It is the right, it may even be a requirement, of every generation to revise, or even reverse, the work of the generation before it, either through intention or misunderstanding. On those grounds I have no problem with Ke$ha’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. If she wants to turn a sarcastic kiss-off song into an ironic (in the Alanis Morisette definition of the word) “suicide note”, she’s free to do so with no complaint, no matter how mistaken it may seem to me and many others. I am free, however, to complain about the performance itself, which seems to me to wallow in just about every artistic fallacy that pop music is prone to, the least of which is accepting Alanis Morisette’s definition of irony and acting as if it made sense.
Anybody who writes seriously about pop music long ago resigned themselves to the fact that most performers define art as self-expression, and that, for them, self-expression generally means vomiting forth your emotions in a public arena and seeing what sticks. If something does, rinse and repeat. Most of the time this idea is underplayed and can be tolerated, especially if it comes with a good beat, but occasionally a performer will double down on this doubled fallacy and come up with something that is, if you sympathize with the performer’s situation, emotionally affecting; yet at the same time, whatever your feelings, it’s impossible to listen to.
According to Ke$ha, this recording came about because, while tracking the vocal for what she thought would be an entirely different version, she found herself connecting with the lyrics, as she interpreted them, far more strongly than she had anticipated, and she began to cry. Instead of cutting the take short, she soldiered on, and reworked the arrangement to fit the vocal track. It’s a sweet, touching story, if true, but it doesn’t excuse the result. It makes sense that Ke$ha’s version would be slower, but the irregular tempo here is so slow that the melody almost disappears, along with any sense of emotional dynamics, tension, or variation. Dylan’s version bounces back and forth between lyrical regret and deep sarcasm. Ke$ha’s starts at a single emotional pitch and stays there for the entire song. It could almost be described as emotional minimalism if it wasn’t for the constant, over the top sound of Ke$ha sobbing, snuffling, and sniffling, sounds as irritating to me as distorted electroclash synth bursts are to those who hate her pop records.
According to Popdust’s Katherine St. Asalph, many people, when they heard Ke$ha was recording this song, expected the worst: a bitchy, discoey version full of random electronic effects and Ke$ha’s sarcastic, braying vocals. If only. That would not only have been a closer fit to the song Dylan wrote, but would have been far better musically than what has appeared. I can already hear those who will say that Ke$ha is finally revealing her true self, that after bathing in artifice the last two years she has finally decided to be “authentic” (no doubt at least one of them will cite the influence of Adele). Let’s just hope that Ke$ha herself doesn’t buy into that idea. My belief is that she was overawed by the idea of recording a Dylan song (and on such a high profile project) and thought she had to do something serious and “different”, both from the original and from her own records. A temporary and understandable lapse. Fortunately, she has simultaneously released the latest remix (with Andre 3000, Lil Wayne, T.I., and Wiz Khalifa) of my favorite of her songs, “Sleazy”, which is joyfully inauthentic (whatever that may mean) and therefore closer to the truth. Long may she bray.