Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2020

Bob Dylan’s $300 million dollar bash

Filed under: beatniks,capitalism,commercialism,fashion,music — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face
With my fist
I took my potatoes
Down to be mashed
Then I made it over
To that million dollar bash
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
It’s that million dollar bash

–Bob Dylan, “The Million Dollar Bash”

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the blockbuster deal between Bob Dylan and the Universal Music Publishing Group. They acquire ownership of his entire songwriting catalog for $300 million. It was clear that the deal would pay off for both parties. Universal would benefit from the royalties paid by other artists covering his songs and from corporations using his songs to accompany their commercials. Perhaps Universal began to salivate seeing the new Volvo ad that has Pete Seeger’s “Hard Time in the Mill” playing in the background. It depicts a young couple trying to manage the job of caring for twin boy infants, changing diapers, etc. I doubt that anybody in the market for a $40,000 car will identify much with the lyrics but, then again, I am no expert on marketing.

Every morning just at five
Gotta get up, dead or alive
It’s hard times in the mill my love
Hard times in the mill

The FolkSongIndex website provides some background on the song:

The [textile] industry’s growth was based on a vastly expanding number of women and children in the mills. In the four textile states in 1890, men formed only 35 percent of the work force, women made up 40 percent, and children between the ages of ten and fifteen made up 25 percent. A seventy-hour workweek earned about $2.50 in 1885 and slightly less in 1895. At the same time profits were phenomenal. According to historian Broadus Mitchell, “It was not unusual . . . in these years to make 30 to 70 percent profit.”

I have no idea how or why Pete Seeger’s estate would have allowed his performance to be associated with a company like Volvo that would build a factory in a right-to-work state like South Carolina. As it happens, Volvo is owned by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. in China. Given the Chinese preference for a tame workforce, it is doubtful that a union will ever prevail at Volvo, no matter the willingness to exploit Seeger’s pro-working class song.

As for Dylan, he is not a virgin when it comes to selling out. The Times article mentioned his promiscuous past:

In 1994, Dylan let the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand — predecessor of the current giant PricewaterhouseCoopers — use Richie Havens’s rendition of his 1964 protest anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a TV spot. Fans, media commentators and even other artists reacted in horror; Time magazine wrote about the controversy with the headline “Just in Case You Hadn’t Heard — The ’60s Are Over.”

The Coopers & Lybrand spot was far from Dylan’s last commercial license: He did a prominent deal for a Victoria’s Secret TV spot in 2004, and later worked with Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi and IBM. Two years ago, he launched a high-end whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door.

Like most rich people, Dylan will undoubtedly (and his estate after he dies) make substantial contributions to the charities he favors like Amnesty International and the End Hunger Network. But what troubles people is the way that corporations exploit his reputation as a rebel in order to sell crap. Take the Victoria Secret’s ad:

Victoria’s Secret is a terrible company, allowing Jeffrey Epstein to use its credibility to carry out his crimes.

Perhaps we’ve reached the point where “cred” is only established by relying on the music of icons like Bob Dylan and Peter Seeger. Dylan, after all, will always convey rebelliousness just as Jack Kerouac still does for many undergraduates today. Even the ultimate bad boy William S. Burroughs figured out that there was money to be made from one’s reputation:

I should mention that Jack Kerouac got into the act himself:

Madison Avenue pays attention to anti-corporate iconography because it helps them market goods to the 18-30 year old consumer group. After all, unless you are an evangelical Trump voter in that sector, you too want to buy things that make you feel bold and special.

Was there any culture that was more hostile to the corporate world than the punk music scene? Take the Pogues, for example. This great Irish punk band was not only on the left politically but featured a singer named Shane MacGowan who abused alcohol and drugs. None of that got in the way with them doing a Cadillac commercial:

In 1988, Thomas Frank started a magazine called Baffler that sought to explain how capitalism was capable of co-opting the rebel. It stopped publishing in 1995, perhaps because it had become commonplace about the interaction. Frank relaunched it in 2011 as a general leftwing magazine that I subscribe to.

The original Baffler had the slogan “Commodify Your Dissent” that became the title of a collection Frank published in 1997. Have a look at an excerpt from the first chapter to get an idea of how they got to the heart of this most peculiar relationship:

Why Johnny Can’t Dissent

The public be damned! I work for my stockholders.
–William H. Vanderbilt, 1879

Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.
–TV commercial for Vanderbilt perfume, 1994

Capitalism is changing, obviously and drastically. From the moneyed pages of the Wall Street Journal to TV commercials for airlines and photocopiers we hear every day about the new order’s globe-spanning, cyber-accumulating ways. But our notion about what’s wrong with American life and how the figures responsible are to be confronted haven’t changed much in thirty years. Call it, for convenience, the “countercultural idea.” It holds that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian. We all know what it is and what it does. It transforms humanity into “organization man,” into “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery,” the “incomprehensible prison” that consumes “brains and imagination.” It is artifice, starched shirts, tailfins, carefully mowed lawns, and always, always, the consciousness of impending nuclear destruction. It is a stiff, militaristic order that seeks to suppress instinct, to forbid sex and pleasure, to deny basic human impulses and individuality, to enforce through a rigid uniformity a meaningless plastic consumerism.

As this half of the countercultural idea originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of sedate music, sexual repression, deference to authority, Red Scares, and smiling white people standing politely in line to go to church. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-backwardness in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke.

The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse, individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970: “Amerika says: Don’t! The yippies say: Do It!” The countercultural idea is hostile to any law and every establishment. “Whenever we see a rule, we must break it,” Rubin continued. “Only by breaking rules do we discover who we are.” Above all rebellion consists of a sort of Nietzschean antinomianism, an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of the law.

The patron saints of the countercultural idea are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even forty years after the publication of On the Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint, which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American style. Go to any poetry reading and you can see a string of junior Kerouacs go through the routine, upsetting cultural hierarchies by pushing themselves to the limit, straining for that gorgeous moment of original vice when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in 1955 and the patriarchs of our fantasies recoiled in shock. The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories about the brilliance of the beloved Kerouac, but the rebel race continues today regardless, with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s–rules and mores that by now we know only from movies.


  1. As I recall, Herbert Marcuse already wrote about this sort of thing in his 1964 book, One Dimensional Man.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 8, 2020 @ 9:03 pm

  2. “Even forty years after the publication of On the Road”

    It’s actually been more than sixty years since that novel was published.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 8, 2020 @ 9:09 pm

  3. Yes, but the excerpt was from 1996.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 8, 2020 @ 9:12 pm

  4. Good column. The guy in the Volvo ad reminds me of Gorky – Arshile.

    *Phyllis Segura* 845-246-1861 845-653-1145-mobile

    http://www.cookingontheriver.blogspot.com http://www.cookingontheriver.com https://phsegura-artarchive.blogspot.com/

    You don’t know how much is in a glass until you spill it. Phyllis Segura

    On Tue, Dec 8, 2020 at 3:39 PM Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist wrote:

    > louisproyect posted: ” Well, I looked at my watchI looked at my > wristPunched myself in the faceWith my fistI took my potatoesDown to be > mashedThen I made it overTo that million dollar bashOoh, baby, ooh-eeOoh, > baby, ooh-eeIt’s that million dollar bash –Bob Dylan, “The Mill” >

    Comment by Phyllis Segura — December 8, 2020 @ 9:27 pm

  5. Don’t forget Dylan’s live appearance doing a Chrysler ad during the 2014 Superbowl. His songs had been used in several other Superbowls. The rationale was that he wanted to advertise US-made products in order to protect the jobs of domestic workers. Bullshit. Bet he collected a nice piece of change for the “work.”

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — December 8, 2020 @ 9:28 pm

  6. I never understood how people on the left could a) regard the very transparently money-grubbing Bob Dylan as any sort of leftist, and b) go on and on about his alleged greatness as a poet. He gets himself taken seriously by coming across most of the time as a bitchy and disagreeable character, which seems to be a perennial hit among rebelliousness advocates of all kinds. I’ve always thought this was bullshit. So is the rest of the rebelliousness cult. In fact, when you get right down to it, people go crazy when they attribute any kind of revolutionary significance to post-‘Sixties pop culture as a whole or get all art-historical and scholarly about its history.

    I used to enjoy pop music as much as anyone–and found it really amusing when Dylan sang and played the guitar and the harmonica at the same time. It was better than watching a juggling unicyclist on Ed Sullivan. But the mystical stuff–or the “revolutionary” hype–forget it. Do we have to listen to music every minute of every goddamned day anyway, let alone wrestle with vague lyrics designed merely to invite projection on the part of the listener? Isn’t this just more upfrigging of the consumption muscles, already bulging from the daily hype workout?

    People put too much stock in their pleasures. Probably they put too much stock in “the arts.” Romanticism learned about The Individual from, of all things, reformed Protestantism, which became so exiguously repressive that the final squeeze by Sandeman caused William Godwin to pop out. And so we got Shelley and all the rest of it. Those days are long gone. When are we going to sober up?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 9, 2020 @ 5:23 am

  7. Maybe David Fincher’s 2020 ‘Mank’ signals the entertainment industry’s bringing down the curtain on the 1960s Do-it!-revolt. Forget the movie’s thesis of Herman J. Mankiewicz having written ‘Citizen Kane’, which has been amply disproven. But the Mankiewicz character is a staggering 24-hour-drunk whose ineffectual rebellion is limited to under-his-breath wisecracks.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 9, 2020 @ 9:12 am

  8. Not to forget the Mercedes Benz commercial that turned Janice Joplin’s tongue-in-cheek line (Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz …) right up on its head. And laughed (at the original intent of the song) all the way to the bank and back.

    Comment by Reza — December 9, 2020 @ 6:33 pm

  9. Thanks, Louis, for these cogent remarks which ought to make a few more of us consider the ill effects of so-called intellectual property rights.

    Comment by William Boyd — December 10, 2020 @ 11:35 am

  10. Bob Dylan could be described as a “protest singer” in his early career. Dylan “turning electric” in 1965 was seen by some as a “sell-out”, but on his fourth (acoustic) album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, which was released in 1964, he had already disavowed his support for a left-wing point of view.

    A self-ordained professor’s tongue too serious to fool
    Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school
    “Equality, ” I spoke the word as if a wedding vow
    Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

    Comment by John Wake — December 29, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

  11. Bob Dylan and the NECLC, from 1963.


    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 29, 2020 @ 9:58 pm

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