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The Note That Lingers: 'Mad Men' and Sonny & Cher

October 19, 2010 |  4:34 pm

Getprev The Internets have been buzzing about the shocking Season 4 finale of "Mad Men" -- shocking, I guess, if you don't think corporate types (even "creatives") still married their secretaries in 1965, three years before New York's radical women threw their bras into trash cans and really set off feminism's Second Wave. Many recaps mention the epi's fade-out music: "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher, a No. 1  hit for that unlikely pair in the year that Don and  Megan begin their own off-kilter duet.

Some pundits have called the song choice ironic; several have noted it as a precursor of doom for the SCDP office lovebirds that America's already begun to hate. After all, Sonny Bono, another older man who sought salvation in a younger woman, lost his wife in the chaos of the mid-1970s. (Cher gained a successful solo career.) Sonny & Cher divorced in 1975, a decade after his showbiz smarts and her comedic flair -- not to mention the undervalued contralto that, decades later, would make the world "Believe" in computerized voice manipulation -- made them a kind of ideal couple, both on the pop charts and on television.

The fantasy they embodied, especially on "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour," is what makes that song choice more than just a cute little season-ending joke. Famous for their bickering -- and particularly for Cher's knack of making Sonny seem like a schmuck -- Sonny & Cher recast a very old joke about power within marriage for an era when women really did start wearing pants en masse.

Comedians complaining about their domineering mates was nothing new, but Sonny & Cher's vision of marriage was different. Like Don Draper himself, they were socially conservative and forward thinking at the same time: a traditional couple wearing outrageous costumes, preaching freedom and individualism during television's domesticating Family Hour.

Writing about the duo in 1973, the late music journalist Greg Shaw defined Sonny & Cher as a protest group: iconoclasts you could bring home to Mom.

"[T]heir songs returned ever to the theme, backed up in their interviews, that young people should be free to dress and act as they feel -– as long as, according to one quote (from an article entitled 'Would You Wear Sonny & Cher Clothes to School?'), they weren't doing it just to 'stand out' and flaunt society," wrote Shaw. "Every girl wanted to be Cher, and dreamed of a boy like Sonny (well, maybe not quite so old...) to love them more than anything, be a rebel (yet normal deep down inside) and stand up for his beliefs in the face of adult society."

As masterminded by Sonny Bono (who'd cut his teeth working with a far more tyrannical image-maker -- he was known as the nice guy around Phil Spector's studio, the one who would take the girl singers out for a burger and a break from their producer's tirades), Sonny & Cher became the act that made marriage hip during the era of the modern institution's first major unraveling. Cher showed young women how to assert themselves within a marriage; Sonny was the lucky dog who'd proven cool enough to score a thoroughly happening mate. Of course, while the marriage was real, what we saw and heard through the media was an act.

Another way to think of Sonny & Cher is as an advertisement. Modern love, accommodating the counterculture but not radically changed by it, is what the couple sold. America bought it, keeping the show in the Top 20 ratings-wise for its entire run. And "I Got You Babe," a song that sounded groovy while sending a message of steadfast loyalty even in the toughest times, was a far sexier jingle hawking matrimony than, say, the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love."

Don Draper's worried look as he embraced his sleeping bride-to-be right before the credits rolled in this episode might have communicated the regret of a man who'd jumped before checking the distance to the ground; but it also showed the consternation of a "creative" who'd committed the cardinal sin of succumbing to cliche. Wedding the innocent (we think, so far) and motherly Megan, Don is doing what everyone expects a guy like him to do; he's siding with soft beauty, submissiveness, the girl who'll put a steak on his table.

Maybe, though, he's also hoping to be like Sonny, and to rework a stale old routine into something that seems right for the times. That's his genius, after all: selling the status quo to customers, like himself, who've forgotten how to believe in it.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Sonny and Cher in 1975. Credit: Los Angeles Times