Bob Dylan’s been pissing off his fans since he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, leaving scores of bitter folkies with feelings of betrayal. But he’s also taken many a principled stand, walking off The Ed Sullivan show early in his career in 1963, for example, when he learned that CBS wanted to censor his “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” for being potentially libelous to the far-right group. Then there are those episodes that have simply baffled his admirers, like his release of the almost universally panned Self Portrait and his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Whatever possessed him to appear in the 2004 Victoria’s Secret ad above, however, is anyone’s guess. While it may not have the same geopolitical juice as his controversial appearance in China in 2011, aside from the general weirdness of once countercultural figures selling products, it’s a move that especially troubled fans of Dylan, to say the least.
There were, of course, cries of “sell out.” Then there’s the troubling status of Victoria’s Secret, a company that has accumulated no small share of controversy since the ad aired, and which at the time was not especially known as a socially responsible entity. Though Dylan had already licensed the song “Love Sick” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind to the company (and in 2000 licensed “Forever Young” to Apple), this is the first and only time he’s appeared on screen in a commercial, with the exception of a 2010 Google ad that recycled clips from the ’65 “Subterranean Homesick Blues” film.
While ad agencies may have replaced A&R for hungry young indie bands, the phenomenon of wealthy, aging rock stars shilling for major corporations seems to defy reason. Most people assume it’s always a cash grab. Dylan himself joked in 1965 that the only thing he’d sell out for would be “ladies undergarments.” In a perhaps unfortunately titled article for Slate, Seth Stevenson suggested that Dylan and those of his generation took the corporate bait in attempts to remain relevant and “remind the world that they still exist.” In the case of the Victoria’s Secret ad (see a “behind the scenes” video here), this is a little hard to swallow. Not even the balefully timed release of his Love and Theft in September of 2001 could overshadow the enormous success of that album, which, Allmusic writes, “stands proudly among his very best.” 2006’s platinum-selling Modern Times was not far behind. Unlike his online response to the China controversy, Dylan himself revealed nothing of his intentions, leaving fans with the unsettling image of one of the 20th century’s most iconoclastic artists (and one never especially known for his sex appeal) hawking lingerie on national television.