Over fifty years ago, in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Roland Barthes advocated for a renewed consideration of the 'bliss' of a given text, against the indifference of science on the matter and the so-called 'puritanism' of ideological analysis. According to Barthes, the essence of that 'bliss' lay in its inability to be fully expressed. At the time, to account for this bliss in a textual form, Barthes resorted to 'an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowings, bubbles […], "phylacteries"’. I think the video essay format can overcome this alleged rift between ideological analysis and spectatorial pleasure. The form indeed enables political and cultural criticism while also acknowledging and embodying the 'bliss of the film' (understood here in the very broad sense of the term, encompassing many forms of moving images and sounds), notably thanks to the formal opportunities of simultaneity, layering, and synesthesia, among others. According to Barthes, the pleasure of the text could 'very well take the form of a drift' (Barthes, 18), a term that I can adopt as well to describe my reflexive process in this video essay.
Working on the final sequence of Mad Men S1E6, I indeed found myself drifting into many ideas, at first without a rigid, predefined structure. Eventually, the structure emerged progressively, almost organically, as I wandered along this musical moment and its intermedial ramifications. This is a moment that I have found myself obsessively returning to over the years, for conferences or classes. The sequence takes us to a Greenwich village venue, where we see a live band performing a version of an 18th century round that has, since then, become associated with Don McLean’s famous 'Babylon' song on the American Pie album in 1971. The sequence dissolves to a montage that highlights several silent characters and their shared loneliness. This meditative moment manages to connect the characters without giving out a clear or univocal message, also connecting to a complex network of intertextual connections, including historical and mythical references that become almost dizzying when one sets out to explore them. Overall, this dense referentiality allows the television show to document the period it represents, the 1960s, while prompting us viewers to examine our relationship with culture, and with the past. Delving into the long musical history of the Babylonian reference, from biblical Psalm 137 to Rastafari songs, this essay shows how music plays a crucial role in the complex referential density of the show, bringing together different eras and numerous cultural references to contextualize and historicize the characters’ (and our own) sense of loss and longing.
The meandering nature of my approach necessarily left out a lot that could have been studied more deeply. The use of a conclusive, evocative song for each episode, for instance, is a recurring feature of Mad Men, even if all the songs do not have the same intermedial density. The Sopranos had been seminal in its use of pre-existing musical tracks to close each episode. Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s showrunner, had worked as a writer and producer for seasons 5 and 6 of the HBO show, and, just like David Chase, the showrunner of The Sopranos, he claims a high degree of control over his work, working closely with composer David Carbonara  for the choice of jazz, pop, rock, or classical pieces, notably those that mark the end of each episode. Such musical quotations maintain the viewers’ attention throughout the final credits, which are thus an integral part of the episode – let’s remember that Mad Men aired before streaming, when there was no 'skip credits' button, and when the next episode did not start automatically. The use of final songs encourages us to linger on while the end credits are rolling, and sometimes to reconsider the episode in light of the tune’s lyrics, rhythm, melody, or original context in the case of well-known pieces. It is thus a kind of authorial feature that is specific to the serial form, and it also embodies the combination of multiple modes of authorship at play in a series. For the 'Babylon' song for instance, Weiner and Carbonara’s choice of 'Babylon' could seem anachronistic, since Mad Men viewers are more likely to associate the song with Don McLean’s 1971 American Pie album than with its origins – an 18th century song composed by Philip Hayes, which was then arranged, in the 1940s, by Lee Hays of The Weavers.
Taking after The Sopranos and Mad Men, other shows have followed suit in this use of meaningful or evocative songs or musical pieces to close an episode, whether it be systematic (Master of None, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Easy, Silicon Valley, Orange Is the New Black) or occasional (like some episodes of Breaking Bad or Succession). In Mad Men, even if the chosen pieces are often chronologically or thematically linked to the plot, yet there is no rigid system. In terms of genre for instance, we go from Ella Fitzgerald (S1E4) to a Bach cantata (S2E4), or from an original composition by David Carbonara (S4E3) to Elvis Presley (S6E2). These tunes mostly function as a kind of coda, a temporary conclusion that continues while the narrative stops. Unlike film credits, which are long enough for us to listen to an entire song or musical piece (sometimes even several), in a series, the credits are often too brief to play a whole tune. The music thus gets interrupted, fading out, encouraging us to pursue and continue the episode, both narratively and musically. In 'Babylon', on the contrary, the song is concluded before the end credits start rolling, and the fact that the song itself is a complete performance contributes to making it one of the musical moments that resonate most fully with the episode it concludes. For O’Sullivan, who links this sequence to the 'carousel' scene of S1E13, this is also one of the moments when the show’s aesthetics and narrative perfectly combine to reflect upon the serial format itself: just as 'the round underscores how serials operate prosodically', the montage 'underlines how serials operate narratively – namely, by juxtaposing the disparate and asking us to see connections between the images, the enacted slides of people doing things' (128).
I thus found myself also riding the carousel, as it were: as the structure of the video essay gradually emerged, I noticed it was echoing the musical form of the round, 'something explicitly both linear and circular, with some singers pressing onwards and some turning back, a sound that moves forwards and backwards' (O’Sullivan, 127). I was drawn back again and again to the same shots, which were gradually laden with additional resonance, becoming harmonically richer, just as the musical phrases of the canon become fuller thanks to the polyphonic repetition. My intermedial wandering led me to adopt a cyclical construction, one in which the passage could gradually be watched differently, thus also echoing the process of close analysis, this back-and-forth movement between a microscopic audiovisual study of a sequence and the 'macro' level in which one considers it within different contexts. Beside its multisensory nature, the audiovisual form also allowed some serendipitous discoveries, and fruitful modes of co-presence of several works, which I explored with the use of visual or aural layering and superimpositions, audiovisual palimpsests that brought together Boney M and Joan Holloway, or allowed a face-to-face meeting between the two Dons, Draper and McLean. The split screen also proved a useful device to bring together several cultural references in the video essay’s conclusion, in the hope of conveying a sense of the gradual saturation of the original sequence as one follows the ramifications of the Babylonian reference.
In the end, adopting the video format has helped me overcome a certain frustration that academic writing had sometimes triggered. Researching intermediality is indeed a rich, exhilarating (Barthes would say 'blissful') experience: one reads other texts, watches still or moving images of different kinds, listens to music (sometimes even singing along), while the form of the linear, textual, academic article necessarily reduces the teeming, multisensorial nature of the research process. Referring to readers who revel in the pleasure of the text and its 'logical contradictions', Barthes acknowledged how 'the Biblical myth is reversed, the confusion of tongues is no longer a punishment, the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel' (Barthes, 3-4) – an apt Babylonian reference (what else?) to describe the opportunity offered by the direct manipulation of sounds and images to the scholar reflecting upon intermediality, and blissfully enacting the aggregation of diverse forms of expression.
Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. trans. Richard Miller. Hill and Wang.
Goodlad, Lauren M. E. 2013. 'The Mad Men in the Attic. Seriality and Identity in the Modern Babylon', in Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing, eds. Mad Men, Mad World. Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s. Duke University Press (ebook).
Molanphy, Chris. 2015. 'A (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to the Music of Mad Men', NPR April 7. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/04/07/398036767/a-nearly-comprehensive-guide-to-the-music-of-mad-men
O’Sullivan, Sean. 2011. 'Space Ships and Time Machines: Mad Men and the Serial Condition', in Gary R. Edgerton, ed. Mad Men. IB Tauris, 115-130.
Sepinwall, Alan, and Matt Zoller Seitz. 2019. The Sopranos Sessions. Abrams Press.
Films & TV
Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan, AMC 2008-2013).
Easy (created by Joe Swanberg, Netflix, 2016-2019).
Fargo (created by Noah Hawley, FX 2014-).
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (directed by Howard Hawkes, 20th Century Fox, 1954).
Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner, AMC 2007-2015).
Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan, Netflix 2013-2019).
Silicon Valley (created by Like Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, HBO 2014-2019).
Sopranos (The) (created by David Chase, HBO 1999-2007).
Succession (created by Jesse Amstrong, HBO 2018-2023).
 Richard Howard, 'Note on the Text', in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, vii.
 I gave a talk about this at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2017, available online for those who understand French: https://vimeo.com/207600964.
 For The Sopranos, Chase picked the music along with producer Martin Bruestle, music director Kathryn Dayak, and Steven Van Zandt – see notably Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, The Sopranos Sessions, New York, Abrams Press, 2019.
 David Carbonara also features in the 'Babylon' closing sequence as one of the musicians.
 Musical choices featured prominently at the Mad Men exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2015. See Chris Molanphy, 'A (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to the Music of Mad Men', NPR April 7, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/04/07/398036767/a-nearly-comprehensive-guide-to-the-music-of-mad-men
 McLean also stressed this dispersal of authorship, explaining that Lee Hays himself had been inspired by a song that was created in the Warsaw ghetto in the 1930s – I want to thank Sean O’Sullivan for pointing out this piece of information from the liner notes of the 2003 CD reissue of the American Pie album. The fact that neither he nor I have been able to corroborate this link with the Warsaw ghetto indeed does not invalidate it, but could be yet another instance of the 'hauntology' that I discuss at the end of the essay.
 For instance, at the end of S2E9, in which characters learn about Marilyn Monroe’s death, the closing song is 'I’m Through with Love' from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
 As is also the case of – for instance, Bob Dylan’s 'Don’t Think Twice' (S1E13, illustrating the duality of the ambiguous season ending), or The Beatles’ 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (S5E8, showing how Don is out of touch with the new pop culture).
 The 'Babylon' episode and the final montage sequence was also studied by Lauren Goodlad, for whom the sequence reflects the ambiguities of Don Draper’s character by linking him, not just to the 'exodus narrative' (the idea that 'departure for the Promised Land—through Zionism or death—is the only escape from troubled identity'), but also, through the final montage sequence, to mostly female, alienated figures. To her, this process can be seen as a 'range of alienated identifications whose common threads are exile, captivity and the necessity of singing' (Goodlad, ebook).
Ariane Hudelet is Professor of visual culture in the English department at Université Paris Cité (LARCA research unit / CNRS). She has published widely on adaptation, text-image relationships and TV series. With Anne Crémieux, she recently edited Exploring Seriality on Screen (Routledge 2021) and La Sérialité à l’écran (PUFR, 2020); she is the author of The Wire, les règles du jeu (Presses Universitaires de France, 2016) and the co-editor of the TV/Series journal.
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