Deconstructing Joan’s accordion début on Mad Men

I know this is a little late, but bear with me because I think it’s super interesting.

As anyone who watches Mad Men (or reads the entertainment section of most major news outlets) knows, office manager Joan Holloway–with the gorgeous red hair–hosted, along with her surgical-resident husband Greg, a dinner party for Greg’s boss and coworkers in the August 30 episode.  It was quite fraught with tension for a variety of reasons and I won’t go into all the (sexist) drama between Joan and Greg during the majority of the show (it has nothing to do with music and it has been dissected thoroughly all over the internets), though it’s fascinating and you should look it up elsewhere.

Anyway.  After dinner, Greg essentially trotted Joan out like a “dancing bear” (as people have aptly written on other blogs) and had her play accordion (which James Wolcott over at VF amusingly referred to as a strap-on) for the guests.

Another interesting ethnomusicological note: watch for the boss’s wife’s comment that “It’ll be just like the olden days–we used to sit in the parlor after supper and my mother would play the piano while we read.”  Here she marks herself as coming from the late-19th/early-20th-century middle class (who could afford pianos but not hired musicians to play them, and for whom the bourgeois social culture of the parlor was of great importance), for whom this was the primary method of listening to popular music.

Now, back in the 1960s accordion was quite a bit more popular in the urban northern U.S.–i.e. in an area like the New York City region where Joan and Greg live and work–than it is now due to the greater prominence of Euro-ethnic folk music (I’m purposely ignoring the current minor fad for it among hipsters, btw).  But it had certain implications: that anyone playing it or listening to it was not “fully assimilated” into American whiteness; that anyone playing/listening to it was likely from a working-class Eastern European, Irish, or Italian background; etc.  Given that Joan was playing a big piano accordion (as opposed to something smaller, or a button accordion or concertina) I’m betting on Eastern European of some kind.

Greg is trying desperately to climb up the social ladder, which is exquisitely highlighted at this dinner party, where he’s even willing to break accepted etiquette and seat his boss, one of the top-ranking surgeons at the hospital, at the head of the table (normally where the host should sit, according to Emily Post) in order to kiss ass as vigorously as possible.

Therefore, even if he has an accordion-playing wife from a less-than-suitable background vis-à-vis the occasion, and is willing to force her to perform to cut the awkwardness in the air, it would have been wholly unacceptable for her to play anything as déclassé and ethnically-obvious as a polka (this is one of my favorites, by the way; polka at the ballpark’s seventh-inning stretch was one of the greatest musical aspects of growing up in Milwaukee):

So, Joan plays a French café song–at the height of the vogue for all things French given Jackie Kennedy’s heritage and cultural preferences.  She masks the fact that her background puts her at risk of some level of bigotry by using the skills it has taught her to perform something fashionable and prestigious.  But, as is highlighted in the kitchen conversation amongst Joan, another resident’s wife, and the boss’s wife, though it’s recognized that Joan has many talents and works hard, it’s never quite enough to completely hide the truth of her situation (in this case, the fact that they must still be “poor” because Joan still “has” to keep her office job despite the fact that she’s married).

Joan may hide her less-than-fashionable ethnicity (and I admit, I’m only presuming her ethnicity) by performing a more-prestigious one, but the fact that she, in 1963, is a competent accordionist at all shows quite a lot about her background given that it was only in certain ethnoeconomic settings that people still learned it.

And for the closer, a supreme irony: Donna Trussell (and friends) over at WomanUp on Politics Daily does a good job of pointing out the other ways race and ethnicity are worked through in this episode (I didn’t even touch Roger Sterling’s blackface performance!), but misses the boat on the accordion:

Darling Joan aside, Episode 3 was also noteworthy for addressing ethnicity, as my colleague Mary Curtis discussed in Carla, Roger, and Racial Stirrings on ‘Mad Men.’ And gender, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein pointed out in Peggy Olson: ‘My Name Is On the Door.’

“Darling Joan” is precisely at the intersection of both of those with her “strap-on” (sorry, it’s too amusing).  Her husband forces her, in a shockingly (at least, to our contemporary sensibilities) nonchalantly sexist move to manipulate her ethnic presentation in the service of his socioeconomic climbing.  Mad Men always astounds me with how deep–and how subtly deployed–its historical knowledge is across such a broad range of disciplines.

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12 thoughts on “Deconstructing Joan’s accordion début on Mad Men

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. :) I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  2. …. kinda blows all the ethnomusicology nonsense out of the water when they only have joan play the accordion because christina hendricks plays it in real life.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  3. lola, I’ll refer you to the comments policy first:

    Please keep in mind that my site is quite explicit about what it is and why, and if you’re not interested in my particular perspective, there are plenty of other things for you to read on the internet.

    I’m only leaving your comment up because it represents several common perspectives about cultural and artistic analysis that I’d like to disabuse:

    1) Whatever the artist/creator did or wanted is The Truth about how the work should be interpreted (i.e., authorial intent); and
    2) Elements of a work of art are just there because they are there and/or because the creator of the work coincidentally felt like putting them there, bearing no further analysis.

    Yes, Christina Hendricks obviously plays the accordion. I don’t know enough about her life story to speculate upon why or how she learned it. However, I’m sure Christina Hendricks has plenty of other talents or hobbies that the Mad Men producers and writers in theory could exploit: maybe she’s an awesome basketball player, or was a child prodigy on the piano, or whatever (I’m just making things up–I don’t know whether she is either of these things or not).

    But there’s a reason that the Mad Men writers and producers chose to have her play the accordion on the show, rather than show off her layup skills or play something on the piano, and there’s a reason that they had her play the specific song that she played. She could have easily played polka, or vallenato, or tango, or rake-n-scrape, or an Irish jig–there are plenty of types of music that use accordion and its cousins.

    Instead, they had Joan play an instrument, and a piece on that instrument, that were, and continue to be, very specifically coded with respect to class and ethnicity. Given Matthew Weiner’s famous, nearly-insane attention to detail, this is not coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that this scene took place in the context of an episode about social climbing in 1960s white America. If Christina Hendricks’ skill on the accordion were not relevant to these thematic priorities of the show, she would not have been asked to play it in that episode.

    So, in conclusion:
    1) When a cigar shows up, especially on Mad Men (where everything is coded), ask why it’s there and what it represents.
    2) If you think ethnomusicology is nonsense, there’s no need for you to read a blog by an ethnomusicologist.

  4. Pingback: Mad (Men) About Accordions | Let’s Polka – An Accordion Blog

  5. Pingback: Review: Nyman and Motion Trio | The Omniscient Mussel on Classical Music & Culture - New, Features and Reviews

  6. I think the argument you put forward is very interesting and I know that the writers of Mad Men are incredibly precise in the props, dress, set design etc that they choose to use, particularly when they show a new side of a character.

    However, Lola does have a point in that the writers had originally wanted Christina Hendricks to play the piano to acompany the song which she doesn’t play and so she offered to play the accordion which she already knew.

    The piano is an instrument that would be played by those in the higher echelons of society but given what we know of Joan’s background, she cannot be rich if she has had to pull herself up through the ranks of the secretarial pool, the writers choosing the accordion may have at first been out of convenience but it seems a much more suitable choice given the additional layer that it adds to Joan’s character.

  7. Great article. My mind went in a completely different direction actually. Given the sensual song choice, I thought the writers were alluding to some burlesque or cabaret style job in Joan’s past, possibly a means through school. Early business skills, kind of a counterpart to Don’s hints of bartending. Another reason I could see them together by the series finale.

  8. I’m very late to the game. A link brought me here. Interesting speculation about a main character in the best show on TV.

    Very little, really nothing, has been revealed about Joan’s family. Her name, Holloway, is a respectable English one (with Irish branches), but nothing is known of the rest of her ancestry. She appears very white bread, is all, and acts that way, too. But this being Mad Men, she could have a surprise or two in her past.

    Nothing is known of Greg Harris’s background, either. Roger called him Joan’s Jewish doctor. Joan replied that he’s not Jewish, to which Roger retorted, “Trust me, he was.” Greg’s desperation and pleading with his eyes for Joan to impress his boss somehow, may not be social climbing, but the fact that he has washed out as a thoracic surgeon and is in danger of getting the sack, for having “no brains in his fingers.” The implication is he killed a patient on the table, who should have been salvageable. Some of this is from a later episode, though it was hinted at in the one under discussion.

    Looking forward to 3 more seasons and maybe some answers.

  9. Great post; I just have one bone to pick: the ‘hipster’ revival. This side comment seems both unnecessarily derogatory toward those exploring this remarkable instrument outside of some appropriately-pedigreed tradition, and less than apt as a characterization. For instance, I’m a 20-something accordionist and I play a lot of music relevant to my Jewish heritage, but I’m self-taught & also play Leonard Cohen and the Clash covers as well as various sorts of originals. I feel like you’re probably going to write me off as hipster; but to paraphrase the great sage Jeff foxworthy, if you really feel the need to proclaim to the world that you’re not like all the newjack hipster assholes into some semi-obscure interest, because you liked it before it was cool…you might be a hipster. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t quite get what you were talking about there.

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