Skip to main content

Let's leave Bob Dylan alone

By Sean Wilentz
updated 5:42 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette circa 1966. Dylan's music spoke to a generation of people during the 1960s, a tumultuous decade that forever changed America. He went on to become a rock 'n' roll legend and influence many musicians to come. Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette circa 1966. Dylan's music spoke to a generation of people during the 1960s, a tumultuous decade that forever changed America. He went on to become a rock 'n' roll legend and influence many musicians to come.
HIDE CAPTION
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
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

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."

(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
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.

The sanctimonious detractors cling to a bygone Dylan: a skinny, tousled-haired genius in a work shirt singing "Blowin' in the Wind."
Sean Wilentz

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.

Super Bowl ad winners and losers
The best and worst Super Bowl ads

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT