Dylan: The times have changed
In the third quarter of the most-watched TV event in U.S. history, Sunday’s dull Super Bowl, there was one memorable moment: Bob Dylan’s solemn commercial for American craftsmanship generally and the Chrysler Corporation specifically. The Internet buzzed over Dylan’s alleged treachery in extolling a car. One site called it “surreal.”
Dylan’s ad seemed to signify not just that the 1960s are officially over, with Dylan’s “selling out,” but that the United States is a country of clichés so overpowering that they overpowered the artist who built his career challenging them. No matter how much you may try to resist America, it wears you down. Or so it would seem.
Dylan’s moment came when we heard that reedy twang of his, but his words weren’t about things roiling society or the wearying pangs of lost love or human wreckage — his standard subjects. He was talking about America’s greatness — “Is there anything more American than America?” he asks — about the power of her workers, and about the things that this country does well. Basically, about making automobiles.
It wasn’t an out-and-out shill, since he never mentioned the product’s name. But the voice of protest had become the voice of the pitch. It wasn’t the first time Dylan lent himself to Madison Avenue — he appeared in an ad for Victoria’s Secret in 2004, and a Cadillac Escalade ad in 2012, and his “I Want You” was used in a Chobani ad earlier during this Super Bowl. There was, however, something startling about hearing Dylan, perhaps the man most responsible for framing the critique against American materialism, salute American commerce.
After all, he didn’t talk in that Victoria’s Secret ad. He didn’t tell us that the lingerie was great because it was made in the land where “you can’t fake true cool.”
The ad reminded some of Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler commercial during Super Bowl halftime two years ago — which featured similar platitudes about American resilience. But Eastwood was never the face of a generation the way Dylan was. He certainly didn’t stand for the things Dylan had stood for.
Dylan has protested that he was never a sage or prophet, that he was just a troubadour. He no doubt meant it. In fact, while he began as a contemporary Woody Guthrie, he quickly changed course, from acoustic folk singer specializing in protest to electric rock and roller addressing the human condition — demonstrating not so much the moral strain in America as the pliant one.
And Dylan kept on reinventing himself. He seemed to love to throw curves. He became an electrified rock artist, a country singer, a romantic balladeer, a bluesman. He even underwent a religious conversion.
In fact, if there is anything consistent about Dylan, it is that he is determined not to conform to expectations. That may have been his real rebelliousness, not his protest songs. He was rebelling against us.
He probably still is. But the Chrysler ad, in which he intones, “And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else: American pride,” or “Detroit made cars and cars made America,” and in which the usually secretive Dylan appears walking through a music store or playing pool, you almost feel he is pulling your leg with his grandiose claims for this country — the sort of claims he would once have poked fun at.
Still, those who take it seriously and lament Dylan’s ad as a sellout, may be missing the larger point. This isn’t only a Dylan moment — it is an American moment. The idea of American exceptionalism has run so rampant in both our political and popular cultures that it seems everyone must subscribe to it, even Dylan.
Dylan may or may not have sold out to corporate interests, as his accusers say. If he did, though, it happened years ago with that Victoria’s Secret ad — and not on Sunday. But on Sunday he sold out to something much worse than American business: banality. Nearly every line he utters in the commercial is banal.
Here is our poet of the national conscience, the man who invented some of the most powerful locutions in song, mouthing the same tired canards about our greatness that everyone else has felt obligated to mouth for fear of being labeled anti-American. On Sunday, he was no longer talking truth to power. He was talking pap to all.
It only demonstrates that pap is the new default in our national dialogue. So there is Dylan, leaning into the camera at the end of the spot and telling us, “We will build your car,” while his song, “Things Have Changed,” plays in the background.
Indeed they have.
PHOTO (TOP): Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on a European tour, May 28. 1997. REUTERS/ File
PHOTO (INSERT): Bob Dylan plays the harmonica at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans April 28, 2006. REUTERS/Lee Celano