Let’s leave Bob Dylan alone

Editor’s Note: Sean Wilentz, author and historian, teaches American history at Princeton University. He writes extensively on music, particularly on folk traditions and rock ‘n’ roll, and especially on the work of Bob Dylan. He is the author of “Bob Dylan in America.”

Story highlights

Sean Wilentz: People outraged by Bob Dylan's Chrysler ad, saying he has no credibility

Wilentz: But Dylan accused of selling out for 50 years, for musical changes and ads

He says everybody wants the skinny genius in a work shirt singing "Blowin' in the Wind"

Wilentz: Dylan's promoted American workers for years, and that's what his ad does

CNN  — 

On Sunday evening, as I was diligently not watching the Super Bowl, the e-mails started arriving: Had I seen that Chrysler commercial of Bob Dylan’s? Wasn’t it ridiculous, Dylan selling out to an Italian-owned car company in the most expensive television ad buy of the year?

Because I’ve written about Dylan as well as for his official website, friends and occasional strangers contact me from time to time furious about his latest corrupt outrage, proclaiming he has finally destroyed whatever shred of integrity he had left.

Sean Wilentz

I heard it in 2011, when Dylan supposedly sold out by performing a concert in repressive China. I had heard it four years earlier, when he appeared in his first car ad for Cadillac, which just happened to be sponsoring a satellite radio show he was hosting at the time. I heard it three years before when he turned up in his cowboy troubadour duds wandering around a beautiful scantily clad model in a Victoria’s Secret ad.

To borrow one of the late Pete Seeger’s lyrics: When will they ever learn?

Dylan has been accused of selling out for 50 years, beginning in 1962 when he signed a recording contract with a big-time label, Columbia Records. Two years later, the left-wing commissars of the folk revival denounced him for writing inward-looking emotional songs instead of “protest” anthems. Soon thereafter came the rage at his writing for and playing with electric blues and rock musicians, a supposed betrayal of folk purity.

And so it has continued, from the sellouts of his going country on “Nashville Skyline” and later, writing gospel music, to today’s shilling for soft-core porn lingerie and poisonous gas guzzlers.

Always, the sanctimonious detractors cling to a bygone Dylan: a skinny, tousled-haired genius in a work shirt singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin.” This, supposedly, is the true Dylan that the actual man has desecrated. In fact, the profane actual Dylan is worse than corrupt: He is the vile betrayer of a revolution in consciousness of which he had once been the avatar.

But Dylan renounced that role 50 years ago. Choosing art over politics, he broke free of the moral absolutism of “protest” music that he mocked in “My Back Pages” in 1964: “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” He rejected the idea of his being the avatar of anything, let alone of a revolution in consciousness. “It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large,” he sang in “Wedding Song,” from 1973, “nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge.”

And so I started to write back to my complaining friends to say that they had totally missed what Dylan has been about for decades – not a moral or spiritual guide, let alone an exemplar, or a prophet, or a savior, but a working songwriter and musician, doing his job as best he can – which, astonishingly often, turns out to be sublime – and making the money he deserves.

Then I watched the commercial on YouTube and saw that my riposte was inadequate.

For Dylan, breaking free of the folkie left and choosing art over politics never meant renouncing political concerns or themes, any more than turning to rock meant repudiating folk music. Any conception of art as broad as Dylan’s necessarily includes politics, as politics is part of the human endeavor. And the Chrysler ad, while captivating us with Dylan’s very presence, contains a political subtext.

Although the ad is dopey as all ads are, and even though it is plainly hawking Chrysler, Dylan never once hypes the virtues of Chrysler’s product over that of any other automobile maker. This may be a cunningly subtle pitch to Dylan’s baby boomer fan base, but it’s also an abnormal nonspecific celebrity endorsement.

Instead, Dylan celebrates America as a car-loving country. The ad begins with a clunky, even insipid piece of ad copy – “There’s nothing more American than America” – only barely redeemed by being spoken by Dylan’s singular voice. But then comes a jumble of images out of Dylan’s familiar Americana landscape – old-fashioned diners, Route 66 in Missouri, bronco busters, carnivals, Marilyn Monroe – evoking a particular nostalgic national mystique, rooted in the 1940s and 1950s and redolent of Jack Kerouac.

Footage of old Detroit follows – “Yeah…,” Dylan says, “Detroit made cars, and cars made America” – and then a paean, in prose almost certainly written by Dylan himself, to “the American road and the creatures who live on it” and to how we Americans “believe in the zoom and the roar and the thrust.”

The ad is saying that America is what its people make and make of it, cars above all, which makes sense – and which also makes it a workingman’s film: The ad doesn’t single out Chrysler and its cars but the Americans who build those cars, and their conviction and pride – “the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line,” Dylan intones. “So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone. We … will build … your car” – the last sentence delivered in Dylan’s cool halting cadence.

It’s all, of course, a cleverly deceptive way to elide the fact that supposedly all-American Chrysler is now owned by Fiat. But the cars are still American-made – and for Dylan, that’s important.

In one of his early protest songs, “North Country Blues,” Dylan sang of the mines of his native Minnesota Iron Range being shut down and people left in despair, because for the greedy owners it was “much cheaper down/ in South American towns/where the miners work almost for nothing.”

Twenty years later, in “Union Sundown,” he bitterly lamented what had now become known as outsourcing, including American cars being assembled in Argentina “by a guy making 30 cents a day.” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” from 2006, complained of how “they say low wages are a reality/if we want to compete abroad.”

Pro-labor protectionism does not spring to mind as one of the great causes of the 1960s. But for Bob Dylan, a product of the 1940s and 1950s, one article of simple justice has always been that American working people, so vital to his vanishing American landscape, ought not to be victimized by bosses who will happily exploit the pauper labor of the rest of the world.

Apparently, Dylan is sold on the idea that, in Detroit anyway, that injustice has been halted and even reversed. And that, he wants us to know, is a good reason, and maybe the best, to buy one of Chrysler’s cars.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sean Wilentz.