Has Bob Dylan sold out -- again?
That seems to be the indignant conclusion of some critics after the rock icon played roles in advertisements for Chrysler and Chobani Yogurt that ran during last night’s Super Bowl. Needless to say, this is nothing new to Dylan: Fans have been calling him a sellout since at least 1965, when he famously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Of course, a Chrysler commercial isn’t Dylan going electric (though the absurdist Chobani ad might be equivalent to Dylan going whimsical). Nonetheless, Dylan’s decision to work with Chrysler shouldn’t be viewed as a sell-out so much as one of the most overtly political acts he’s committed in years.
In fact, Dylan, despite his considerable reputation as a political provocateur, hasn’t willingly played the role since the mid-1960s. As Joan Baez, his occasional singing partner and girlfriend during that period, noted in "No Direction Home," Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary on Dylan’s early career, the folk legend was far less political -- and perhaps sincere -- than his songs sometimes suggested:
“Thirty-some years, whenever I go to a march or a sit-in, or a lie-in or a be-in or a jail-in people’d say ‘Is Bob coming?’ I’d say, ‘He never comes, you moron.’ You know, ‘When are you going to get it? Never did, probably never will.’ And so I think … I think he couldn’t have written songs like the ones he wrote if he didn’t feel generally, I think, sort of, for the underdog. But I think that he didn’t want to be the guy people were going to go to.”
Not surprisingly, then, barring a few notable exceptions (and his defiant so-called Christian period), politics and protest have been largely absent from Dylan’s music for most of the last 50 years. Those exceptions, however, have been interesting, including the 1983 "Infidels" record, which included “Neighborhood Bully,” a Zionist defense of Israel, and “Union Sundown,” an angry requiem for American manufacturing:
Well, this silk dress is from Hong Kong
And the pearls are from Japan
Well, the dog collar’s from India
And the flower pot’s from Pakistan
All the furniture, it says ‘Made in Brazil’
Where a woman, she slaved for sure
Bringin’ home 30 cents a day to a family of 12
You know, that’s a lot of money to her
Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way”
It’s a catchy lyric and a killer groove but -- like many protest songs -- it doesn’t offer the listener much beyond poetic indignation, much less a road map to make things better.
Enter Fiat-owned Chrysler. For the last three years, the company has promoted itself as “imported from Detroit,” emphasizing its American roots in commercials that offer longing glances at winsome American landscapes. Dylan’s Super Bowl commercial is very much in that tradition, interspersing iconic clips of the singer-songwriter with images of highways running through the Mojave Desert and other American landscapes. Meanwhile, his raspy voice intones a monologue that offers an optimistic, forward-thinking update on “Union Sundown,” three decades later:
So let Germany brew your beer. Have Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.
If, as Dylan’s songs and nostalgia seem to suggest, he badly wants a renaissance in American manufacturing (and the lifestyles it enabled), then there’s simply no better way to accomplish that -- not even another protest song -- than hawking Chryslers (and Cadillacs) to Americans, even if -- ultimately -- the profits (and losses) from those Chryslers are destined for Italy. Most of the jobs, however, remain in the United States. Indeed, Dylan’s decision to align himself so closely with American autoworkers and the car company that employs them (after all, he says, “we” will build your car) might be the most political two minutes he’s recorded since the mid-1960s heyday that, in the wake of the ad's airing, his critics claim he has betrayed.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter.)
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