Critics have been more than a little down on Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl spot: it seemed like a sellout and an embarrassing one at that. As a recovering Dylan-obsessive I can’t help thinking there was a bit more to it than that, and not just because Dylan likes to confound expectations.
To begin with, the song that’s playing in the background has its lyrics suppressed until the title line appears at the end: “Things Have Changed.” If you don’t already know the song, the point would therefore appear to be that Detroit has changed, that it’s back on the world stage as a serious producer of cars. But if you recognize the song from the start, you’re likely to view the whole ad in a different light. For “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys, is in fact a song about the waning of youthful ambition and the loss of meaning that entails. The title is obviously an allusion to “The Times They Are-A-Changin,’” the angry hope of that folksy but caustic 1963 song—“The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast/The slow one now/Will later be fast/As the present now/Will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’—now replaced by music that echoes the weary rock of Chris Rea’s 1989 “Road to Hell” and a refrain fit for the year 2000: “People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed.” This is, in other words, the perfect song for a sellout. It’s the song of a man and a generation for whom things just stopped mattering as they used to, for whom the prospect of actually resolving anything, personally or politically, grew further and further away right as material comfort made it all seem less pressing. Somehow he and they were both locked in tight and out of range.
The song reflects the heartbreak of this cynicism and in doing so evokes a yearning that still beats. “I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road/If the Bible is right, the world will explode/I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can/Some things are too hot to touch/The human mind can only stand so much/You can’t win with a losing hand.” The order did not rapidly fade. The first one then is not now last. And the human mind can only stand so much. But if Dylan’s commercial activity in the last few years—Cadillac, Apple and Victoria’s Secret—seems like an attempt to get as far away from himself as he can, the Super Bowl ad was actually a little different. Because for all that the execution was clunky and idiotic, the idea itself—patriotic protectionism—is one that Dylan has flirted with for a long time, from 1983’s “Union Sundown” to the Farm Aid concerts of 1985 and 1986 and 2005’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” (“They say low wages are a reality/If we want to compete abroad”). And this should come as no surprise. It may be simplistic, both economically and morally—why exactly is buying American better than buying Korean?—but then again it’s also more or less all that the American left has been able to suggest in response to the economics of globalization. It’s a confused response to a confusing situation, and in that sense Dylan is the spokesman of more than his own generation. You can’t win with a losing hand.