I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
For decades, Bob Dylan has been the subject of extraordinarily deep critical exploration. The singer-songwriter has undergone countless metamorphoses, and fans and scholars dissect his every move and song lyric with a level of focus verging on the Talmudic. But Dylan’s most confounding moment might not even be related to his music. In 2004, the legend, then in his early 60s, starred in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, deliciously titled “Angels in Venice.” This 30-second ad, featuring Dylan and a Victoria’s Secret Angel cast in shades of blue and gray, frequently floats into my head like some kind of dream. I find myself constantly questioning this exceptionally strange bit of marketing. The most obvious question is just: why? Was this a decision that arose out of financial motives? It’s easy to believe that most classic-rock artists license their music for commercials to pad their bank accounts, but Dylan’s commercial debut felt weirder, seeing as it literally starred the artist and was for a company known for scantily clad young supermodels, not sixty-something men who are generally associated with poetic lyrics, not panties.
Stranger still is that there were clues that this was coming! Decades earlier, at a 1965 press conference, Dylan was asked, “If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?” The audience laughed and Dylan responded with a smirk: “Ladies’ garments.” Considering Dylan’s capacity for creating complex tapestries throughout his songbook, there’s a distinct possibility he was playing the long game. In my mind, rather than automatically making him seem like a sell out, the commercial somehow adds to his mystique. He’s done other (more annoying) commercials since, for cars and computers, but the Victoria’s Secret spot is singularly perverse and so takes up an outsize place in my psyche.
My father is a Dylan-loving Boomer (who’s gone so far as to teach an elective course on Dylan to his high-school literature students), so I’ve been exposed to his music more or less since birth. The more I think about the commercial, the more I feel it reveals everything and nothing about the artist. As my father would say, Dylan ultimately remains an enigma to all, even those who know every note of every album.
Here are just a few of the things I ponder as I watch the ad on loop: Did Dylan and Adriana Lima, his sultry supermodel costar, get along? Is this all some conceptual art project? Am I giving this weird-ass commercial way too much creative credit? Was it the dumbest thing Dylan ever did or one of the most genius? I consider the fact that Dylan and Lima are never seen in the same shot. Neither one of them speak. The sexual innuendo is conveyed through the editing: Lima struts. Cut to Dylan (cue the “What the hell is he doing there?” reactions from 2004 viewers). Is he her lover? Or just a man of mystery? He throws his cowboy hat on to the floor, and the camera cuts back to his pencil mustache, dramatic stare, and GIF-ready head tilt. Suddenly Lima, pouting and clad in signature Victoria’s Secret angel wings, wears the hat — a world of erotic possibility is drawn out in less than a minute.
More questions: Why was this 1997 track “Love Sick” selected? “Love Sick” is a melancholic tune. The line “I see silhouettes in the window,” is perfectly timed to a close-up on Lima’s cleavage, and the climax aligns with “I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you.” The mood isn’t just horny or fun or sentimental, but rather sexily mournful, and the commercial is anachronistic in terms of both Dylan’s career and Victoria’s Secret’s usual marketing. Victoria’s Secret’s branding is usually centered on the Angels — supermodels who strut through the frame, showing off their perfect bodies and seducing men and women alike to buy pushup bras. Men don’t usually appear in Victoria’s Secret ads, and if they were going to choose one, it seems like a contemporary pop star — say, Justin Timberlake or Usher — would be a more logical fit. Who sees Bob Dylan and feels inspired to rush to the local mall to buy lingerie? The whole thing seems like a Media Studies scholar’s dream.
It’s been 15 years since the commercial originally aired. Whether it actually sold any bras, we’ll probably never know. Almost all celebrities are shills now, but I still wish I could’ve sat in on the marketing meetings leading up to the commercial, even if I know that no rational explanation would give me the same thrill as Dylan’s enigmatic stare.