Bob Dylan, corporate shill

February 7, 2014

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I don’t want to make too big a deal about Bob Dylan appearing in a Chrysler commercial during the Super Bowl and yet, I’m afraid, it is a big deal.

It followed closely on the heels of the death of Pete Seeger, who helped start the whole folk-music groundswell that buoyed Dylan to critical acclaim and, almost as quickly, to the top of the pop charts. There are many things that connect Seeger and Dylan, not the least of which is their admiration, even idolization, of Woody Guthrie.

And as I watched the commercial – “Is there anything more American than America?” Dylan gnomically asked – I thought, would Woody Guthrie, voice of the working man, have done a commercial for a major multinational corporation?

No, of course not.

Keep in mind that, just a few minutes earlier, one of Dylan’s songs, “I Want You,” had served as background for a Chobani yogurt commercial. Still, there’s a difference between a Dylan song as background – and the man himself, looking into the camera and shilling for a car company.

Facebook and Twitter were full of apologists for Dylan, talking about how he’s always marched to his own beat, how this is his celebration of being an American (as though capitalism is an inherently patriotic calling), how he’s supporting an American company that had struggled and survived (thanks to the Obama administration).

Sorry, I don’t buy it. Everybody, it seems, has their price.

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And yet, there are those who didn’t – and don’t (at least until they do). I find it hard to imagine Bruce Springsteen as spokesman for some massive commercial product – and I don’t imagine John Lennon would have. The Rolling Stones? They never meant quite the same thing – and hey, they were one of the first bands to use commercial sponsorship for one of their tours. Microsoft isn’t that different from Chrysler in the larger scheme.

No, the list of artists – singer-songwriters, bands, actors and the like – who would not take the big payday for a commercial endorsement deal is an increasingly short one. Once upon a time, it was a badge of honor not to auction your integrity to the highest bidder. Now, when celebrities sell out, the size of the paycheck is that badge.

Yes, Bob Dylan has followed his own beat; he’s the original musical chameleon, pointing the way for artists like David Bowie and Madonna and even U2, showing that you don’t have to be who anyone expects you to be, or what you were in the past. Times change and you change as a person. Why shouldn’t your music change with you?

Dylan has always been a spiritual seeker of sorts, whether after Christianity or orthodox Judaism or anything else. He’s played folk, rock, country, blues, standards, Christian music, even Christmas songs.

It all meant something because he’s Bob Dylan. And so does becoming a spokesman for a corporation.

He’s still a musical giant, a genius whose work shaped and touched generations.

The question is: What does Bob Dylan mean now?

Less, I’m afraid.

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