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Super Bowl sell-out: Bob Dylan goes fully commercial

Viewpoints Editor

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 23:02

Is Bob Dylan a commercial sell-out?

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You might have missed it Sunday.

Sometime in between Denver’s myriad turnovers and Seattle’s endless end zone barrage, Bob Dylan sold out.

The iconic songwriter appeared in a Chrysler commercial with a vapidly nativist “Is there anything more American than America?” tagline, turning his career and image over to the crass consumerism of Super Bowl advertising.

This wasn’t Dylan’s first affront against his ‘60s counter-culture persona, but it was certainly the most grandiose and noteworthy. He’s previously appeared in Cadillac Escalade and Victoria’s Secret commercials and during the 2009 Super Bowl, a Pepsi ad featured a rendition of his song “Forever Young” as a sample for sing-rapping a verse Dylan wrote.

The Pepsi commercial was more offensive to Dylan’s musical legacy, as seemingly co-opted Dylan’s classic ballad as a way to hock soda pop and also sophisticate his own vacuous, cellophane-wrapped oeuvre of hashtag-optimized singles and trite, starry-eyed lyricism.

Yet, the Chrysler commercial felt different.

Dylan starred in the two-minute spot, stoking nativist tension through a snide litany against German beer, Swiss watches and Asian cell phones. The Dylan of 50 years ago would have lampooned this naïve jingoism, and he did many times over before going electric, when his catalog featured primarily anti-war anthems.

The commercial went further though by flanking him with a montage of yonder year celebrities and symbols like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Rosie the Riveter signaled a retreat. The lyrical voice of a generation is now just a vacant symbol of Americana, no different than the countless Audrey Hepburn posters adorning dorm rooms and apartments whose inhabitants believe Breakfast at Tiffany’s is no more than their Saturday morning plans.

As I mentioned before, Dylan is no stranger to selling his work for commercial use lately. There was actually a spot for Chobani yogurt, scored by Dylan’s syrupy tune “I Want You,” earlier in the Super Bowl. The Chrysler ad went further than repurposing Dylan’s lyrics to push product onto the American masses, it turned him into a spokesperson, a car salesman.

The man who wrote more Jimi Hendrix hits than anyone not named Hendrix looked like a shell of what he once was at the commercial’s close, bending over a pool table to deliver a spectral warning, lest any modern know-nothing doubt that Chrysler manufactures its vehicles in the USA - “we will build your car.”

Shortly after digesting the commercial, Dylan’s single, “Maggie’s Farm” came to mind. Taken literally, the song reveals increasingly inhospitable working conditions at the eponymous Maggie’s farm. As allegory to Dylan’s life, the song is about his growing dissatisfaction with the folk music scene and its creative limitations. In its broadest sense, though, “Maggie’s Farm” is an attack on an impersonal, vicious commercialism that uses workers like machinery.

The critical line in the song comes at the end – “They say sing while you slave, and I just get bored. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Dylan’s appearance in a commercial using overt jingoism to sell cars showed he’s more than willing to go work on Maggie’s farm again, if it means remaining in the public consciousness.

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