Sunday night during the Super Bowl 48, near the end of the Seahawks absolute trouncing of the Peyton Manning led Broncos (which brought me great joy as a Chiefs fan), I was hit with a moment of excitement that soon turned to incredulity and eventually anger. The moment in question came when Bob Dylan, who has long stood as one of my ultimate music “heroes” essentially stepped on screen in a Chrysler ad to brag about their “Americanness”. My initial text to a friend who holds Dylan in similarly high regards simply read “DYLAN!!!”, a response that was soon met with a painful “why?” That text soon made me realize this was the same man who once sang: “Blowin in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “With God on Our Side”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, and countless other protest songs that intensely scrutinized dominant U.S. power structures. The man once labelled “the voice of a generation” was now using that voice to schlep for a Fortune 500 company. In short-hand, he’d “sold out.”
But the truth is, since his earliest days Bob Dylan’s been “selling out.” When 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan arrived on shelves, critic David Horowitz labelled the collection of dreamy and introspective tunes “unqualified failure of taste and self-critical awareness.” And while the folk/rock blurring Bringing It All Back Home (released in March 1965) largely escaped scorn, Dylan’s set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival wasn’t so lucky. After a scant three electrified songs, Dylan and his band left the stage amidst boos from the audience. The recently deceased Pete Seeger apocryphally was so upset by Dylan’s distorted voice he attempted to take an axe to the sound cables. He wouldn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years after the incident.
When the monolithic Highway 61 Revisited arrived in August of ’65, the response was much more favorable though Allen Evans of NME would still say the tracks were sung in a “monotonous and tuneless way.” Such a complaint would seem tame compared to the criticism Dylan was about to receive. When he arrived in England in May of 1966 to tour Blonde on Blonde with The Band (then the Hawks), reporters continued to desperately peg him as a “folk singer”, when he’d all but moved on.
The disconnect reached a fever pitch with the infamous “Judas Moment” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. Audience member John Cordwell accused Dylan of being the Messianic betrayer as the critic-savaging “Ballad of a Thin Man” had drawn to a close. Clearly caught off-guard by the remark, Dylan could only scowl back “I don’t believe you”, before urging The Band to “play it f***ing loud” for closer “Like a Rolling Stone”.
In some ways, Dylan’s been wrapped in the various forms of the Judas cloak ever since. He’s been scoffed at for appearing in Victoria’s Secret ads and performing in China. His work has led writers to ask “what is this s***?”, while others wonder aloud about forays into Christmas music. One persistent reason for the lingering criticism is that some people worry such decisions taint the purity of Dylan’s career. More than almost any other 20th Century artist, Bob Dylan is idealized and romanticized to Godlike levels. So when he shows up in a Chrysler ad, we worry he’s becoming “human.” But he’s always been human. He warned us “there’s no great message,” to his songs. And the longer we try to find one, the more frustrated we’ll be.