Seminal: How Bob Dylan’s Subtly Literary Victoria’s Secret Commercial Won Him the Nobel Prize

At Flavorwire, we often pay attention to the new, but we make sure to do so not at the expense of what’s come before it. In “Seminal,” a bi-weekly column, we examine earlier, under-acknowledged exemplars of dramatic mastery from revered actors’ careers — moments that should be described as, dare I say, seminal. This week’s a little different. Following Bob Dylan’s very expected literary Nobel Prize win, we decided to look back at the subtly literary moment of his career that we suspect helped him nab the prestigious award — his “Angels in Venice” Victoria’s Secret commercial. 

Some have argued that Bob Dylan didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature because he’s a songwriter, and lyrics aren’t books. And that is a compelling argument. But what people on both sides of the debate mistakenly overlook is that once, Bob Dylan did a Victoria’s Secret commercial, which I’d like to posit was a book. This renders him not only eligible, but wholly deserving. For, as the saying goes, one person’s bra commercial is the next person’s experimental novella. And taking this experimental novella into consideration, it would have been an outrage if he hadn’t won.

The experimental novella, which features Dylan in a showdown with an angel in a supportive brassiere, is clearly working in conjunction with the themes of Dylan’s born again Christian period, mashed up with the sensual, secular and cranky old man bitterness of the song to which it’s set, Time Out of Mind‘s “Lovesick.” Enlightened critics have classified this commercial as a novella (always a contentious subcategory for authors’ work to get lumped into, but, as the Nobel committee declared, “Dylan embraces it, as though he himself were a literary push-up bra, bolstering the form and squeezing it to meet its fullest potential”) due to the fact that it does, indeed, bear readable text. As the words “VICTORIA’S Angels In Venice SECRET” scroll across the screen, the reader is prompted to make an imaginative leap to bypass the words Angels in Venice and put the words Victoria’s and Secret together to understand that this is a promotional campaign for a bra. Is sparking such imaginative leaps not, quintessentially, what reading, at its best, does?

The pink used in the font, like the covers of Ferrante’s novels, is meant to both entice and discomfort with their signifiers of overwrought notions of femininity. The meta-commentary — and experimentalism, and novella-ism — of this work knows no bounds. And that plot. Hoo boy. It has all the Aristotelean unities.

The experimental novella opens on co-author Adriana Lima prowling around a Venetian Rococo hall, sporting angel wings and a breast-buttressing-brassiere. The interplay of the secular and the divine can be seen in the camera’s sudden shift from Lima’s angel wings to the “crevasse ‘twixt the jubblies,” as Dylan calls it in the experimental novella (sure, there’s no text of this, but part of Dylan’s novella writing prowess — and what makes his novellas so experimentally bold — is his ability to merely suggest the writing of literature).

And then, through the staring contest of that aforementioned crevasse and Dylan’s eyes, comes the question about the gaze. Is Dylan, who’s also prowling these halls, growling these words, suggesting the divinity of female support? Has he been born again…again by way of the padded cups? Or, is he casting the male gaze on this angel, cheaply eroticizing her, and thereby secularizing her? The tug-of-war between these potentialities provides the tonal tension of the book.

When Dylan’s cowboy hat falls, he’s relinquishing something, but what is it? Is it toxic, hyper-American masculinity? It’s as though the chameleonic, enigmatic genius is once again shedding an old identity — marking the shift from his in-hat period of 2004 to his not-in-hat period of seconds later in 2004. (Cate Blanchett was said to have drawn her inspiration for I’m Not There from BOTH periods illustrated in the novella.)

This gives way to another exceedingly ambiguous staring match between Dylan and the woman in the brassiere, the meaning of which the Nobel committee may still even to this day be debating. Once again, we’re led to wonder whether Dylan is lusting after the woman in the bra, or merely approving of her having found the right size, taking his role as the spokesperson for these architecturally perfect padded cups very seriously. It’s an ambiguity that also ties together his past works — for instance, the lyric “Please see if her hair hangs long/If it rolls and flows all down her breast” from “Girl of the North Country,” suddenly provokes the question: was the Girl of the North Country wearing a bra from the 2004 Victoria’s Secret Catalogue? Did she feel supported? Did Dylan show support for her being supported?

As you can see, there’s so much to be mined from Dylan’s experimental novella, from a tutorial on not bumping into chandeliers in Venetian palaces while wearing angel wings to a meditation on masculinity and breasts — far more than what anyone could say about Syrian poet Adunis, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, or Don DeLillo. But perhaps the greatest indicator of Dylan’s merit is his unflinching dedication to his authorship over his accolades. When the Associated Press reported on the experimental novella back in 2004, the chief creative officer of Victoria’s Secret noted that Dylan was immediately responsive to the idea. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer quickly agreed, although no one’s quite sure why,” wrote the AP, saying he was not at all a “hard sell.” If you take this — his quick response to make a seminal work of literature — alongside the notion that the Nobel committee still cannot get a hold of him to acknowledge his prize, and have actually given up, you see a pattern. Humble as always, Dylan’s two simple aims have always been to write powerful experimental literature and to ensure that women in 2004 buy bras.