Bob Dylan's Super Bowl Ad: Selling Out, or Sign of the Times?



By Erik Thompson

The decades-old debate about what constitutes "selling out" in music has grown to become a tired one. The music industry itself has irrevocably changed. Music has become so ubiquitous in advertising, movies, TV, and video games, that drawing any type of line in the taste-making sand over what selling out truly means in this day and age is ultimately a futile and foolish endeavor.

Yet Bob Dylan's appearance in a Chrysler ad during the Super Bowl last night proves that there are still plenty of fans with their pitchforks (and clever hashtags) ready to skewer any musician that they believe has crossed over that illusory line from respectable artist to corporate shill.

Now, the message that Dylan delivers during the expensive ($16 million) two-minute ad is ultimately a good one, especially for anyone interested in American commerce and the revitalization of the U.S. auto industry. Sure, the image of one of the most iconic songwriters in American history blandly repeating advertising copy is initially a shocking one. But Dylan has appeared in commercials before -- in a Cadillac Escalade advert from 2007, his recent Pepsi spot with Will, and who can forget Bob creepily cavorting around with Victoria's Secret models seven years ago. (And, even his hero Woody Guthrie was the host of Model Tobacco Company's radio program, Pipe Smoking Time, back in the the 1940s.)

Advertising clearly isn't new territory for Dylan, and he's made a career out of brazenly flouting the expectations of his fans by doing exactly the opposite of what people predict. Quite frankly, he doesn't really care what we think, and never really has. That is part of what makes him Bob Dylan, and one of the many reasons why we love him so.

My issue with Dylan's Chrysler spot doesn't have anything to do with him actually appearing in an advertisement at all. I just wanted the ad itself to be better, and to come close to being worthy of the iconic legend who is starring in it. Now, for a man not accustomed to delivering many messages that don't come in song form, perhaps it remains out of Dylan's realm to breathe much life into any lengthy monologue, especially rather trite ad copy.

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Is there anything more American than America?
'Cause you can't import original.
You can't fake true cool.
You can't duplicate legacy.
Because what Detroit created was a first
and became an inspiration to the... rest of the world.
Yeah...Detroit made cars. And cars made America.
Making the best, making the finest, takes conviction.
And you can't import, the heart and soul, of every man and woman working on the line.
You can search the world over for the finer things,
but you won't find a match for the American road
and the creatures that live on it.
Because we believe in the zoom,
and the roar, and the thrust.
And when it's made here, it's made with the one thing
you can't import from anywhere else. American...Pride.
So let Germany brew your beer,
Let Switzerland make your watch,
Let Asia assemble your phone.
We...will build...your car.

No matter how good the copy was, it would pale in comparison to Dylan's penetrating, inimitable lyrics. And perhaps that is ultimately what angered Bob's fans the most -- that these clearly weren't his words he was muttering. Hearing Dylan prattle on melodramatically about zoom, roar, and thrust was a waste of his singular talents. You have Bob freaking Dylan in your advertisement, Chrysler -- give him something a bit more poetic to say.

Then again, anyone who truly expected transcendence from a car ad simply because Dylan was in it was going to be let down.

After regularly being inundated with ads for beers I'll never drink, medications that I don't have to take (yet), and low-quality fast food, it's thrilling to see a musical hero appear amidst the inane, interminable din of most advertising (or Fox sitcom programming). I just wish that Dylan was simply given -- or had written -- better material. The sheer amount of words he uttered throughout the advert amount to just as much as Dylan has shared on stages over the past couple decades combined. It's a rare pleasure to hear Bob speak at such length, but his voice telling us "You can't fake true cool" in this fashion rings hollow.


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