge today when in our connected world ideas so quickly become appropriated and mainstream, often being de-politicized in the process. It’s an age where everybody is part of a cause because they shared a meme about it.

    I guess I’d see counter-culture manifesting in millennials attitude to the traditional work environment. The whole idea of the nomad or remote worker who chooses lifestyle (and risky entrepreneurship) over the security of regular but freedom limiting employment. This is definitely becoming a significant movement or rebellion to what we consider normal ‘work’ roles.

    I see something similar in the ‘tiny house’ movement, minimalist living and other ideas being pushed by millennials in reaction to over-consumption. This rebellion is partly driven by not being able to afford to participate, especially in the housing market and so is making a virtue out of necessity maybe, but nevertheless it gets people thinking about how conditioned we’ve become to buying and accumulating ‘stuff’.

    While this kind of rebellion is not as ‘sexy’ as the kinds of counter-culture that were emerging in Don Draper’s time … I mean, it’s not illegal to choose not to buy stuff or live in a tiny house (well, actually it is illegal in some places to do this!), these are pretty significant challenges to the norm and they are starting to filter down. Whether they constitute counter-culture or are just an indicator of social change, I don’t know, but I do know my own kids, just graduated, are figuring out how they can have a ‘boss-free’ lifestyle and my 18 year old wants to live in a tiny house in the garden!

    Thanks for a post that got me thinking.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Glad to get you thinking! That’s part of my “mission” here at this blog, to get folks reading and thinking and exchanging ideas. They don’t even have to agree with everything I write, but hey, the point is to start the conversation. Indeed, in an age where what was once the secret enclave of artists in Greenwich village, its now spilled over Youtube in 24hrs. It’s hard for counterculture to stay “authentic”. And though society is far from equal, there’s not a lot you can’t do in terms of personal & private morality that could be considered rebellious.

      Haven’t read Richard Yates (so many books, so little time…) But will sheepishly admit to watching the movie version “Revolutionary Road” with the cast of Titanic reuniting for matrimonial oblivion. For sure, the so-called “Golden Age” of the 50s and 60s had its dark side too, with plenty of suit-wearing Draper types seeking escapism through affairs and alcohol abuse.

      Good for your kids, sounds like they already have some solid values and goals in place. I’m a bit old now (just turned 40), so I’m in some sort of of generational limbo between late Millennial and tail-end Gen X. I think Millenials get a lot grief and ridicule, when they’re just trying to survive in economically challenging times. Yes, maybe their “revolution” is not as sexy as the 1960s, but I think it will be a quiet and important one. Values that embrace personal freedom, anti-materialism and reducing our carbon footprint should be celebrated and emulated. The future is with the young, and it sounds like you have instilled them with an attitude in life that will serve them well!

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