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Bob Dylan's Times, They Have a-Changed

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Has the ultimate in cool become uncool?

Hey, Mr. Dylan, "something is happening here, but you don't know what it is." Cars with “zoom," "roar" and "thrust” are so passé.

Where Has All the Flower Power Gone

I am a child of the ’60s. And like many of my generation we thought we were going to change the world. Alas, the Age of Aquarius has come and gone, and by many measures my cohorts and I will be leaving this mortal coil with the Earth in a good deal worse shape than we found it in.

It’s not so much that we sold out per se. I think that life simply got in the way of our ideals. Compromises to get by ultimately led to the one thing we railed against as youths -- we became co-opted by the establishment. The path to co-option was sometimes varied even counterintuitive. Stewart Brand has argued, for example, that computer giants Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak became part of the establishment by building establishment-bucking tools. Regardless, it seems that having things and being comfortable became more important than being good citizens of the planet.

Green Leanings

Even so, lots of my contemporaries try to keep things in perspective, as do older and younger generations, making an effort to nudge things in the right direction -- for example by consuming less [vid], purchasing greener products, and following more sustainable practices.

One of the more significant things we can do is slash our oil consumption. And, surprise, surprise, improved fuel economy has become something of a movement. For a growing number of people, the high-power, 0-to-60 car that was so cool in years past is now most definitely uncool. More and more people are electing to drive more efficient cars that go farther on less gas -- and are actually driving fewer miles and feeling quite cool [vid] in the process.

Once, Ideas as Maps

Which brings me to Bob Dylan. He was a hero of my youth, a poet and songwriter and an inveterate iconoclast. Among other things, Dylan warned us of “advertising signs [that] con” and of mindless "patriotism, … the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.” And so I was taken by the irony of watching Dylan, leather-coat clad, strutting his stuff in a commercial using patriotism to hawk Chrysler 200 automobiles -- buy it because it’s made in America, he implores viewers in the spot that debuted Super Bowl Sunday.


 

It’s not so much that Dylan’s appearance in a Chrysler ad betrays many of the principles he espoused in his earlier songs. After all, as I said, we’ve all pretty much “miss[ed] the mark” when it comes to youthful idealism. Dylan should be allowed the same free pass that most of us got. Probably more than most, Dylan has refused to be pigeonholed. And as far as his own youthful idealism, check out the lyrics to "My Back Pages" for a rather thorough trashing.

But whether idealistic or not, it seems to me that throughout his various incarnations, Dylan has always been heavily invested in being the ultimate in cool; just consider his studied detachment and inscrutability, the gravel in his voice, and that expression on his face -- is that a smile or a sneer? And what’s with the leather coat? It looks like he’s about to hop on his horse and head out to the cattle drive, but somehow I doubt that was on his to-do list after he finished the commercial shoot. You gotta admit this is a man who's got the cool thing going on, or at least who thinks he's got it going on.

Soul Turned Into Steel?

And that is what’s so sad about the Dylan commercial. The man is pitching a product that is the antithesis of today’s cool. In an age where high mpg’s are the ultimate status symbol for cars for those who understand cool, Dylan’s peddling a car for “the zoom and the roar and the thrust.” He has chosen to take his cash from Chrysler -- the company with the lowest average fuel economy of any domestic automaker. And he has chosen to plug a car with an estimated fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon (combined city and highway),* less than the national average for new cars sold in the United States.

You might be surprised to learn -- this is not even a first for Dylan. There was his 2007 ad for Cadillac. And his unreleased cover of "Motherless Children" provided the musical backdrop for the pitchman in last year's ad for Chrysler's Jeep Cherokee. Another mpg loser.


 

In the Super Bowl ad Dylan says, “You can’t fake true cool.” He's right.

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End Note

* This rating is for model year 2014. The Environmental Protection Agency has yet to report fuel economy for 2015 models. Chrysler estimates that the 2015 model year 200 will have improved mileage.

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