On January 24, Amnesty International USA will release Chimes of Freedom, a 76-song collection of Bob Dylan covers by artists from Miley Cyrus to Pete Seeger. By “liking” the album’s Facebook page, you can listen to the whole thing now. While it’ll take a while to digest dozens of performances by more than 80 artists, Ke$ha’s startling, naked rendition of breakup ballad “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” — originally from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is already standing out as one of the most conversation-worthy entries.
The glittery 24-year-old rapper-singer recently told SPIN her favorite album is Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, so she isn’t coming out of nowhere here. Even so, Ke$ha’s Chimes of Freedom contribution could hardly be more of a departure from electro-pop hits like “Your Love Is My Drug” and “Tik Tok.” With an emotion-wracked vocal recorded in a single take on her laptop, joined eventually by only the most minimally buzzing swell, the cover could almost pass for an outtake by confessional indie-rock heroine EMA. By the end, you’ll hear audible weeping. Is it brave? Sure. Commendable? Definitely. But there’s also something a little sad about Ke$ha going the “authentic” route, and it’s not just the song’s painful subject matter. It’s that the song suggests she’s underestimating her own — and Dylan’s — strengths.
Here’s the thing: Why would anyone, let alone Ke$ha, ever want to make a song that could be damned with a faint golf clap of a word like “commendable”? Great pop music is supposed to offend polite tastes, goddammit — and this someone who has previously shown she can kickstart a party while also making wriggly, distinctive, sonically adventurous pop music. She co-wrote one of SPIN’s Best Songs of 2011, Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends.” She held her own alongside a rare guest verse from OutKast rapper nonpareil Andre 3000 on a criminally underrated remix of her own “Sleazy.” Ke$ha is already great at being Ke$ha. She told Rolling Stone she “didn’t want this to sound like a pop version of a Bob Dylan song” — but a far worse thing would be if her music ever started sounding like a Dylan version of a Ke$ha song. There are more than enough poe-faced strummers in the world already.
So yes, by all means, listen to Ke$ha’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and praise her for it. If this is what it takes for self-consciously serious music fans to realize there might be more to this previously hedonistic pop star than they see on the surface — though it’s partly that she’s smart enough to remember pop should have an appealing surface — well, great! It’s an inventive cover of a classic song, reverent enough to be irreverently original. And if Ke$ha’s next album is weird in a home-demo way rather than a million-dollar-studio way, thus opening up the pop charts’ recent genre-mashing free-for-all even further, hey, all the better.
But Ke$ha also told SPIN she’s “inspired by the honesty in [Dylan’s] lyrics,” and that’s the last thing we want to hear from her. Because Dylan is, if anything, pop’s ultimate trickster, the greatest liar of them all, the enigmatic shape-shifter who went from seemingly earnest folkie of his early albums to the inscrutable stylist of Nashville Skyline and beyond, to the Christian rocker of Slow Train Coming, and on through to the Americana magpie of his recent albums. If you’re listening to Dylan for honesty, you’re missing a huge part of the point.
So far, Ke$ha has been pretty good at manipulating public image herself, shamelessly appealing to hedonism without condescending or sanding off her eccentricities. She approaches the pop music’s ubiquitous “club” from the perspective of a woman who can keep up with not only the Drakes and the Weeknds of the world, but the dumbed-out Flo Ridas and 3OH!3s, too. So it’d be a shame if she went bland on us now. Then again, that might be more pleasant than if she turns all cock rock… but shit, what do we know? Here’s hoping whatever Ke$ha’s next move may be, she keeps on not giving a fuck.