It’s no longer news when Bob Dylan shows up in a commercial. Since 2004, he has appeared in spots for Victoria’s Secret, the Apple iPod, Cadillac, and Chrysler. But Dylan’s latest shill-ing, for an IBM “cognitive computing system” called Outthink, personified by a talking computer named Watson, introduces another side of Dylan the pitchman.
Until now, Dylan has been enigmatic or even downright creepy in commercials – who can forget him leering at a Victoria’s Secret model to the tune of his jaded, cynical tune, “Love Sick”? (Surely by now this must be a case study in the most outrageous marketing campaigns of all time.) When he shilled for Chrysler during Super Bowl 2014, he never even mentioned the name of the automobile – instead, he delivered a jingoistic rant about “made in America” with faint echoes of his 1983 song, “Union Sundown” (which led the Village Voice at the time to dub him “the William F. Buckley of rock ‘n’ roll”).
But Dylan breaks new ground with his pal Watson. He’s neither hiding behind shades nor underneath the large brim of a cowboy hat. He’s filmed up close and personal, with eyes still “bluer than robin’s eggs” (as Joan Baez described them in song) and a face all craggy and wrinkled, lined with a roadmap of the thousands of concerts he’s performed since his so-called Never Ending Tour began in 1989.
His only prop a classic model Fender Telecaster electric guitar, Dylan sits down and converses with Watson, who offers his summary of Dylan’s corpus: “My analysis shows that your major themes are that time passes and love fades.” To which Dylan, barely suppressing a giggle, replies, “That sounds about right.”
Yes, a giggle. He even cracks a smile. Bob Dylan hasn’t been seen smiling in public since 1975, and even that was only when he was wearing a large plastic Richard Nixon mask.
Yes, for the first time in a commercial, Dylan betrays a sense of humor and a willingness even to participate in a bit of self-mockery. “I have never known love,” says Watson, to which Dylan replies, “Maybe we should write a song together.” Watson then tells Dylan that he can sing. “You can sing?” Dylan answers, somewhat incredulously, which I read as another bit of self-awareness coming from one of the greatest singers of our era, a man who boasts a voice that most people still regard as an acquired taste.
Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor to the Forward and the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner 2009).