Who Can Match Verses With Bob Dylan?

Folk Hero Joins Will.i.am in Pepsi Super Bowl Ad, Teeth-Gnashing Ensues

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As most people have seen by now, Pepsi's "Refresh Anthem" last night wasn't so much a "new song" for the brand as it was a rehashed old one, and Bob Dylan's non-role in it was eerily reminiscent of posthumous revamps like Nat King Cole's updated "Unforgettable" and the recent Carrie Underwood-Elvis duet.

Much like the "Pass" spot we wrote about, Pepsi is again using music to place itself in a historical context while simultaneously projecting itself into future. That's the idea, at least. Bob Dylan is unquestionably a hero of the past -- and, less influentially, one living in the present too. Will.i.am, on the other hand, is less clearly a musical innovator, although, after the election, a more plausibly political/cultural one.

It was a dicey proposition putting the Black Eyed Peas performer in this role, because the branding concept hinges upon your tolerance of him. Mediapost's Out to Launch blog wondered aloud: "Was no other artist from the current generation available?" You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks Will.i.am is Dylan's match as a musician challenging cultural norms and redefining popular music, but, after last year's election, it would be much easier to find people who admire what he did with music to put Barack Obama in office. Pepsi took "Pass" and, instead of punting the question of what our current musical generation sounds like, admirably took a swing, picking an artist who's broadly appealing and vaguely progressive.

So, in that context, he actually was a safe bet to trade verses with Bob Dylan; and I imagine Thurston Moore wouldn't have returned Pepsi's phone calls anyway.

Still, there are plenty of other reasons people have disliked this ad. The New York Times' Stuart Elliott took a wider historical perspective for his critique, taking issue with the video montage, arguing it "rewrites history by presenting Pepsi-Cola as the choice of peaceniks, hippies and other youthful rebels." Onetime PepsiCo president Donald Kendall was, in fact, longtime pals with Richard Nixon, which helped brand the beverage as the "Republican soda" to some. It's an interesting footnote, but definitely not something that viewers took into consideration last night.

More to the point, a writer at The Licensing Plate thinks the spot didn't speak to the current lives of Americans: "It's a celebration. I get that. But we live in humble times. Less celebrity...more sincerity." Again, much of the sincerity question comes down to one's opinion of Will.i.am. And, for close readers of Dylan's work, most of his face-value sincerity is questionable too. Neil McCormick at The Telegraph thinks that the folk legend has placed himself in Victoria's Secret and Chevy ads in order to confound his most serious fans and evade "the oppressiveness of being considered a guru-like font of all wisdom, and spokesman for his generation." Dylan is a cagey fellow, and his (albeit limited) involvement in this Pepsi spot could be seen as an acquiescence to this role or, given Will.i.am's participation, maybe even another subversion of it.

For better or worse, the reactions to this ad's pairing are going to be as highly idiosyncratic as interpretations of Dylan's musical work are. But perhaps the bigger issues is this: if Will.i.am can't match the gravitas of the revered folkie, can Pepsi?