Those of us who sat through the entire one-sided Super Bowl drubbing the Seattle Seahawks gave the Denver Broncos did it either because we really wanted to see the Legion of Boom raise the Vince Lombardi above their heads or because we wanted to see the rest of the commercials. For our trouble, we were treated to Axe Body Spray moving beyond their typical sexist stupidity to exploit Middle America’s fears of war waged by people in the Middle East and Asia. Some viewers were upset by Coca-Cola and Cheerios because the brands’ ads didn’t fit their narrow-minded views of what is and isn’t American, and Scarlett Johansson tried to sell us on SodaStream, which, if you don’t know why that’s controversial, I’ll just point you here.
I could see why any of those commercials might raise your blood pressure a bit. Super Bowl Sunday is basically a televised parade of things that are wrong with America. But that still didn’t prepare me to see Bob Dylan, one of our most celebrated living artists in any medium, taking part in the whole thing. While Dylan has left some of us scratching our heads by lending his face to ad campaigns that don’t make much sense, and one of his songs also appeared in a commercial featuring a bear hungry for yogurt earlier in Sunday night’s game, there was something undeniably strange about Bob Dylan asking us if there’s anything more American than America, against a backdrop of his music and images of James Dean, kids playing baseball, cheerleaders, and a dissatisfied man getting coffee at a diner. It wasn’t weird because it was Bob Dylan in a commercial; the unsettling thing was that it found him abandoning a principle that he not only once espoused, but managed to instill in his fans.
I love Bob Dylan’s music. I’ve been hearing it for as long as I can remember. I was basically brought up on Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. I change my mind like the weather, but usually circle back to choosing Blood on the Tracks as my favorite album, and have been listening to the bootleg version of “Went to See the Gypsy” on repeat for a few months now. I’ve known for years how many people heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” and decided that it was their duty to fight for change, to fight war, and to fight racism; I know about Dylan going electric, and I know how cool the Rolling Thunder Revue tour looked. I have devoured all of these Dylan factoids, and I have the deepest respect and admiration for the guy — as a musician. But I’ve always been wary about Dylan as a person, because, frankly, he seems like an inconsistent asshole who hides behind his own mystique.
Dylan’s choice to be the latest face for Chrysler is worth exploring as more than just an odd whim. Why he’d want to become a car salesman at this stage in his career is beyond me. I assume he doesn’t need the money or the free cars. And while Chrysler seems like the most proper fit of any auto brand (the Right would have crucified him had he shilled for a foreign-owned and largely foreign-operated company like Toyota, while his populist fans would have gone after him if he sold luxury cars from BMW, calling him a sellout or even resorting to the most famous insult ever hurled at Dylan: “Judas”), the whole thing smells worse and worse the more you sniff.
“So let Germany brew your beer,” Dylan tells us towards the end of the spot. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone,” he follows up before a pause: “We will build your car.” And by “we,” Dylan doesn’t mean Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a Dutch company with an Italian CEO; Bob Dylan means the good people of Detroit. That’s a message that most of us can get behind. Detroit has become a symbol of America reclaiming its former glory, and although the company to which Dylan has attached his legendary name isn’t technically American anymore, it’s still creating thousands of jobs in the Detroit area. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be celebrating that — I just don’t know that Bob Dylan is the right person to help us do it.
Lest we forget, Bob Dylan is the singer who called out the “Masters of War” who built the machines used during the Vietnam War, which makes it more than a bit uncomfortable that he’s now endorsing the company behind the M1 Abrams tanks that Chrysler won a bid for during and produced after the war. Sure, the company sold Chrysler Defense to General Dynamics for $348.5 million in 1982. But the current Fiat Chrysler Automobiles isn’t free of defense contracts, either; take a look at Iveco, one of Fiat Industrial’s companies, which (among other products) produces vehicles for off-road missions, defense and civil protection. However you look at it, Bob Dylan is now on the payroll of the very people he so famously decried, leaving us to wonder — once again — whether the values that made him a legend still mean anything to him at all.