Car Trouble: Tarnished Icons and Imaginary Friends

(This is an expanded version of my most recent column in CounterPunch’s print magazine.)

O the horror, the horror. To see the "shameless descent" of the "one-time countercultural figurehead" -- who had made his name as a bold stylistic innovator and powerful voice of authenticity -- now reduced to a corporate shill, parading himself, hussy-like, in a national advertisement.

How it had it happened? He had been a rawboned kid from the Midwest, a seeker and searcher who burst out of the stifling confines of bourgeois life and made his way to the very heart of the revolutionary artistic ferment raging in one of the world's great centers of countercultural bohemia. He had thrived there, magpie-like, picking up tricks of the trade, learning from mentors, stealing riffs from rivals; a little seedy, a little needy, passionate, faithless, bursting with talent. In the end, he forged an original voice that made him a towering figure in American culture and one of the most famous people on the planet, influencing generations of artists who came after him. Every year, there was serious talk of him winning the Nobel Prize -- and now this.

There he was -- posturing for the camera, an aging, taxidermy caricature of his dynamic younger self. There were his words -- his own words! -- once regarded as blazons of truth, now gummed into dim banality just to push some product to the rubes.

Sad, surreal, shameless -- yes, who can forget that awful moment when they first opened their new copy of Life magazine and saw Ernest Hemingway's ad for Ballantine Ale?

Surely, all right-thinking people condemned this act of crass hucksterism, an ugly spectacle that cast a tainted shadow over all his earlier achievements -- which could now be seen merely as sly ploys on the way to the inevitable sell-out …



In fact, literary history does not record any such reaction to the 1951 ad. Or indeed, any reaction at all. (Except perhaps from John Steinbeck, who obviously thought, "How can I land me one of them Ballantine ads?" -- and did so a couple of years later.) But such has been the blowback in many quarters to Bob Dylan’s recent Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. In some ways, it’s sort of sweet; who knew Dylan could still touch such a nerve?  But mostly the imbroglio has itself been a “surreal tableau,” as one of its more scathing respondents called the ad. It’s as if an historical moment frozen in amber – the “Dylan/Judas sell-out to pop music” scandal of 1965 – has suddenly been melted by the Super Bowl klieg lights, releasing its undiluted fury into the present day.



Of course, people are free to despise Dylan for doing an ad, on whatever grounds they please: moral, political, philosophical, aesthetic. But reading the fresh shock and angry surprise of the denouncers, one has to wonder: where have they been for the past 50 years? For a full half a century, Dylan has been insisting that he is not a protest singer or a ‘countercultural figurehead’ or anything of the sort. And he has behaved accordingly. Where was the rage when he did a Cadillac commercial a couple of years ago? Or the lingerie ad before that? Or the Fender guitar ads he did at the height of his countercultural figureheadom in the mid-60s?



As a “Columbia recording artist” (which is how he is always introduced in concert), Dylan has been taking money from – and making money for – corporate interests since 1962. He is no more or less a “sell-out” in 2014 than he has been throughout his entire career, including his days as a folk singer. Again, dismiss him for that if you like. But why rage at his “betrayal” of a media-hyped, fantasized “countercultural figurehead role” that he has spent a long lifetime refusing? You’re not angry with Bob Dylan; you’re mad at an imaginary friend you’ve created in his image.



Dylan’s “shameful sell-out” has been contrasted with the moral integrity of Pete Seeger, who died just before the Chrysler commercial aired. Fair enough -- although Seeger himself didn’t mind appearing with Harry Belafonte last year after the latter’s “shameful descent” into corporate ads for Gap. Nor did Seeger scruple to sing for many years with Woody Guthrie, who lent his name and voice to many an advertisement – and once even let a tobacco company adapt one of his hard-travelin’ songs for a perky jingle. Nor did Seeger blanch at singing a song by Dylan – long after the little weasel had been hawking underwear and Cadillacs – in the only music video the folk patriarch ever made: a rendition of “Forever Young” for Amnesty International in 2012.

Maybe Seeger, in his wisdom, took a broader view of such matters than the angry Amberists.  Perhaps he didn’t dismiss an artist’s output or idealism or authenticity just because they did the occasional spot for commercial sponsors – the way Dylan hero Hank Williams did throughout his career: for Mother’s Best biscuit flour, for Haldacol (a snake-oil “health” tonic he pitched in a traveling commercial “caravan” that also featured Milton Berle, Jack Dempsey, Chico Marx and James Cagney), and many other concerns. At one point, Hank even styled himself “the Ol’ Syrup Sopper” in a campaign for a Shreveport syrup company.

In 2008, yet another Dylan TV ad appeared across Europe, although it apparently escaped the notice of the Amberists. This time the shameless huckster was shilling for … an international mission to “make water safe and clean for every human being living in this world” and head off the looming conflicts over resource scarcity due to climate change. Then the next year saw ads for his much-hooted Christmas album, with all proceeds, in perpetuity, going to food banks in the US and Europe; in the first year alone, Dylan’s contribution fed an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S, according to the American charity involved.



And of course, long after he abandoned the progressive purity of “protest” music, for decades the tainted figurehead has kept popping up to sing for (or give his music to or donate concert profits to) a plethora of causes: in aid of Salvador Allende in his struggle against CIA subversion; for Bangladeshi flood victims; against apartheid; for Hurricane Carter; for inner city children in California; for handicapped children; for nuclear disarmament; for starving people at Live Aid; for ruined farmers at Farm Aid (inspired by a remark he made at Live Aid); for Amnesty International; for gun victims in Scotland; for typhoon victims in the Philippines; for tsunami victims in Japan; for earthquake victims in Haiti; for cancer research in the US; for cancer research in the UK; for literacy in Canada; for skate-board parks in low-income communities; for children in war zones … and perhaps more out there beyond a 10-minute Google search.



But all of this is obliterated by a two-minute commercial focused almost entirely on factory workers in America’s most economically ravaged city. Yes, how the mighty have fallen. Thank god we don’t have to listen to this sullied ol’ syrup sopper anymore. We can stay pure in our amber ... while the old man keeps rolling on, neither a figurehead or a spearhead or paragon or a hero, but nothing more or less than what he's always claimed to be: a singer of songs.