Am I too harsh on people?
In the movie, The Magic Christian, a worldly-wise millionaire (played by Peter Sellers) adopts a destitute young man (Ringo Starr) as his own son. He decides to impart to him all of the great wisdom he has accumulated over the years. The first and most important lesson is that everyone– without exception– can be bought. In the unforgettable climax of the film, Sellers scatters numerous British pound notes over the surface of a swimming pool filled with the most disgusting, offensive substances imaginable as dozens of extremely well-dressed financiers and bankers are strolling by on their way to work in their gleaming towers of steel and glass. They stop, stare, try to reach the money. One of them finally steps right into the sludge, and soon all of them are splashing around in it trying to grab the money away from the others. Yes, everyone can be bought.
I just picked up the latest edition (March-April 1998) of the Utne Reader, a bi-monthly compendium of articles by the “alternative” press. On the back of the cover, there is a picture of a very young Bob Dylan. That makes sense. Who better defines “alternative” than Bob Dylan, especially a young Bob Dylan? Think of those songs from the early 1960’s: “God on Our Side”, “Only a Pawn in the Game”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Masters of War”, “Visions of Johanna”… Dylan, unintentionally, perhaps (you could write a whole book on the subject), became a spokesman for a generation of young people who seemed to reject plastic, phony materialism, the consumer ethic, the idea that everything could be bought and sold, and that the ultimate goal of life was a home in the suburbs, a zillion appliances, Tupperware, and a two-car garage.
If you were born too late or too early, you probably have no idea of how powerful his mystique was. No one before or after has had anything near the pull he did in his prime. Every other major artist was acutely aware of what Dylan was doing. Even commoditized performers like Sonny and Cher included Dylan songs in their repertoire.
He was the very definition of “alternative”, because, at the time, the wholesale commoditization of life was well under way and he was one of the first and most powerful voices of popular culture to mock it. His performances were utterly compelling, because he was powerfully eloquent and uncompromisingly savage in his rejection of moral hypocrisy and glib righteousness. [notes on Dylan film]
The trouble is, there is an Apple Computer logo at the top left-hand corner of the page. And under the logo, these words: “Think different”.
Yes, everyone can be bought.
Well, I guess most other folk singers would have regarded selling out as the wrong thing to do, so, yes, I guess Bob Dylan thinks different.
I wish I knew how much he got for the ad, and why he needed the money. I do NOT wish I could hear him explain why I’m an idiot for thinking he should not have taken the money, should not have sang for the pope, should not have taken part in the tribute to Frank Sinatra, should not have allowed “The Times They are a Changin'” to be used in a Bank of Montreal ad, and should not have treated Phil Ochs like dirt way back in the 1960’s. I don’t want to hear it because it is so entirely predictable and self-aggrandizing and phony and I don’t think I could stomach it coming from Bob Dylan even if almost everything else he’s done in the past ten years should have prepared me for this.
This may sound absurd, but does anybody still need an explanation of why doing a commercial endorsement is wrong? It’s not all that complicated.
If the role of art, music, poetry, drama, and fiction, is nothing more than to entertain, then, yes, I guess there is no problem, since consumer products are just another form of gratification. And if you believe that the gleeful consumption– conspicuous or otherwise– of material goods is about as meaningful as life gets, then yes, there is no problem.
But if you believe, as I do, that there is a higher purpose to art, that it should also enlighten and stimulate and provoke, and should in some way expand our knowledge of what it means to be human, of what it means to love, of what it means to be alive, then a commercial endorsement is the anti-thesis of good art. It is a sell-out. It is betrayal of the very idea that human values are above simple self-aggrandizement.
A great artist stands out because he has the courage and integrity to observe and reflect and illuminate the weaknesses and strengths of human behaviour. When an artist agrees to accept money in exchange for the association of his image or persona with a commercial product, he shows that his integrity is compromised, because his endorsement is the result of a bribe. And when he accepts accolades and awards from people whose whole lives are dedicated to dishonesty and materialism, then he shows that he has no courage, for his acceptance is the result of his desire to become like those who thusly honor him.
When Bob Dylan first came to prominence, one of his most attractive qualities was the way he stood apart from the establishment toadies and drunken crooners that dominated the entertainment world of the 1950’s, singers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, who sang meaningless love ballads to addled over-weight pant-suited matrons in the crassest of American cities, Las Vegas. Today, Dylan takes part in a tribute to the King of Crass, Frank Sinatra. How long before Dylan himself plays Las Vegas?
In defense of Dylan, I have heard people say that it’s just no big deal. Just because he endorses Apple computers doesn’t mean “Tangled Up in Blue” isn’t a great love song. In reply to that, I have to say that even if it wasn’t a big deal, it’s still a cheesy, tacky, contemptible thing to do, and you have to wonder about why Dylan would do it. Dylan’s income from song-writing royalties alone must be enormous. Did he manage his money so badly that he is desperately broke? Are the alimony payments getting out of hand? Is his exclusive Malibu mansion in need of repair? Is he so isolated and surrounded with sycophants that there is no one to tell him that, considering his stature as a songwriter of uncommon power and intensity, the commercial endorsements look petty and stupid?
Well, maybe we all should be as humble. What if someone offered me, say $100 a week if I agreed to display his product logo on my web page (as if…)? I could argue that journals and newspapers have always carried advertising so it’s really not “selling out”, it’s just the business of writing. If I sold my writing to a journal (which I have done, in fact, on a regular basis for many years) who do I think pays for the checks I receive? Right– advertisers. Dylan’s music is played on radio of course, so his royalty checks really come from the same source.
So is it really such a big leap from a royalty check to a product endorsement? The difference is that we all understand that just because a Miller Lite ad follows a Dylan song on the radio does not mean that Dylan drinks Miller Lite, in the same way we know that a General Motors ad in a newspaper doesn’t mean that the newspaper believes that General Motors cars are any better than anyone else’s cars. There is a line that is being crossed.
The bottom line, I guess, is that it is ridiculous to believe that Dylan needs the money so badly that he will allow such questions to be raised about his integrity as an artist. The answer is that Dylan, singing for the Pope and Frank Sinatra, and flogging his reputation on the Grammys, is after something other than artistic achievement. The answer is that Dylan doesn’t believe himself anymore, and therefore, why should we?
Songs from the Old Dylan:
” you used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat/who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/Aint it hard when you discover that/He really wasn’t where it’s at/After he took from you everything/He could steal..”
“…businessmen, they drink my wine/Plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line/Have no idea of any worth…”
“Dear Landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul…”
“…but even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked…”
A Playlist for Bob Dylan when he finally goes all the way and plays Las Vegas.
- Opening number: Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
- Mood Piece: Dear Landlord
- A love ballad so all those Amway salesmen can get off their duffs and shake out their double-knit pants: Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
- For those who really appreciate the décor: Visions of Johanna
- For those who wonder if this is the same Bob Dylan who used to do those protest songs: My Back Pages
- For the maids and kitchen help: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
- And the waiters: Serve Somebody
- To his former wife, Sara, if she happens to drop by: It Aint Me Babe
- To patrons who favour the Black Jack tables: Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts; Black Diamond Bay
- To those who wished it was Elvis instead: I Want You
- Just before Milton Berle comes on: Motopsycho Nightmare
- To a convention of Dupont engineers: Hard Rain
- To contestants for the Miss America Pageant: Just Like a Woman
- After a Fashion Show: Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat