May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
Bob Dylan has been called many things over the years—poet, preacher, prophet, saint, sinner, survivor.
‘Sentimentalist,’ however, is a moniker that’s seldom associated with notoriously shape-shifting songwriter.
And while it’s pure speculation (and what isn’t speculative when it comes to Dylan), it’s probably safe to say Bob was feeling a mite maudlin when he sat down to write would eventually become one of his most enduring compositions.
Written as a heartfelt, almost hymnal homage to his son, Jakob, “Forever Young” has stood the test of time— an enduring rumination on the eternal, indomitable spirit of youth.
But if you listen carefully to the song (again, not to listen carefully to a Dylan song is to not really be listening at all), you realize the song isn’t as much about youth in a literal sense as it is about the boundless promise of what the future holds in store. Said another way, it’s a song about forging one’s identity. And if you can look at the song from that perspective, the seemingly sentimental “Forever Young” isn’t as much about sage, sanguine advice passed on from a father to his son as it is an acknowledgment that we need not wait for a new generation to refresh the world. That power resides in all of us, if we just find the courage and strength to tap into it. Which brings us to the ad Pepsi ran on the Super Bowl two weeks ago...
The concept of affecting change and embracing it are often thought to be analogous and interchangeable. The reality, however, is that these are two distinct and disparate ideas. To mix them up (or ‘mash them up’ as the case was with the Will.i.am-Bob Dylan ad) does a great disservice to those who are true agents of change, and those who are merely ‘catching the wave’ (to borrow the slogan from another pop soda that portends to be one beat ahead of the generational curve).
This, of course, isn’t the first time Dylan has licensed one of his songs for commercial use. And while Dylan has never gone as far as to sell flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark, he’s certainly done his part conning us into thinking we’re the one. Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret and Apple are just a few of the products to which Dylan has lent his irrepressible, iconic image.
But the Pepsi Super Bowl ad was different.
Will.i.am amassed quite a bit of political capital during the recent presidential election. His PSA for the Obama campaign in which celebrities espouse their unwavering admiration for Barack Obama while the Black Eyed Peas front man be-bops in the background is one of the most innovative and infectious political endorsements in recent memory. The fact the video was directed by Jesse Dylan, another one of Bob's young brood, just adds to the irony of this grunt.
But the suggestion that Will.i.am has been passed the torch that will ignite a new generation in the way Dylan ignited his—something that was clearly implied when Dylan ‘hands’ his trademark ’66 shades to Will.i.am—isn’t just of-putting, it’s patently offensive. It would take a lot more than a fancy jump cut and a series of sleek song segues to accomplish that feat.
It would be easy to knock Dylan for letting Pepsi malign his pop persona the way they did. And, in all fairness, he does bear some culpability. We all Bob knows exactly what deal’s going down.
Since bursting on the scene 45 years ago, Dylan has split his time teetering between two daunting tasks—crafting his enduring music and cultivating his enigmatic image. There’s no question, he’s a master at both. For all we know, perhaps the Pepsi ad was just another piece in Bob’s ‘master plan.’ And when you think about it that way, the ad is almost forgivable. Almost.
No, the real culprit here isn’t Dylan. And it isn’t the hacks at Chiat/Day, who came up with the idea behind the ‘shades’ ad.
The fault lies squarely with Will.i.am, who even at the height of his creative and cultural prowess during the presidential campaign was never an agent of change. At best, he was a conduit. In reality, he was nothing more than a beneficiary of it.
In the final analysis, it would take a lot more than an ill-conceived ad to tarnish the iconoclastic image of Bob Dylan, whatever role he played in its creation. But I’m not sure the same can be said for Will.i.am, who should have rejected the idea of being cast as Dylan’s generational heir the moment it was proposed to him.
Yet despite the poor judgment on the part of Will.i.am, in the end he's got one major thing going for him. He’s still young…
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.
Bob Dylan isn’t the first rock star to shill for Madison Avenue. For a brief history of the musicians who have lent their talent to the Super Bowl, click here.