The last time Kesha made a major splash at the Billboard Music Awards was 2011, when she was up for six awards. This year, Kesha wasn’t nominated – not a surprise, since her recording career has stalled due her protracted legal battle with producer/label head Dr. Luke, whom she has accused of sexual and emotional abuse. (Dr. Luke has denied all allegations, and a judge dismissed Kesha’s claims last month.) But despite Kesha’s relative absence from the music scene, her performance at this Sunday’s BBMAs, held at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, was still the telecast’s most anticipated moment. And it was nothing less than an artistic and emotional triumph.
It’s a moment that almost didn’t happen at all. Some background information: Last week, it was announced by Dick Clark Productions that Kesha’s BBMAs performance with Ben Folds – not of one of her own songs, but of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” – would not take place, because Dr. Luke’s Sony-imprint record label, Kemosabe, had “rescinded its approval.” After a disappointed Kesha sang “It Ain’t Me, Babe” onstage with Folds at his May 18 show in Los Angeles, then explained in an Instagram post that she had only wanted to honor Dylan and had never intended “to use a picture of [Dr. Luke], speak of him, or allude to my legal situation in any way,“ Kemosabe backed off and gave her BBMAs performance the greenlight at the last minute.
So the show went on as planned, and it turned out that Kesha didn’t have to utter a single damning word about Dr. Luke or her legal struggles to make her point that she is ready to move on in her career. Her stunning performance said everything she needed to say, gorgeously, because it was a brave and bold departure from the wild, gimmicky, cartoonish numbers of her Kemosabe heyday.
Taking the stage in a conservative, vintage Nudie suit and tie, with accompaniment from pianist Folds and violinist Rob Moose, she tastefully, vulnerably belted the 1964 Dylan classic – showcasing a stellar voice that probably shocked many viewers only familiar with her Luke-produced, half-rapped novelty hits like “Tik Tok” and “Blah Blah Blah.” It was a somber, intense, and very raw and real moment in a night mostly dominated by fluff and frivolity. And unlike some BBMA performers (Britney Spears, Justin Bieber), Kesha was definitely singing live – and from the heart – the entire time.
A much-deserved standing ovation ensued, as Kesha (and surely many audience members) fought back tears.
And although the song’s lyrics may have originally pertained to a troubled romantic relationship, Dylan’s words took on new meaning in this emotionally charged context. “Go ‘way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed/I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need,” Kesha crooned, courageously staring down the camera lens. “You say you’re lookin’ for someone/Who’s never weak but always strong/To protect you an’ defend you/Whether you are right or wrong… But it ain’t me, babe… It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for.”