NEW YORK — My husband had just bought the newly issued CD of Bob Dylan's 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York, and our 15-year-old daughter was perplexed at yet another addition to our already extensive Dylan archive. She'd never understood what made this raspy-voiced guy so important, anyway. "Why is he famous?" she asked.
Delighted at the opportunity to deliver a history lesson, her father - a passionate antiwar activist during the Vietnam years - spent the next couple of hours playing old songs and explaining Dylan's seminal role in the protest music of the 1960s. I listened as I read the morning paper, and thinking about the parallels between Vietnam and the bloodbath in Iraq against a soundtrack of Dylan songs was almost too painful to bear. How many times, indeed?
The next day, I was startled to see Dylan's craggy, hawklike face glaring out at me from the television screen in a Victoria's Secret commercial. He looked angry, dissipated, and possibly deranged; his eyes had that paranoid, menacing look one associates with inmates in lockup wards. He also looked old. And, judging by his appearance, he's lived hard.
He was singing a bitter song called "Love Sick" as a nubile young model writhed around in her underwear and stiletto heels. Sultry and blank-faced, she looked about as old as my daughter. Was this porno-babe supposed to be Dylan's current obsession? His fantasy? Were we meant to think this was cool and edgy?
The only edge I saw was the distasteful spectacle of a geezer sexually fixated on a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. When the man who wrote "Forever Young" starts leering at jailbait during prime time, the result looks like a recruiting tool for a pedophilia advocacy group.
And what about the great minds behind such advertising campaigns? Teenagers constitute a critical segment of the Victoria's Secret target audience. My daughter spends a considerable amount of money on its products, but I'm the one who finances her purchases. And from a female, not to mention a parental, point of view, this ad was repellent.
Do the geniuses who come up with these ideas really think the sexual fantasies of aging males appeal to women, whether mothers or daughters? Guys, let me give you a clue: Nymphets are not lusting after Bob Dylan these days. Even 60-year-old grandmothers are not lusting after Bob Dylan these days.
My daughter's counterculture history lesson notwithstanding, she'll now retain the Victoria's Secret commercial as her most indelible memory of an artist who once had a profound effect on American culture. All over the country, crestfallen baby boomers are watching this ad campaign and wondering, "Why did he do it?"
After being a world-famous star for 40 years, could he possibly be broke? Who cares? He did it for the same reason that fabulously rich movie stars who earn $20 million a picture can still be seduced into making jeans ads in Japan: It's the money, stupid.
Or maybe we should view it as the kinky product of a longstanding fetish rather than simply as a spasm of greed. Nearly 40 years ago, when asked if there was anything that might tempt him to sell out, Dylan reportedly replied, "Ladies' undergarments." But even that theory doesn't hold up - he sold "The Times They Are A-Changin' " for a Bank of Montreal ad eight years ago. No exculpatory pathology there, aside from garden-variety avarice.
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.
As I scan each day's front-page pictures of fire and destruction in Iraq, it's equally depressing to consider the current scene. After all, it's not as if the torch has been passed to the younger set. 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.
Can we be surprised that an old guy is cashing in too? These days it's all about merchandising.
Now, there's a legacy to pass on to the next generation.
• Leslie Bennetts is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. This commentary originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. ©2004 The Los Angeles Times.