Kesha performed Bob Dylan‘s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” on Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards to honor “one of my favorite songwriters of all time,” she wrote on social media in the days leading up to the telecast.
In doing “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Kesha joins a long list of performers who’ve had their way with the Dylan classic over the years. Between iTunes and Amazon, at least 130 different cover versions are for sale digitally. Since Johnny Cash covered it within months of Dylan’s original, and the Turtles had a No. 8 Hot 100 hit with it in 1965, the bitter ballad has been recorded by artists as disparate as Bryan Ferry, Band of Skulls, Nancy Sinatra, and Johnny Thunders. It’s been reinterpreted as jazz (Chris Potter), guitar instrumental (Duane Eddy), bluegrass (Flatt & Scruggs), soul (Maxine Weldon), spoken-word (Sebastian Cabot), reggae (Bob Andy & Marcia Griffiths), country (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon on the Walk the Line soundtrack), and the inevitable Voice blind audition (Bree Fondacaro). Perhaps the most popular 21st century version has been New Found Glory’s pop-punk recording, though it’s also been done recently by Fleet Foxes, Stars, and Hinds. Two years ago, Miley Cyrus performed “It Ain’t Me, Babe” several times on her Bangerz tour, as if to use its pointed lyrics as a final brush-off to anyone who still wanted her to be Hannah Montana.
Most of those artists presumably took to the tune because it’s a primo breakup song, not for the career-change subtext. But that angle was certainly implicit when singer/songwriter Sam Phillips did it as the closing number of the last show she ever did under the name of Leslie Phillips in the late ‘80s, ending her career as a contemporary Christian pop artist while hundreds of fans walked out on her as she used Dylan’s words to musically announce she was no longer theirs.
If its sour tone is unmistakable, Dylanologists still debate the bard’s true thematic intent. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” came as the closing number on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth and final all-acoustic album. Since it followed a peevish, penultimate track that was obviously about his breakup with Suze Rotolo, “Ballad in Plain D,” the climax also seemed to suggest Dylan was harboring a bad attitude about the recent split with the girlfriend who’d appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In a way, this song was his (sorry, Dylan fans) “Oops… I Did It Again,” with a singer who’d previously been anointed as a saint suddenly unafraid to paint himself as a possible cad — or true emotional independent — who’d never really gotten all that enmeshed with the ex he’s unsentimentally sending away.
But most Dylan fans have come to belief that its real meaning, or at least a dual one, is as a declaration of independence from a movement or career path. Writer Tim Riley called Another Side of Bob Dylan “a rock album without electric guitars,” and everything about it except the choice of instrumentation prefigured the “Dylan goes electric” mode he moved into on his following record. Even before he officially plugged in in ’65, Dylan’s move away from political to personal subject matter was already starting to draw the ire of folk enthusiasts, a bold shift that decades later served as the plotline of Martin Scorsese’s documentary, No Direction Home. The boyfriend who’ll “gather flowers constantly” and “open each and every door”? A reliable figure at protest rallies? For better or cavalier worse, Dylan wasn’t afraid to slough off either kind of romanticism.
So, whose expectations does Kesha mean to tell us she’s disregarding? Dr. Luke’s? The music industry’s? Anyone who ever enjoyed hearing her rap about morning whisky breath and expected a career’s worth of the same? Quite possibly all of the above — and to anyone who would rather hear her come back singing “Die Young,” she might have an additional message: Don’t think twice, it’s all right.