“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” people who don’t know much about Bob Dylan have said, in response to his surprising, patriotic Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler. To them, Dylan is still someone he never was: a Sixties icon, a protest singer who would never sell out. “Sad, sad, sad,” moaned one of my Facebook friends.
But this is bunk. In fact, the Chrysler commercial is a confluence of everything Dylan has been about for over half a century, contradictions and all.
First, though of course the ultimate aim of the advertisement is to sell cars, the themes are quintessentially Dylan’s: hard working everymen, Americana, the old ways of honest work and honest pay. Dylan’s line in the commercial that “you can’t import the heart and soul of every person working on the line” reminded me of Workingmen’s Blues #2, from 2006’s Modern Times: “You can hang back or fight your best on the front line/Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.” Isn’t that what Dylan’s doing now?
The vanishing America, symbolized here by the bankrupt city of Detroit, has always been Dylan’s theme, from his days imitating Woody Guthrie to his recent “Theme Time Radio Hour” to the references to the American West in songs like 2012’s “Duquesne Whistle.” So this is hardly a stretch from Dylan’s core themes. As he says in the ad, “Detroit made cars, and cars made America.”
For that matter, cars themselves appear on the photos accompanying three of his last four albums of original material : “Modern Times,” “Love and Theft,” and “Together through Life.”
So is Dylan now a patriot? Well, not quite. There’s also plenty of irony in these two minutes. First, sure, patriotism – for a check. Dylan is the same trickster as ever, and it’s not clear whether he’s conning Chrysler or America or us. This is patriotism, but it’s also Dylan as journeyman, putting in his time, making pay.
Dylan seems to be winking at us at times – the commercial’s first lines are the empty tautology “Is there anything more American… than America?” he asks. Now what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?
Second, there’s a dissonance between the hopefulness of the script – take pride in American manufacturing – and the reality that Detroit is reeling. Chrysler’s plant may be in Michigan, but the company itself is owned by Fiat, an Italian company. The images in the ad, and Dylan himself, point to the past, not the future: an old man at a diner, a cowboy falling off his horse. And the dissonance between Dylan’s classic-car rhetoric and the econo-box we briefly see him driving seems to undermine the ad’s own aspirations.
And then there’s the irony that, in a way, shilling for American cars almost feels like anti-capitalism. The ad concludes by contrasting American automobiles with German beer, Swiss watches, and, controversially, phones assembled in Asia. In an age of globalization and hyper-capitalism, pitching for Chrysler feels less like selling out than taking a stand for old time values. As the Dylan song playing in the background of the ad says, things have changed.
The final irony, though, is Dylan himself. By now, he himself is an American institution, a stand-in for all things classic and old time. His last several albums have mined the depths of American roots, from blues to swing to folk songs. As others have noted, he has traded on this image in the past, and ad men love him for it.
And yet, Dylan isn’t quite authentic, right? All readers of this newspaper know that Dylan, nee Zimmerman, grew up in a suburban Jewish household in Minnesota, not at home on the range. The very Dylan that my Facebook friends is mourning – the idealistic protest singer with a high voice and acoustic guitar – was, itself, a construction, an artifice that Dylan shed as soon as he grew bored with it.
This is part of what makes Dylan a Jewish artist: not his ancestry, but his assumption of authenticity from without. Dylan puts on the masks of the grizzled American bard, the born-again Christian, the country music singer. All seem authentic, but all are masks – even the image of the Jewish outsider which I’ve projected onto Dylan here. Dylan himself remains, in the words of his 2003 film, “masked and anonymous.”
Purists have been accusing Dylan of selling out since the moment he plugged in an electric guitar, fifty years ago. But the joke is on them, because every image of Bob Dylan that’s been “sold out” by a subsequent Dylan persona was already a con in the first place. Praising American values while embodying their contradictions, selling authenticity to sell automobiles – this is what Dylan has been doing his entire career. “Don’t follow leaders,” and don’t be fooled: the truth-teller is the biggest con-man of all.
*Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward. His most recent book is ‘Evolving Dharma.’