You can call Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl advertisements whatever you like — a bafflement, a crying shame, an outrage — but the only accurate descriptor is Dylanesque. It feels silly to make this point for the umpteenth time, more than half a century after Dylan released his debut album, but here goes. Bob Dylan, history has shown, is a wily and willful character. Arguably the only through line in his career is his tricksterish determination to upset expectations; to thumb his nose at his fans and hagiographers; to épater la bourgeoisie, especially by acting bourgeois. We’ve been this before, in 2004, when Dylan slunk through a TV spot for Victoria’s Secret, looking like a creepy old man who’d turned up on the soundstage to stalk Adrian Lima, which may well have been the case.
And yet, every time Dylan does something predictably unpredictable, the same strangled cries ring out: Blah blah blah Blowin’ in the Wind the sixties peace love Vietnam wahhhhhhh. Last night, sure enough, Twitter was convulsed, and my feed filled up with laments along the lines of:
Bob Dylan is now a car salesman. #helpus— umair haque (@umairh) February 3, 2014
The car salesmanship in question came in an ad for Chrysler, featuring footage of the iconic mid-sixties Dylan, interspersed with images of the current twinkly and crepuscular septuagenarian model. Dylan is shown riding an elevator, fingering his guitar, and hanging around a pool hall, while intoning koans like “Is there anything more American than America?” (Answer: Yes. An American automobile advertisement about the Americanness of America is 35 percent more American than America.)
The other Dylan ad was a Chobani Greek Yogurt spot, starring a grizzly bear, and soundtracked by “I Want You” (1966). The yogurt commercial is cheeky: “Cuppa yogurt won’t change the world,” goes the tagline, “but how we make it might.” The reference, of course, is to the putatively “world-changing” music of Bob Dylan, generational bard. It goes without saying that the Chobani and Chrysler ads are the latest salvos in Dylan’s unending war on this muddled misapprehension of his music and legacy. Dylan's been fighting that battle at least since 1965, but time and again, the myth has proven sturdier than any bludgeon he can swing in its direction. None of his apostasies, from going electric to going Born Again to recording a bellicose pro-Israel anthem to recording a goofy Christmas album, seems likely to alter the conventional wisdom: that Dylan is, has always been, some kind of do-gooder hippie folksinger. As Dylan, age 72, moves into the twilight, he can see the boldface obituaries, rearing up on the horizon: “Bob Dylan, America’s Great Protest Singer, Dead.” There is clearly nothing on earth that irks Bob Dylan more than the specter of those wrongheaded and inevitable headlines. Dylan hasn’t recorded a protest song in decades, but make no mistake: The car ad and the yogurt ad, they’re protests.