The generic genius of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

In his impressive new book The Holy or The Broken, veteran rock writer Alan Light meditates on “Hallelujah,” the song that may be the 20th century’s most influential and misunderstood secular hymn. In the way other books tell the story of a particular person, this is the biography of a song. Sure, it was penned by celebrated poet-writer-singer Leonard Cohen, but it is clearly much bigger than him or any of the hundreds of other artists who have interpreted it. It is regularly called one of the greatest songs of all time by people who should know about these things.

As a songwriter myself, as well as someone who has worked with songwriters for years, this is a fascinating book. Light reveals something surprising, and not all that comforting, about the modern popular culture’s power to pluck anything with commercial value out of obscurity and then profit wildly from it - even if that “something” is a maudlin meditation on personal failure, sexuality and fractured spirituality.

The original song was all but ignored by fans and critics. After being covered by alternative icon John Cale in 1989, “Hallelujah” was heard and covered by Jeff Buckley five years later. It then it appeared in an episode of the sitcom Scrubs and in a cartoon about a misunderstood ogre. Yes, the song’s unlikely (and arguably inappropriate) inclusion in the original Shrek movie was a big part of its ascendance. It has since been used in 9/11 tributes and in the wake of nearly every disaster since. It has appeared in countless television shows and is now one of the most frequently sung tunes on American Idol and other singing competitions. My wife was recently asked to sing it at a wedding! That’s just weird.

“Hallelujah,” as the book describes it, functions as a sort of spiritual Rorschach test. Listeners tend to hear the theology they bring to it more than what is, or isn’t, really there. Light unpacks as much of Cohen’s original intent behind the song as anyone possibly could. He explores the juxtaposition of Biblical images (David, Saul, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah) with shockingly crude sexual references sliding between those universally sing-able choruses. Cohen, Light asserts, continues in a long tradition of Jewish songwriters as he details failure and pain but then ends with the Hebrew admonition to “praise the Lord.” As has been the case with most of his oeuvre, he artfully explores depression, isolation, abuse and the ugly side of interpersonal love with elements of faith serving the role of dim lighting in a dark room.

 

 

Cohen is an observant Jew and a Zen Buddhist priest. According to Light, he consciously intended to marry the sacred and the profane in the song, thereby “liberating” the concept of hallelujah from anything specifically religious. He claims to have labored over the song for years, crafting some 80 verses before settling on the four or five we know. But after all that work he is supposedly happy for the world to adopt the song and use it however it wants.

We sure seem to love songs and stories that can tickle our spiritual longings without demanding anything of us. “Hallelujah” doesn’t ask us to believe anything or to respond in any particular way. We can sing the tune, feel something emotional and then move along our own path as if there is no God and no instructions for living and loving in His world. That may not be what Cohen intended, but if Bon Jovi is singing a song about sex and loneliness at a memorial service, that’s what’s happening.

On one hand, I’m encouraged that maybe the popularity and universality of a song like “Hallelujah” points to humanity’s continued hunger for God. However, that that hunger seems to be placated by a song so disconnected from the Gospel is frustrating. No doubt the universality of the song is part of its genius, but I’m not sure that it’s actually praising the Lord if by “praise” we simply mean “sing” and by “Lord” we really mean “something comforting that may or may not really be there.”

But boy can we sing “Hallelujah.”

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I’m wondering what you are trying to say here, is it that you don’t like the song because of it’s incomplete gospel.  If so what did you expect?  Are you saddened by the popular adoption of the song with little to no regard for it’s meaning?  Welcome to America.  The song is beautiful in a tragic way. It paints a picture of flawed humans crying out for something more than broken human love, and using “Praise the Lord” to make that cry. It’s a very emotion filled song (as the best songs are) and as such makes great fodder for competition shows where feeling sometimes trumps quality.  I think we need to see this song as what it is, evidence of the need for the “most excellent way.” (1 Cor. 13) I guess my question here is: What did you hope to find in this song?  Because, it sounds like you didn’t find it.

“a sort of spiritual Rorschach test. Listeners tend to hear the theology they bring to it”

Thank you for getting down in words what has been niggling at me about this song, John. Like other attempts to mean something to everyone, it ends up being about nothing. Hey, it’s just like Seinfeld!

Tim

First, love the fact that you’re drawing attention to that book - I thought it was a great, fascinating read as well.

Second, it seems to me like Cohen’s original arrangement has some specifically Christian value to it, if for no other reason but it charts the search for the spiritual in love and sex and comes up empty and hurting. That’s what makes Cohen’s last line “and even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but hallelujah” very beautiful to me. I feel like in there is something very close to “blessed are the poor in spirit ...”

Third, you’re right to note that the following versions (especially Buckley’s) remove almost all of the spiritual resonance in favor of something far more sensual. Although even there I find it interesting that a human’s need to worship SOMETHING is so profound that just the chanting of “hallelujah” is attractive to people.

Maybe it’s just my “us against the world” Baptist upbringing, but I always get encouraged by reminders that humanity is spiritually thirsty and looking for answers.

Good points, JP. The second one in particular has a very Ecclesiastes inclination to it!

Tim

I have not read the new book, but I have heard and read quite a bit about it.  The song itself has always resonated with me.  First, being familiar with the biblical references, something very poignant and moving in the imagery delivery of these lines.  Yes, the more I heard the song, the more I realized the other things included.  If sexual imagery has no place next to theological references, then perhaps we should remove The Song Of Solomon from The Bible.
I’ve heard many different versions of the song now and they pretty much all get to me.  With one exception, I thought Adam Sandler butchered it at the 121212 concert.  I know that was supposed to be funny, but I like this song too much to hear what he did to it.
The biblical points touched on deal with great charactors in Bible history who suffered when enticed by their own lusts.  This is still the downfall of many today, both great and small.  Perhaps that’s why it resonates so well.  Perhaps that’s why it’s melancholy delivery seeps into the hearer.  Do we see ourselves in moments of potential downfall, perhaps knowing, and yet unable to resist.  I don’t know, I just like the song.

This is a challenging and beautiful post, I think. As a musician, I find myself strongly pulled in both directions, but I share your bewilderment with this particular Cohen song. The first time I heard it, I could sense that there was something elusively beautiful about it…but the more I studied the lyrics, the more convinced I became that I was simply entranced by the melodic contours and hints of something profound that, alas, I couldn’t seem to grasp.

This song has been on my mind a lot since Christmastime, when KLOVE was playing a rather refreshing (and explicitly, unapologetically, and inescapably plain Christian) cover on the piece based loosely on the Gospel of Luke. If Cohen’s song was designed to be a catalyst for religious meditation, regardless of the theology one brings to it, then I’d say it’s a success in its own way…and this Christian radio appropriation of Cohen’s work proves its enduring power.

Yes, the population is ignorant of theology.  Is that any reason to condemn them?  Or an opportunity to evangelize? 

See my response at http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/faith/

 

The article’s tone (to me) is more of an example of where religion fails, than a critique of where the song Hallelujah has gone wrong. “Religion”, once again try’s to interpret (in a negative way, as usual) than trust in the power of g-d.

to me, ANY song, poem, painting, etc that can put the name of g-d on people’s lips, and connect our feeble attempts at life here with something higher, should be applauded.

g-d can use anything at anytime….............

The Jewish term (again, as I understand it), Hallelujah is more of a call to praise/worship (verb).

I would choose to defer. I totally believe gospel is as a result of our faith in Christ Who is God, therefore a song that tries to assume the existence of God as in verse 5 line 1, therefore am totally convinced that its not gospel. the use of the word hallelujah might be controversial. The bible records not all who cry “lord lord ” shall see heaven

I Think Its A Moral Lesson For Gods People Who Are Tempted To Earthly Love Which Leads To Frustrations

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