Bob Dylan and Chrysler – A Tarnished Legacy by Dr. Richard Niles
When Bob Dylan did a TV commercial for Chrysler, many of my generation recoiled in shock, as if Bambi had been found guilty of dealing crack to the bunnies in the forest.
Dylan revolutionized lyric writing and changed the consciousness of a generation. Having heard Dylan, no songwriter ever approached his craft in the same way. His words had the power to change. It could be said that Dylan’s influence still has some sort of impact on everyone in western culture. Again and again, he produced spellbinding language that altered forever our idea of the role of the performer and the purpose of songwriting. His vision raised our awareness of who we were and who we could become. He made it the purpose of art to reevaluate politics, religion and culture.
And suddenly we were presented with our divine poet doing a car ad. Were we wrong to follow a spiritual compass that could go so haywire? Dylan was our “weather man”. Yes, our culture has become increasingly fundamentalist. Politics and the media are even more unashamedly based on the “greed is good” philosophy than it has ever been. But, Bob, you’re the guy who wrote Blowing In The Wind. Are you really telling us this is “the way the wind blows” now?
Although Dylan wrote, “not much is really sacred”, his words were regarded as such by people like me, growing up in the 1960s. When he said he didn’t want to be regarded as a prophet, he was quite obviously being disingenuous.
Dylan’s songs specifically targeted “advertising signs that con you into thinking you’re the one…” He stated “propaganda all is phony”. Is not advertising a type of propaganda? Is advertising not one of “society’s pliers”? (And all those quotes are just from one song!)
So when Dylan does an ad, especially one with such a clichéd and jingoistic message, those old enough to be profoundly affected by his work in the 60s are bound to be disappointed. I can’t decide whether it’s worse to think he agreed to read an ad man’s copy or that he actually wrote this inane drivel himself!
If none of this bothers you, maybe you did not spend hours pouring over Dylan’s poetry, searching for insights. I did. Maybe you did not get strength from his words as you walked home after a bad day at school. I also analyzed his lyrical techniques, his use of imagery and oblique contrasts. I read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot simply because Dylan mentioned that they were “fighting in the captain’s tower” in Desolation Row.
And Dylan, this literary giant, this profound prophet does a cheesy car ad? Why? Money? Obviously not. Dylan’s enormous catalogue of hits and covers by many major artists through the years would be enough to ensure that Dylan’s great grandchildren will never have to work one day of their lives. Nevertheless, many say he has “sold out” by doing this ad.
No one ever accused any artist of selling out because they made money from their songs and performances. But the meaning of the term ‘selling out’ is that a person has abandoned their moral principles in return for gain. If morality is an outmoded concept, we are all doomed to an amoral world where greed is justified. The thing that bothers me is not that Dylan did an ad as much as the way it was done—that he has abandoned his art and its moral standpoint by buddying up with Chrysler.
Chrysler chose Dylan because he is regarded, quite justifiably, as a cultural icon. In the ad, Dylan intones, “You can’t fake true cool.” Advertising relies on misdirection. So when he says this, it directs our attention to his legacy—away from the fact that he is advertising for Chrysler. The ad uses clips of Dylan in the 1960s to reinforce the idea that Dylan is “true cool”. But those of us who knew him in the 60s are not so easily fooled. The cinematography of the film tries to say that Dylan now, advertising for a car manufacturer, is just as “cool” as Dylan in the 60s.
The problem for Dylan, and Chrysler is, as Dylan says in the ad, “You can’t duplicate legacy.” You can’t expect anyone with half a brain to believe that the Dylan who wrote “It’s All Right, Ma” is on an equal plane of coolness as the Dylan who spouts crude nationalistic slogans walking through rows of shiny cars. No matter how well lit this is, the glossy images are not fooling me.
As sensitive artists, we must be very careful not to confuse the ART with the person who creates it. We are affected by great art and expect the human creators to live up to the ideals expressed by their art. But the art is just one aspect of the artist’s humanity, perhaps the best. It is not so much Dylan’s decision to do a car commercial that is upsetting. It is that he is wasting his breathtaking talent as a wordsmith on a mediocre, jingoistic script expressing the most banal of sentiments. Dylan may be very flawed as a man, just as Dylan Thomas was an alcoholic. But when he devalues his ART, a body of work that is breathtakingly innovative, and incalculably influential, he damages his reputation as an artist. It also diminishes our capacity to appreciate his art without thinking of this distinctly lowbrow ad.
One last point. Everyone has their own moral compass to follow. I don’t think it’s healthy for me to judge someone else by my standards. But I think it’s essential for everyone to have their own principles to judge themselves by. I think he has let himself down. If Dylan’s songs came from his heart, it is sad to think that this heroic, beloved iconoclast could abandon his own spirit for the rewards of jumping on the Chrysler production line. I hope they gave him a nice ride.
©2014Niles Smiles Music