This is a very strange time to be a Bob Dylan fan. After more than 40 years of fighting for the oppressed, the wrongfully imprisoned, the hoodwinked and the heartbroken, Dylan has adopted yet another cause: Breasts that aren't as perky as they might be. The star of a new television commercial for Victoria's Secret, Dylan has taken to advocating on behalf of every woman's inalienable right to push-up bras and lace panties.
Lots of people are predictably appalled that Dylan has agreed to lend his image to an underwear company. It's an understandable reaction: Dylan has provided the soundtrack to countless lives, and the notion of him appearing in a TV spot with a chesty model young enough to be his granddaughter is more than a little absurd.
Curious as it is on its own, the commercial is even weirder given that it comes just weeks after the release of yet another stellar Dylan album, this one recorded 40 years ago. It's a confluence of events that reminds us how important Dylan once was and how hard he has worked to shed a title he never wanted, that of the voice of his generation.
In a sense, the near simultaneous appearance of the Victoria's Secret ad and the new Dylan record -- the magnificent "Bob Dylan Live 1964," the sixth volume in Columbia's "Bootleg Series" -- is a pretty fair case study of the relationship between popular art and commerce, and the way that relationship has evolved over the last four decades.
Consider the simple economics of it all. On the autumn night Dylan recorded the album's 19 songs, the priciest ticket in the audience at Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan went for a hearty $4.50. On June 6 of this year Dylan will play something called the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City. Tickets for that show are $97 each. (Comparison shoppers take note: The "shaping full coverage bra," as shown in the current Victoria's Secret catalogue, is a relative steal at $38.)
More to the point: Consider the remarkable quality of the songs on the "Live 1964" record in contrast to the work for which Dylan is lauded today. Just 23 at the time, Dylan already was able to reach into his repertoire and pull out music of remarkable depth, songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Gates of Eden," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," one of the best tracks on the live record, is a good example of the youthful Dylan's preternatural songwriting talent; it is as close to poetry as popular music gets. "While one who sings with his tongue on fire," Dylan sings. "Gargles in the rat race choir/Bent out of shape by society's pliers/Cares not to come up any higher/But rather get you down in the hole/That he's in."
In contrast, have a look at the pedestrian lyrics to "Love Sick," the 1997 Dylan song that is at the center of the Victoria's Secret ad campaign: "I'm sick of love; I wish I'd never met you/I'm sick of love; I'm trying to forget you/Just don't know what to do/I'd give anything to/Be with you." This, as it happens, is what today passes for lyrical brilliance; "Love Sick" is the first song on "Time Out of Mind," which won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998.
It's not Dylan's fault that his work has increasingly straddled the boundaries between fleeting commercial success and genuine artistic merit; it's our fault. In the 40 years since he walked on the stage at the Philharmonic, we've come to expect ever-diminishing levels of inventiveness from our homegrown artists. Ours is a culture that has obliterated many of the barriers that once separated ingenuity from advertising, creativity from commerce, artistic ability from bankability. All of which is to say, no wonder Bob Dylan is selling underwear.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.