It’s been a couple of weeks now since the Superbowl. The game was pretty boring, but the Chrysler ad featuring Bob Dylan was anything but. Bob Dylan sashaying, shooting pool, and shilling for American cars.
But anyone who is shocked doesn’t get Bob Dylan (not that I do, or probably anyone besides Dylan, but I digress).
People are shocked for two reasons. First that Dylan is getting paid for crass commercial purposes, and second that he is taking a protectionist, jingoistic political stand.
The first one is no surprise at all. Dylan has been in prior commercials (the famous Victoria’s Secret ad, a Cadillac car ad, even an Apple ad come to mind), he’s let his music be used commercially (there was a second Superbowl ad featuring Dylan — the music from “I Want You” was in the Chobani Yogurt ad), and he fills his coffers nearly every night on a tour that has lasted years.
You can argue that “selling out” for Dylan is a recent phenomenon. Look back in the 60’s and Dylan had no ads, no sponsors, and no commercial use of his music (and neither did his contemporaries, including the Rolling Stones, who must now be the most corporate of any of Dylan’s peers). Though it’s not a surprise that he made this ad in 2014, it might have been a surprise to have made the ad in 1964, ‘74, ‘84, ‘94, or even ’04.
It’s the second charge, the protectionist jingoistic one, that really misunderstands Dylan through the years. Dylan as a former truth-to-power teller (see “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are a-Changing,” “Hurricane”), now a boardroom shill.
The truth is that Bob Dylan has always evoked America and Americana. To wit:
- He grew up in the 1950s in small town middle America (Hibbings, Minnesota).
- As he describes in his autobiography “Chronicles,” his America during his formative years was Norman Rockwell-like—the circus visiting town, gathering around the radio, sock-hops, and more.
- By the time he hit New York, he was a self-described “walking Woody Guthrie jukebox.” And Woody Guthrie was the mouthpiece of the working man, with a long songbook about American laborers.
- In every decade since his rise to fame, he has both written and covered song after song with an American heartland core, including nearly every track on each of his released original albums since the late 1990s (“Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft,” “Modern Times,” “Together Through Life,” and “Tempest”). His songs are filled with railroads, historic U.S continue reading this. floods, horseback riding, gamblers, high sheriffs, the Civil war, moonshiners, even Highway 61. GM even gets a shout-out in the title of “From a Buick 6.”
- By my very unscientific recollection, his songbook contains more references to American places than anyone else’s (not including Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which in one song manages to mention over 75 American towns!)
- What’s more American than baseball? Few know that Dylan co-wrote and recorded “Catfish” about Catfish Hunter, famous pitcher for the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees. And during his run as disc jockey on “Theme Time Radio Hour” he breaks into an a cappella version of “Take me Out to the Ball Game.”
- His song “Union Sundown” directly laments the fact that so many products that used to be made in the U.S. are not made here anymore (and rumor has it that the masterful “Blind Willie McTell” was left off “Infidels” to include “Union Sundown,” which indicates either that Dylan lost a bet, or that his urge to bring attention to the loss of American manufacturing was stronger than his urge to release one of his best songs).
- Have you seen a picture of him in the past 20 years? He most often looks like a riverboat gambler from times past.
- Rumor has it that Dylan is an American car collector.
So I cannot imagine any American entertainer with a longer history of writing, singing, and living Americana than Dylan. His promoting an “historically American” car company is no surprise at all. His promoting Hyundai – now that would be a surprise.