BY JORDAN MAINZER
“Haaaaa-lle-luuuuuu-jahhhh.” During the first few weeks of my Freshman year of college, a few people hanging out in my friend’s room starting singing the American Idol favorite. I can’t remember whether it was the Leonard Cohen original, or the Jeff Buckley or John Cale version or a medley of the three. All I remember is the odd, yet fitting mix of singing voices, some better than others, and wanting to roll my eyes but not being able to muster the requisite cynicism. There’s something about the song that’s simultaneously so cliché and yet, so beautiful and personal. How did we get here? Author Alan Light has the answer.
Light’s new book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”chronicles the journey of Leonard Cohen’s unlikely staple: from the nadir of Cohen’s bleak sarcasm to the high spiritual reverence of churches. Along the way, Light insinuates fascinating questions about the relationship between the meaning and ownership of songs. Does a song’s context, whether historical or personal, trump its content? As Light points out, even overused songs like “Imagine” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are very much products of their creators in the public eye. Ask anybody on the street who wrote “Hallelujah”, however, and you’ll get a variety of answers, ranging from Jeff Buckley to “Oh, that song’s been around forever. I think it’s an old church hymn.” Yes, Cohen, while revered in the music world, has never achieved as much popularity as John Lennon or Simon and Garfunkel. The point, however, is that the song itself, from its actual lyrics to the types of mediums in which it has appeared, has changed and has become authorless as a result.
The song’s first major transition occurred in 1994. While Bob Dylan paid tribute to Cohen by playing the song live a number of years before and Nirvana namechecked Cohen with “Pennyroyal Tea”, Buckley, on his debut album Grace, turned the song from ironic to serious, both lyrically and in terms of performance. Cohen’s version featured backup singers, his quintessential song-talk delivery, and straight up keyboard cheese. Buckley’s, however, is whispered, ghostly, and lingering.
As Light confirms, Buckley’s version clearly inspired the song’s subsequent performances by countless sensitive dudes with guitars. A friend of mine once told me how much he hates the song because its singers often close their eyes and act as if they’re the deliverers of an emotionally transcendent experience. “Hallelujah” has now become a song that soundtracks weepy montages of natural disasters and emotional climaxes in movies. It’s now a song, according to Light, for people without answers.
Is this kind of cultural re-appropriation valid? More importantly, is it moral? Songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Pearl Jam’s “Alive” have transcended their original intention to become a misinterpreted political statement and a positive statement of resilience, respectively. Regarding “Born in the U.S.A.,” writer and television executive Bill Flanagan said, “You can say people misunderstood it as a patriotic anthem, but really, if you’re standing up in front of a football stadium singing, ‘Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.,’ it is kind of a patriotic anthem.” While a new interpretation based on momentary context is certainly valid, the morality of said interpretation depends on whether the (mis)appropriation of the song is used for good or bad, which are also obviously subjective or personal notions. “Born in the U.S.A” as a justification for American Exceptionalism is terrible. To look for “Hallelujah” for answers? Even if he admittedly reviles the versions by the excessively emotive Bon Jovi and Bono, Light recognizes that there’s something powerful about the song, one that places personal and sexual relationship struggles in a Biblical setting about as effectively as Patrick Stickles placed his in the setting of the United States Civil War. Light seems to approve.
Overall, Light has written an extremely well-researched profile of the history of one of today’s most recognizable songs. A former editor in chief for VIBE and Spin, Light has added another account to his already-impressive bibliography, which includes books on Tupac and The Beastie Boys and a biography of Gregg Allman, co-written with the man himself. Through the history of one song, Light questions purists of both content and context and essentially argues that the power of song lies in listener response. The real driving force of Light’s latest, however, is its endlessly fascinating subject matter: the song itself, a smorgasbord of heady concepts concretized a la Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, one that encapsulates religion, sex, love, life, and death .
With many powerful images, quotable lines, and unique deliveries, both Cohen’s and Buckley’s “Hallelujah” have cemented their place in music history. What’s important, however, is that everyone has a favorite version, from the John Cale version that appeared in Shrek to the Rufus Wainwright version that appeared on the Shrek soundtrack (yes, weirdly enough, that’s what happened). No matter the version, there’s something about the lyrics and the progression that sticks with the listener and maybe even helps them deal with something difficult. For a pop song, that’s pretty noble. How does it do it? I guess there really is a secret chord.
Jordan Mainzer is a staff writer at FP and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. He recently wrote reviews of A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP and Yo La Tengo’s Fade. A recent graduate of Brown University, he now lives in Chicago.