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Sold Out

Posted: April 23, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Chief Sellout

So I saw this Victoria's Secret commercial everyone's been talking about. You know, the one with Bob Dylan checking out a lithe supermodel in Venice while Time Out of Mind's lead track, "Love Sick," plays in the background? Yeah, that one. And for a little while after that, I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because I just didn't care. People around the office, people in the media -- everywhere I went, people seemed flabbergasted by the whole thing. Didn't know what to make of it. Me? I chuckled, shrugged, and promptly forgot about it.

What I should have been doing, you see, is getting up in arms that Bob Dylan somehow "sold out." That's the term that's been thrown around: Sold out. Who, exactly, got sold out? It wasn't me. Hey, Dylan never made some agreement with me that he wouldn't sell lingerie on the tube. I'm not in the least bit disappointed, perturbed or put out that I saw him hawking women's underwear on TV. Now, if I'd seen him wearing women's underwear on TV, well, that'd be a different story.

Nonetheless, the whole thing has got a lot of people's pants in a bunch. To which I say: People. People, people, people. It's not like this is the first time Bob Dylan has done something a little off-kilter, is it? Have you seen Masked and Anonymous? Have you ever heard Self Portrait or attempted to read Tarantula? And you're worried about this? Hey, it hangs together better than Renaldo and Clara. But people have short memories, apparently, and pretty rigid guidelines for how they think artists should act. I recently read an op-ed piece by one Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. According to Mrs. Bennetts:

I suppose even Dylan has the right to pad his retirement account, but it's hard to defend his status as an enduring icon of moral outrage and political integrity when he's shilling for bras and panties.

But, Leslie, what does one have to do with the other? No artist -- heck, no person -- is only one thing. Yes, Dylan has been, on occasion, the Great American poet laureate of social revolution. (Personally, I wasn't aware Dylan needed defending as an icon of moral outrage and political integrity.) But he's also been a lot of other things, as is his right. And if he wants to add commercial pitchman to his long string of reinventions, well, that's also his right.

(To be fair, Mrs. Bennett's main objection is that Dylan, in the commercial, appears to be lusting after the slim model. Well, that'd certainly be a little creepy, if that were the case, but I saw the ad a little differently. Sort of like a conceptual art piece. But I digress.)

As it happens, there's a precedent for artists who are credible both as shills and as provocateurs for change. Look at U2: The smartest thing Bono and his bandmates ever did, on a political level, was to tacitly acknowledge -- hell, to embrace -- their larger-than-life, rock-star status, and mold it into a platform from which they could credibly pursue their social agendas. True, the band wobbled off the track for a bit in the mid '90s. But since then, it's left questions about its credibility far behind. Bono may be a bit of a blowhard, but give him this: He can sell out stadiums, he can play the Super Bowl, and he can crusade for Third World debt relief, and no one questions him on the incongruity of it all. They accept it; in fact, they're impressed by it.

In his song "This Note's For You," Neil Young famously sang "Ain't singin' for Pepsi / Ain't singin' for Coke / I don't sing for nobody / Makes me look like a joke." Well, Neil, I beg to differ. You're a musician, right? Your job is to get your music heard, and to get paid for it. The notion that playing within the system somehow makes you corrupt is, frankly, tired and a little ridiculous. If what you say is relevant, people will listen. And to be relevant, like it or not, you've got to speak to the culture that exists, not the imaginary, quasi-socialist society everyone flicked their lighters for back in the '60s. So maybe your song gets played over a car ad. So what? You think that will make people less inclined to take you seriously as a messenger? I humbly submit that Greendale does that for you all by itself.

Look, people: You want to get upset about something? Open your window and throw a rock: We're not lacking for targets for outrage. Here's something to get upset about: Why aren't more artists getting upset about what's going on in the world right now? You want to get mad at Bob Dylan? Get mad at him for advocating for women's undergarments at a time when he should be speaking out about the state of things across the globe. Life is at least as volatile right now as it was when he sang that the times, they were a-changin'. And what about Neil Young? I respect that Greendale is trying to make a statement or two. But we don't need Thornton Wilder-fronting-a-bad-bar-band rock operas right now: We need an "Ohio" for 2004, or at the very least another "Rockin' in the Free World." As Chris Rock just said in Rolling Stone:

Can you believe there is no Rage Against the Machine? There is no Public Enemy? There's no Arrested Development? No one is talking about anything.

Hell, even Mrs. Bennetts agrees with that: In the same piece in which she vilifies Dylan for making what she likens to "a recruiting tool for a pedophilia advocacy group," she says:

Today's musical superstars seem more interested in hawking their clothing lines and name-brand perfumes than in any meaningful form of political action. Far from protesting the status quo, they're the foremost exemplars of how to exploit it to the max.

Now, that's a credible argument against "selling out." I don't happen to think there's anything inherently wrong with exploiting the system, but I do think there's a time and a place, and right now ain't the time to be cavorting with hot babes during Everybody Loves Raymond -- not with what's going on outside our living rooms.

But what do we get? We've got Chris Martin of Coldplay posing for magazine covers, writing on his hands like a sixth-grader: Make Trade Fair. Am I missing something? The Middle East is in chaos and some callow young pop singer with two lightweight albums to his credit wants to fucking roll back NAFTA? Partying with Elton John and knocking up some even-more-callow movie starlet suddenly makes you the next Bono? And worse, you're getting all wonky about trade and tariffs when Spain lets itself get bullied out of helping us out in Iraq, and insurgents are dragging the bodies of U.S. citizens through the streets of Fallujah? Are you fucking kidding me??!!! Dude! Some other time, okay? We're all a little busy right now. What next? William Hung speaking out against unfair tolls on the Jersey turnpike? Come back, Dixie Chicks: All is forgiven.

Okay, it's not like nobody's doing anything. Awhile back, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg and other musicians launched the "Tell Us the Truth" Tour, in which they castigated the media for its role in the situation in Iraq. You or I may not agree with the fight they wanted to pick, or at least the timing of it, but at least they were out there implying that there was something wrong with what was happening overseas. As I write this, Cursive and singer-songwriter Mike Park (formerly of Skankin' Pickle) are involved in the "Plea for Peace" Tour, which appears concerned solely with raising kids' awareness so that they register to vote. Well, it's not much, but it's something.

But we need more, dammit. A whole fucking lot more. It doesn't even matter to me, right at this moment, what side of the political spectrum you're on, who you're backing for President, whether you believe Al Franken or Bill O'Reilly. People need to be speaking out. Chris Rock is right: We need a Rage Against the Machine. We need a Public Enemy. We need our U2s, our Bob Dylans, our Neil Youngs, our Pearl Jams, whoever we've got, out there, right now.

I'm not suggesting that we need rock stars to tell us how to think. Anyone who's read anything I've written on this site should know better than that. But we need a dialogue about what's happening, and those artists with a history of being outspoken ought to be right in the thick of it, raising questions, throwing figurative bombs, circulating petitions -- whatever. True, we don't need Bob Dylan out there singing on behalf of lacy underthings and men's sex fantasies. But we don't need to be wasting our breath right now accusing him of "selling out." That's a luxury we simply don't have.

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Archived Editorials
December 03, 2006: Happy Feet
November 22, 2006: Half Decade Anniversary
October 07, 2006: Jessica Simpson
September 30, 2006: New Orleans and SNL
June 2, 2006: Dixie Chicks
May 7, 2006: Are Yahu Serious?
February 16, 2006: Bill O'Reilly & Brokeback Mountain
February 12, 2006: Totally '80s (Grammys)
January 31, 2006: Freyed Oprah
November 27, 2005: To Be Continued... (Bringing back movie serials)
November 21, 2005: Fourth Birthday
November 05, 2005: TV Remakes
August 13, 2005: Ten Commandments of Rock
July 05, 2005: Live 8
May 05, 2005: Term Limits (for Rock Stars)
April 29, 2005: Pearl Jam Redux
January 26, 2005: Oscar Grouching
October 31, 2004: Three More Years!
September 27, 2004: Cleaning Out My Closet
August 25, 2004: Shaking Through Mailbag
June 23, 2004: Summer Reading List
June 11, 2004: World Without Heroes (Bill Murray and Garfield)
April 23, 2004: Sold Out (Bob Dylan, Victoria's Secret, & Iraq)
April 08, 2004: The Day the Music Died (Kurt Cobain)
Mar. 17, 2004: Copping Out
Feb. 27, 2004: The Passion of Howard Stern
Jan. 30, 2004: Sex and the City
Nov. 17, 2003: California Über Alles
Nov. 7, 2003: Not-So-Terrible Twos
Sept. 19, 2003: Magic & Loss (Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon)
Aug. 17, 2003: Those '70s Shows
May 27, 2003: Patriot Games (Darryl Worley)
May 24, 2003: American Idol
Mar. 23, 2003: Non-cents-ical (Dixie Chicks-50 Cent)
Feb. 8, 2003: Where's the Love? (Pearl Jam)
Jan. 1, 2003: High Resolutions
Dec. 16, 2002: All I Want for Christmas
Nov. 27, 2002: Things to be Thankful For
Nov. 8, 2002: Near Wild Heaven (Nirvana)
Oct. 21, 2002: Happy Birthday to Us
Sept. 11, 2002: The Little Things
Aug. 20, 2002: King for a Day
July 9, 2002: Bill of Rights
Apr. 18, 2002: Celebrity Skim
Apr. 15, 2002: We Will Never Lie To You
Jan. 6, 2002: Something to Believe In
Nov. 3, 2001: Who We Are