Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bob Dylan, Capitalism and the Religious Right

Anne Ream

No Faith in the Market – Part I

Anne Ream

One likes to believe that Bob Dylan was being ironic, not prophetic. But as is the case with most things Dylan, one is never sure.

Cambridge Companion to Bob DylanThe year was 1967 and the 26 year old musical phenom, who was not yet an icon but well on his way, sat down for a press conference at KQED Public Television in San Francisco. Fielding questions from reporters, photographers, teenage fan club members and assorted hangers-on, including Beat poet Alan Ginsburg, Dylan, who was promoting “Highway 61 Revisited” (which was then and remains today the most consistently anti-capitalist album in his very anti-capitalist canon) was asked, “If you were to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?”

Not missing a beat, Dylan responded: “Ladies garments.”

His reply was good for a laugh, and apparently only for its moment: Bob Dylan waited 37 years before appearing in a television ad for, and licensing his hit song “Love Sick” to, Victoria’s Secret, a 5 billion dollar global lingerie retailer.

If, as the writer Tom Piazza has asserted, Dylan is an exemplary American artist because he embodies contradiction, then Dylan’s appearance in a Victoria’s Secret ad was surely one of the singer’s most American moments. This was, after all, the Bob Dylan who famously sang, on Highway 61’s “Tombstone Blues,” that it is “Jack the Ripper who sits at the head of the chamber of commerce.”

…much of Dylan’s earliest work – and many of his public statements – associated the market with corruption and exploitation.

Imagining a secular world characterized by wealth, social privilege and power, much of Dylan’s earliest work – and many of his public statements – associated the market with corruption and exploitation. Adopting a posture of non-participation, one that borrowed at least in part from the Beats, Dylan recalled his earliest days performing music in Minneapolis:

“I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the beat scene, the Bohemian, Be-Bop crowd. I had already decided that society, as it was, was pretty phony and I didn’t want to be a part of that. Where I was at people just passed through, really … nobody had any money. There were a lot of poets and painters, drifters, scholarly types … who had dropped out of nine-to-five life. It was outside, there was no formula, never was ‘mainstream’ or ‘the thing to do’ in any sense.”

No friend, at least in his lyrics, of advertising – the market’s most mainstream manifestation – Dylan, in his 1965 song “It’s All Right Ma (I’m only bleeding)” sang:

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

In an aside, it is perhaps telling that this year’s most talked about cable television series – “Mad Men,” a brilliant period piece that serves as an indictment of the American advertising industry of the late fifties and early sixties — featured Dylan’s classic kiss-off, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” in a season finale that spoke to the moral failures of the show’s central character, “Don Draper.” Draper, an aptly named advertising creative director straight out of Sloane Wilson’s Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (a novel that seems likely to have influenced Dylan’s anti-conformist rant masquerading as a song, “Ballad of a Thin Man”), embodies the advertising industry that reached its creative apex around the time that Dylan was writing his most evocative anti-marketplace songs.

Part II of No Faith in the Market: Bob Dylan, Capitalism, and the Religious Right – now live!

Read it here>>

About The Author

Anne Ream

Anne Ream is a Chicago-based writer and a contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan (2009). A past finalist for the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Documentary Prize, Ms. Ream...

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