The Story Behind ‘Is That All There Is?’: A Song That Was Meant for Mad Men

Peggy Lee. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

In all of television history, has there ever been a musical cue more inevitable than Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” appearing in an episode of Mad Men? It’s hard to think of a song that better captures the dreamlike and quintessentially ’60s malaise that’s hung like a mist over the past seven seasons, and it was a fitting aural bookend for last night’s episode, which picks up in 1970. It’s so perfectly Mad Men that it’s almost hard to believe it hasn’t been used on the show before (Matthew Weiner once toyed with the idea of making it the theme song), in large part because it’s one of those songs that now sounds a lot older than it actually is. “Is That All There Is?” feels like a throwback to an earlier era of the Great American Songbook, or even farther back to Kurt Weill’s Germany, but Lee’s rendition of the Leiber & Stoller classic was actually released in the summer of 1969, the year that brought us such milestones as Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, Led Zeppelin II, and, presumably, the first stirrings of Roger Sterling’s mustache.

It’s also the year that Lee’s longtime label, Capitol, was ready to drop her. The 48-year-old hadn’t had a hit in 11 years, since “Fever,” and tides were changing in the pop world. Leiber & Stoller were shopping this strange, forlorn ballad around, but Lee wasn’t exactly their first choice: Barbra Streisand’s manager turned them down, as did Marlene Dietrich herself. When Lee’s manager played her a demo of the song, her first impression was that it was too much of a downer. But she soon changed her tune: Jerry Leiber paid a visit to her suite at the Waldorf Towers a few days later, and she allegedly greeted him by waving a copy of the record in his face and saying, “If you give this to anybody else, it’s your life. This is mine. This is the story of my life.”

With all due respect to Babs, Lee was right: This is not exactly a song for an ingenue in her mid-20s who had just wrapped shooting on Funny Girl. Lee’s spoken-word delivery is imbued with the sort of midlife pathos you get when you’re looking back on a lifetime of hardship (she endured an abusive childhood and, by 1969, four failed marriages) and looking ahead toward a vast expanse of what you can only imagine is more of the same. But as much as Lee saw it as her own personal story, “Is That All There Is?” captured something collective about the disillusionment of the end of the ’60s, a decade that once promised the proverbial clowns and elephants and dancing bears but ended somewhere far from the circus. It struck a chord. Even though Capitol initially had such little faith in the song that it refused to press copies of the record, demand quickly rose and the song became an unexpected smash, reviving Lee’s career and earning her her first Grammy.

“Is That All There Is?” might be the quintessential Mad Men song — or, at the very least, the quintessential song about the unbearable lightness of being Don Draper. It reminds me of a moment in the season-two episode “The New Girl” when, seconds before his car crash with Bobbie Barrett, Don tells his very animated companion, “I don’t feel a thing.” Like the narrator of the song, we often see him struggling to accept and appreciate the things that seem to dazzle the more contented people around him, whether it’s love, money, LSD, California sunshine, or Sgt. Pepper’s.

Since we’ll all certainly spend the next week combing every frame of last night’s episode for clues, I’m sure the song’s final verse about death — which Lee dryly calls “that final disappointment” — will stoke the “Will Don Die?” conspiracy theorists. But I prefer to read it as a bit of met-commentary from Matthew Weiner, winking at those who flock to social media to voice their disappointment that “nothing happened” on the season premiere of Mad Men. In a way, he’s acknowledging the impossibility of pleasing everybody with the ending of a series so beloved. And it’s a pretty brilliant stroke, to preemptively give the unimaginative haters their refrain a few weeks ahead of time: “Is that all there is to the end of Mad Men? Is that … all there is?”