Is There Anything More American Than Bob Dylan Doing a Patriotic Super Bowl Ad for a Foreign-Owned Carmaker?

Absolutely not. And that's kind of wonderful.


Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's controversial Super Bowl ad for Chrysler opens with the Maestro himself asking, "Is there anything more American than America?"

It's the sort of koan-like, WTF riddle that defines his most memorable music. Dylan is the master of the rhetorical question, whether asking "How does it feel to be on your own?," "If you're so hurt, why then don't you show it?," and "How be it we are so deceived, when the truth's in our hearts and we still don't believe?" Hovering over the ad, with its economic nativism ("Let Germany make your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone…we will build your car") is the rhetorical question: Just how American is Chrysler, a "wholly owned subsidiary" of Italy's Fiat?

The ad provoked any number of responses on Twitter, including the plaintive wail that "Bob Dylan is now a car salesman. #helpus." After tweeting some of the lyrics to Dylan's 1983 track "Union Sundown"—a tale of global capitalism run amok, unions that are "going out like a dinosaur," and the inscrutable claim that "they used to grow food in Kansas/Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw"—Talking Point Memo's Josh Josh Marshall concluded, "A little humorous to see this shock, shock since Dylan's always been extremely commercially attuned, financially successful performer." Well, sure. Dylan is no stranger to making commercials, including a 2004 Victoria's Secret ad which is pure, 100 percent John Carradine creepiness (that's a compliment).

Let's be clear: Dylan's greatest asset over the course of his long and still-going-strong career is precisely  his willingness to disappoint and shock his fans and force them to reconsider their relationship to their singing savior. No other artist has done it as consistently, repeatedly, and forcefully as Dylan, who changes identities like most of us change our socks. Indeed, the main reason that Dylan is the most important creative force in post-war America is what my Reason colleague Brian Doherty once identified as "the wonderfully inauthentic art of America's most vital singer-songwriter." Dylan is always changing, always mutating, always "not there," but someplace way out there on the horizon.

An incomplete list of Dylan's career restlessness would include breaking with folk tradition first by writing his own stuff and then going electric (thank Gawd!); asserting empathy not just for Medgar Evers' assassin, but for Lee Harvey Oswald ("I saw some of myself in him," Dylan said while accepting an award named for Tom Paine and almost ruining his young career). At the exact moment when he should have emerged as the nation's hyper-politicized hippie troubador in the mid-to-late 1960s, he retreated first into seclusion, then into traditional music, and finally, confessional reflection. As the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and even third-tier bands such as the Rascals and the Guess Who sloganeered via hit songs, Dylan turned inward regarding subject matter, sometimes disastrously (e.g., Self Portrait) and sometimes transcendently (Blood on the Tracks, a searing, self-incriminating depiction of the end of his first marriage).

On a big-selling album such as 1976's Desire, he returned to protest music ("Hurricane") but confounded that gesture by also including a paean to an unregenerate mafioso ("Joey") on the same disc. In the late '70s, he made arguably his most daring and successful album by turning to hard-core evangelicalism on the spiritually epic Slow Train Coming (1979), where he improbably sang,

My so-called friends
Have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye
And they say, "Well, all is well"

Can they imagine the darkness
That will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them
And they won't be able to die?

That his conversion—heartfelt, if not particularly long-lived—came during the cresdendo of the most hedonistic period in recent American history arguably represented more of a rupture with his audience than when he went electric. He emerged just a few short years laters with another highly praised album, Infidels (1983), which led folks to wonder if Dylan was now a born-again Jew. Dylan visited Israel the year the LP came out, was photographed wearing a yarmulke, and recorded an unapologetically pro-Israel song "Neighborhood Bully," which was the Soda Stream controversy of its day.

In his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 (2004), he copped to the fact that Barry Goldwater was his favorite politician in the early 1960s even as he was making his name singing lefty protest songs in Greenwich Village. "There was no point in arguing with Dave [Van Ronk]" Dylan wrote, name-checking the self-proclaimed "Mayor of MacDougal Street" and partial inspiration for the lead character in the new movie Inside Lewyn Davis, "not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody."

More recently, Dylan has patently refused to be gulled by Rolling Stone magazine into saying he was in favor of green energy or Obama or whatever liberal cause du jour the writers and editors trot out for him to validate. His 2009 Christmas in the Heart album is more challenging to long-settled aesthetics than Duchamp's path-breaking "Fountain" ever was (Dylan somehow makes the song "Here Comes Santa Claus" into one of the most sinister tunes ever recorded).

In short, Dylan is an artist that purposefully makes his fans uncomfortable, not out of anger or contempt for his audience, but out of an undiminished sense of adventure, exploration, and creativity. In this, Dylan is the polar opposite of the recently deceased Pete Seeger, who famously wanted to cut Dylan's electricity at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and never, ever discomfited his fans (or the Comintern, for that matter) for a second. Where so many writers, filmmakers, artists simply repeat themselves or flatter their audience's inflated sense of itself, Dylan is, after all these years, "still on the road/Heading for another joint."

So how does it feel to see Dylan pitching Chrysler by that most underhanded of all of tactics, that's it's made in America? Chrysler, for god's sake! That's a third-rate company that should have gone tits up back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House! A company that got bailed out by the American taxpayer and then sold for a song to Italy's Fiat while stiffing its own U.S.-based creditors? And the former Robert Zimmerman is telling us not just to buy these jalopies but to do so because they're made in the U.S.A.? 

Well, truth be told, it feels pretty bad. Better that he should be hawking lingerie or Pepsi. But here's the real takeaway: Why the hell are you, me, or any of us expecting insight, wisdom, or god forbid, authenticity from Bob Dylan, of all people?

The entire meaning of his life's art is that it ain't him, babe—no, no, no, it ain't him, babe, it aint him you're lookin' for. Or to put it only slightly differently: "We're idiots, babe/It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves."

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  1. I thought Clint Eastwood proved last year that a big enough check is sufficient to get most people in Hollywood to do anything.

  2. Oh, for fuck’s sake – please

  3. Didn’t Dylan say he wrote Masters of War–for the money?

    Deal with it, people.

  4. The commercial was just too creepy. And why was he shown buying his own albums?

    1. Dontcha know – you’re gonna have to SERVE somebody…

    2. Someone has to buy them.

    3. I think they were books and fake ones at that. Can you find any of them for sale or in a library?

      I did not see albums in the advertisement.

  5. Now, how about an article Georgiasplainin’ how REM really pushed the envelope – and their fans just couldn’t GET IT, man – when Michael Stipe’s mumbling became understandable as English, or something like English? And, therefore, progress and growth and challenging limits, man!

    Drugs r bad, mmmkay?

    1. Stipe wasn’t just standing in the place he was in. Likely to get away from the odor. If you ever passed him on the street in Athens, you smelt him before you noticed his face in the crowd.

    2. The good ole days, man. Murmur, indeed.

  6. I can’t off the top of my head think of any other singer/songwriters whose music sounds best when played by anyone else.

    1. As I have mentioned, only ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is better than the Dylan original and that is only because it was completely rewritten with unique Hendrix guitar riffs.

      1. Bird’s cover of ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ is as good as the original.

        1. It wasn’t really a “cover.” Dylan’s original Basement Tapes recording of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was a demo his publisher sent to other performers for their consideration. The Byrds version was the first commercial recording of the song. From the same period, you get Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn,” Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Too Much of Nothing,” Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” several other Byrds recordings and of course the Dylan songs that wound up on The Band’s first album.

      2. The Byrds did several Dylan songs better than Dylan did. So did Johnny Cash. Even the Turtles.

      3. I love Nina Simone’s version of Just Like a Woman

      4. I’ll take the Byrds version of any of the Dylan songs they covered over Bob’s originals.

        1. Byrds are like whiny schoolgirl covers.

      5. I agree. No one sings Dylan like Dylan. But if I had to pick an alternative it would be Spirit’s take on “Like a Rolling Stone.”…

    2. Ness’ don’t think twice, for example. Dylan’s version is complete gibberish.

    3. Leonard Cohen

      1. The only thing I know about Cohen is that he was mentioned in a Nirvana song.

        1. He wrote that one song that is the entire soundtrack to McCabe & Mrs. Miller

      2. Music to slit your wrists by.

    4. I can’t off the top of my head think of any other singer/songwriters whose music sounds best when played by anyone else

      Tom Waits?

      1. Now I know you are a sister-boy.

        Tom Waits is the greatest.

        1. Tom’s songs are good. His singing leaves a lot to be desired.

          1. Without his singing, a Tom Waits song isn’t a Tom Waits song. If you don’t believe me, let Scarlett Johansson prove it to you.

  7. Bob Dylan isn’t a sellout now, he’s been a sellout for decades. And why is selling out bad? Selling out is good! There is a price for everything you see. Every braindead commie has their price.

    1. To sell out you have to be a true believer to a cause. He’s no true believer of any kind and that says something good about him.

      1. When the commercial came on (I only heard it) the first thing I though of is “What idiot thinks Bob Dylan would be a good spokesman for a product? He’s essentially a man with no convictions.”

        But really, any ad without Forrest Whitaker narrating is automatically not the worst ever.

    2. “Selling out kicks ass, because when you’re a sellout you make a lot of money, and when you make a lot of money you don’t have to hang out with any poor ass losers like you guys. Screw you guys, I’m going home!” – Eric Cartman

    3. Fuck Dylan…listen to Modest Mouse they will never sell out

    4. Dylan was one of the few musicians around in the early 60’s who came from a small business background. He shrewdly used his knowledge and family business connections from the very beginning.

  8. The Peanuts tend to be incapable of appreciating Dylan’s brilliance. This certainly won’t help.


    1. That’s because Dylan basically sucks.

  9. Also, this patriotism schlock is especially rich coming from Chrysler. I’m willing to be there are many Toyota vehicles that are far more American than these pitiful offerings. It’s such a terrible way to sell a car, hell, Bob scammed them.

  10. I can not believe that here in 2014 there are still people who would object to Dylan’s ad. If Dylan wants to marry a black man and have a baby and feed them both Cheerios then what business of it of theirs?

    1. It is all about the TEAM you are on. Dylan doesn’t play for one.

      1. Dylan doesn’t play for one team. He plays for all of them. As a catcher.

  11. What do you suppose most Dylan fans from the ’60s would have done if you’d told them that in ~50 years he’d be selling Chryslers in a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad? I’m guessing most probably would have shot themselves. NTTAWWT

    1. Even now, most of them don’t get it that he doesn’t take himself that seriously. Funny thing about the Victoria’s Secret ad–he was asked in the 60’s if he’d ever sell out to commercial interests, he said “Maybe, for ladies’ undergarments.”

    2. Depending on exactly what year in the 60’s it was, ask you what a superbowl was.

      1. Post 1967 then. Of course by that time most of his fans should have known he was a “sellout,” or whatever.

  12. Didn’t he say that he was a song and dance man back when he was at the height of his “voice of a generation” phase? Maybe they should have listened to him then. I think he took it all much less seriously than everyone else did.

    But he is the greatest songwriter of all time so fuck off if you don’t like it.

    1. Exactly. He’s been trying to escape the messiah image for years.

      1. I think I read somewhere that “Self-Portrait” was a whopping, deliberate “Fuck You” to the rock critics and fans that were constantly sucking up to him.

        1. I know fans of other artists who would by an album of out takes of their idol doing an album of arm farts.
          A Neil Young concert with Crazy Horse (and at least one entire album) is pretty much half feedback. I think he packs in ten songs into a two hour set.

    2. I think he took it all much less seriously than everyone else did.

      Probably a good thing that he didn’t take the “voice of a generation” bullshit too seriously. Kurt Kobain was also called the voice of his generation, and I think it’s safe to say he took that shit way too seriously. Look how he turned out.

  13. all the pearl-clutching over a car ad. Those poor fanbois; pissed off that Dylan likes making a living, too.

  14. all the pearl-clutching over a car ad. Those poor fanbois; pissed off that Dylan likes making a living, too.

    1. Palindrome: a stadium in which Sarah Palins are raced.

      1. Welcome to the Palindrome. Here’s your ticket. Hear the Sarah get wicked.

        1. Heard it from you. So has to be true.

        2. I would have never expected a Public Enemy reference from this crowd..thanks

  15. I’m offended by his blatant overuse of Just For Men.

  16. Amazing Dylan is working having insulted world beloved special protected-class members such as the Croats.

  17. Will he go electric next?

  18. What’s the controversial part? That someone thought Dylan would be a good choice to promote goods or services?

  19. Sheesh, what’s the big deal?

    It’s not like Ducati or Lamborghini are Italian owned anymore.

    This shit happens in the car industry which has been remarkably volatile over the years. Since the 20s, how many manufacturers have opened and closed and merged and been bought out between the major car/motorcycle cultures and companies (UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA) in the West?

    1. By ‘shit’ I mean consolidation and bankruptcy too.

  20. What I don’t get is why Chrysler is peddling the Made in the USA meme when they just keep getting passed around by foreign car makers. They should be pushing a “best of both worlds” angle with the Italian Style meets American Muscle.

    1. Apparently they’re using the Maserati chassis for some of their cars. I only found out when I went to look at the show room checking up on a promotion they were giving customers because I have a Jeep. I test drove the FIAT. Fun car. Anyway, yes, they should market it. Sorta like the ‘German engineering’ angle they can use the strong design heritage of Italy.

      1. The platform that the Dodge Dart and the new Jeep Cherokee are built on is an Alfa Romeo design (also used by Maserati I think) that was widened to fit our fat American asses. Although it was designed “over there”, the cars are still built “over here” (Belvedere, IL for the Dart, Toledo for the Cherokee). Other than the RAM trucks and Dodge Journey which are assembled in Mexico, all other US market Chrysler products are built in the US and Canada.

  21. It was also an ode to globalization…let the German’s make the beer, simply because they make it better than anyone else.
    But you’re right, Nick…its the “being on the road heading for another joint” which is the true definition of the man. That road was also featured in the commercial. And that is the only definition he has for himself.

  22. Bob Dylan? I thought he died 10 years ago. That must have been computer generated from old videos.

    1. The ad certainly looks like he did, and was then stuffed, badly, by some amateur undertaker. My God, the years have been unkind to that man!

      1. and was then stuffed, badly, by some amateur undertaker.

        Bob Dylan? Nope. Chuck Testa.

  23. Nick,
    The Seeger dig was off, considering that, one, the link you used tells the far more nuanced true story about Dylan’s electric appearance and, two, there’s no need to say he was the opposite of Dylan. He was Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan is…whoever the hell he is at the moment. They shared interests in American folk music but not too much else. That’s not enough to place them on any sort of continuum. Dylan may have discomfited his fans by asserting his right as the artist to perform however he liked (to hear those who’ve known him tell it, he’s his own favorite comedian), but Pete Seeger certainly challenged his fans to work for peace, to clean up the Hudson River…this list would get too long so I’ll stop here. Pete used music differently than Dylan. It’s a really silly comparison that’s made simply because Dylan first presented himself as the heir to Pete’s comrade Woody Guthrie.

    1. Seeger was an age old Marxist, learnt at his pappy’s knee, pantload liberal activist to the core, and largely irrelevant by the late 60’s. Attempts to make Dylan such, while numerous, seem to have been ineffectual.

  24. What is interesting to me about Dylan, from reading his Chronicles, is that he always thought of himself as primarily a singer. Like Frank Sinatra was a singer. Or Tony Bennett was a singer.

    1. Exactly. He tells all of us that in “Chronicles.” So those that try to pin some other label on him other than that of a troubadour will find themselves shaking their heads.

    2. Like Caruso – he hit all the notes. Or passed through them.

  25. you mean doing an ad for a company that is owned by Fiat in Italy is patriotic? Doing a commercial for company that bankrupted thousands of bond holders, that kind of patriotic?

    1. Hard to blame the company for that when it was the Obama administration that “guided” Chrysler through bankruptcy. And make no mistake, the only reason that happened was so that the bankruptcy judge wouldn’t force the UAW to renegotiate their contract with Chrysler.

      Personally, I was hoping that Kirk Kerkorian would finally be able to buy the company like he wanted to back in the 90’s before they sold out to Daimler.

  26. They do still make some Chrysler products in Michigan, but telling people to buy their beer from Germany (Michigan has a thriving craft brew industry – Bell’s, Atwater, Founder’s, Short’s, to name a few) or their watches from Switzerland (Shinola just started making watches in mid-town Detroit) seems pretty tone deaf.

    1. I agree completely – that part pissed me off. There’s plenty of great craft beer in every state. I wonder if it was a sophomoric attempt to make fun of AB InBev – thinking that it’s a German company and not knowing it’s Belgium.

      1. You have not had beer until you have been to Germany and had theirs.

  27. The times, they have a’changed?

  28. I wonder what the reaction to this ad would have been if he started singing it first in English, then in German and then in Italian. Frankly, I find the tag line, also found front page USA Today, to be uncreative and moronic-“What’s more American than America”? Someone got paid for that? Can’t wait to read there novel. Surely it will begin “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    1. oops, “their”. Speed kills (grammar.)

  29. Great article and highly entertaining. When it comes to figuring Dylan and our response to him, “The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

    1. It may not be grand, but hey it’s my van,
      Rides like a beer sloshin’ round in a can,

      I put my skis that lie down in the snow,
      In the rocket box on top and to the park I go.

      Ski all day long with his songs in my head,
      Hell I won’t even know when the muther fucker’s dead.

      He ain’t no great rhymer and everybody knows it,
      He just keeps on singin’ and makes the shit all fit!

  30. I heard Dylan do the Hendrix version of Watchtower in ’74 in St. Louis. It was awesome. And again in Rockford some years later. It was awesome. Although it took him about 1/3 of the way through the set to get warmed up. Age was catching up. Watchtower was in the last 2/3rds.

    1. That must have been good.

      Speaking of age catching up, I saw him this past summer, and his voice is completely shot. In addition, never picked up the guitar, only played the piano. Still good, but can’t compete to when I say him with The Band.

      Wilco was great as the opening act.

  31. I didn’t see Dylan as anything other than a mouthpiece in this ad. What drove me nuts was the BS jingoism from a company owned by Fiat. I’m sure Budweiser has an opinion on the line, “buy your beer from a German.”

    Someone should set all of Detroit on fire.

  32. “Selling out kicks ass, because when you’re a sellout you make a lot of money, and when you make a lot of money you don’t have to hang out with any poor ass losers like you guys. Screw you guys, I’m going home!” – Eric Cartman, perfetc

  33. He ain’t no great rhymer and everybody knows it,
    He just keeps on singin’ and makes the shit all fit!


    Lots of discussion of this ad at the Caf, many views… 😉

    EDLIS Caf?

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