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Music

After a week of controversy, Kesha celebrates Bob Dylan at the Billboard Music Awards

Kesha performs at the Billboard Music Awards
Kesha performs at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Rare does a performance during the usually inconsequential Billboard Music Awards promise advance drama. On Sunday, though, tension reigned as embattled pop star Kesha performed in salute to Bob Dylan in advance of his 75th birthday. 

So much so that during the introduction, co-host Ludacris acknowledged the drama. “You may have heard a lot of stories this past week about whether or not our next artist was going to perform on this show,” he said.

Continued fellow host Ciara, “Well, I’m happy to say that the immensely talented Kesha is here and ready to go.” Notably absent was actor-director Lena Dunham, who was originally slated to introduce Kesha’s performance. That didn’t happen.

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With that, the camera panned to the singer standing on a stage in the middle of the theater. Wearing a white Nudie suit embroidered with a broken heart on each breast and crosses on her bell bottoms, the singer proceeded to deliver a rendition of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that was imbued with a sense that something real was at stake, something bigger than this annual major label infomercial usually provides.

Accompanied by pianist Ben Folds, who offered a minimal melody while a violinist traced a sparse arrangement, Kesha seemed fearless as she sang, as though the last few days had only emboldened her after a very public falling out with her record label and its owner, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.

Last week, Kesha’s appearance seemed in doubt after word came that Dr. Luke, whom she alleges sexually assaulted her earlier in her career, would exercise his contractual right and deny her permission to sing. Dr. Luke, who denies the allegations, eventually relented after being assured that the singer wouldn’t use the stage to air grievances. And Dunham’s absence was likely a concession.

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Kesha held up her end of the bargain and let the song send the message. 

On Thursday at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles, she previewed the Billboard performance when she joined Folds during his concert’s encore. The artists sat side by side on the piano bench, their take an incitement, a declaration of independence. 

The Billboard performance was more loaded. Dylan’s lyrics took on new meaning as a confident Kesha looked straight into the camera, words evolving over time to absorb current circumstances and emotions.

Ever malleable, the song in Kesha’s hands seemed less about the end of a romance than a defiant argument for creative freedom. 

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