by Donald Brown
There’s been some flak about Bob Dylan’s recent appearance in a Chrysler commercial during Super Bowl XLVII. Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and others have all weighed in with predictable comments (RS: Dylan doesn’t give a damn; HP: Dylan has betrayed his youthful ideals). Most point out, even while shrugging or pointing fingers, that Dylan has been hawking stuff on commercials—whether in person or simply through use of his songs—fairly frequently since 2004. So what is it about this commercial that is more bothersome than seeing Dylan drive an Escalade for Cadillac? It has to do mainly with Dylan’s voice-over in which he tries to sell us “American pride” in manufacturing cars.
The part that acts as red rag to the bull is when Dylan suggests that “you” should let Switzerland make your watch, Germany brew your beer, and Asia build your phone. “We (big emphasis, as Dylan leans over a pool table surrounded by his posse of average Americans) Will. Build. Your. Car.” For commentators like Tony Kashani, in his op-ed for Truth Out, Dylan engages in “market fascism.” For Kashani, suggesting that good beer comes from Germany is tantamount to saying that Germany is “only good at beer making.” And because Dylan doesn’t specify a particular Asian country, he must think all Asians build phones. Granted, Dylan is guilty of ethnic clichés, but at least not of a logical fallacy.
What’s amusing about all this, if you follow Dylan’s career at all and have any knowledge of him more recent than his refusal to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 because he was told not to sing “The Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues” (which is Kashani’s reference point), is that it’s nothing new; Dylan once wrote and recorded a song, “Union Sundown” (1983) that takes a dimmer view of what his Chrysler spot says: “Nothin’ you got is U.S. made / They don’t make nothin’ here no more.” By sticking up for Chrysler he’s at least putting his image where his mouth was, back in the days when Reagan and Thatcher were happily busting unions, to say that buying American cars is a form of patriotism.
While those who point out that Chrysler is owned by Fiat, which is an Italian company, say Dylan is being disingenuous, it’s more like he’s evoking the “heartland” ideal of workers “on the [assembly] line.” Full of cliché and values that, in a line from “Union Sundown,” “are going out like dinosaurs,” Dylan’s Chrysler spot uses the car industry to plug America, and vice versa. “America made cars and cars made America,” he says. And who can argue with that, in the past tense? For those who deplore the state of our environment and so forth, as in the Huff Post, that claim may be a sad fact rather than a proud one, but, for people of Dylan’s generation (he’s now in his seventies), muscle cars stand for an old romance with the road. Thus the shots of the likes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe (doomed symbols of Americanness, just like Detroit?).
We might prefer that Dylan, if he’s going to hype Detroit, talk about the Motown sound, but what’s fun with these Dylan spots—rather than inveighing against how an iconoclastic spokesperson for his generation has become a running-dog lackey of corporate America—is to count the ironies. Rolling Stone gets that at least, when they point out that Dylan, when asked, way back in his iconoclast period, what product he might consent to advertise, replied “women’s garments” (indeed, Victoria’s Secrets was his first employer as a celebrity spokesman). To see him behind the wheel of a Cadillac should remind us that he told us—in 1963—that it was “a good car to drive . . . after a war.” How about during a war, Bob? And when, on the recent Chrysler spot, he continues his tirade against outsourcing jobs away from American labor (which, for Kashani, makes him a part of corporate U.S.’s fascistic imposition of commodity over culture), it’s ironic that the song playing in the background is “Things Have Changed”—which, in case you don’t recognize it, contains the refrain: “I used to care / But things have changed.” That was released in 2000. And they did, and not for the better.
The other irony is that the song about the John Birch Society that Kashani references, about a guy so paranoid he sees communists “everywhere,” even on his television, now describes the type of person who sees fascists “everywhere,” even in a spot about an old American car company and its labor force that, like so many things—to use a Dylan line—has “seen better times, but who has not?”