The minor fall and the major lift
December 16, 2011 3:28 AM   Subscribe

This week, a reality show contestant performed a song once described as an "epic, gospel-tinged ballad of desire and rejection, love and sex, God and man, failure and transcendence, the inevitability of death and triumph of the spirit against the greatest odds". Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

Previously, though the original link is now dead, we discussed the cultural journey of the song, and it's seemingly rapid mainstreaming into popular culture. From Rufus Wainwright's version for the Shrek soundtrack, through Jeff Buckley's version underpinning a harrowing montage from The West Wing, the song quickly became the go-to soundtrack for pop culture misery and disaster (and occasionally, really bad sex scenes, prompting yet further debate).

The song has been covered by over 200 artists beginning with John Cale, been the subject of documentaries, and managed to be both number one and number two at the same time in the British Christmas charts in 2008.

Amazingly, when performed live in the 1980s, the song rarely comprised the same lyrics (some suggesting that up to fifteen verses exist).

What is that turns the song into a lasting anthem? The chord progression? The Biblical signifiers?

And how does Cohen himself feel about the song's enduring popularity? There was a certain sense of a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart. But I don't, you know, I was happy about it but it's I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said - "Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?'' And I kind of feel the same way.

Previously in Welsh.
posted by szechuan (73 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was not convinced by Josh's version when I first heard it, even though he's my favourite contestant (I'm writing this before watching the results show - don't spoil!). But it holds up after another couple of listens - different enough to previous versions while still retaining what really makes the song work.

Off to watch the results now...
posted by benzo8 at 3:36 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Phew...
posted by benzo8 at 3:39 AM on December 16, 2011


I hope it's better than the cover that one of the UK X Factor contestants sang back in 2008.

Despite an internet campaign to purchase Jeff Buckley's version, it became the UK Christmas Number One that year. Buckley's came in at number two.
posted by MykReeve at 3:43 AM on December 16, 2011


What is that turns the song into a lasting anthem? The chord progression? The Biblical signifiers? And how does Cohen himself feel about the song's enduring popularity?

A couple years ago I asked a variant of this question, and an acquaintance in Toronto had this response:

"You legally do not need a reason to sing 'Hallelujah'. That's a law. Yeah it's a Canadian law, but Leonard Cohen's presence, even just one of his songs, converts the affected area into Canadian territory for the duration."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:49 AM on December 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


I saw John Cale perform this live at the piano in Islington's Union Chapel a few years ago. In that setting, long before the song's recent over-use, it proved every bit as profound and transcendent as Cohen could have hoped when he wrote it.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:50 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's right in the top of my pantheon of songs overplayed to the point of being absolutely meaningless. Like "Amazing Grace," whatever power might have once been there has been winnowed away to an emotional shorthand by its constant, overwrought invocation. Your mileage may vary, but for me Cohen's "Hallelujah," regardless of what it once was, is now a salute to the lifeless repetition of Western culture.

Hell, we use "anthem" as a term for cultural touchstone songs, but when I think of anthems, I think of Americans droning out "O Say Can You Seeeeeeeeeeeeee" with all the inspiration and soulful delight of a tax accountant reviewing figures on Schedule C.

All the words turn to clouds, all the clouds float in sequence, no one knows what they mean, everyone just ignores them.

Maybe I'm just never in the right place at the right time.
posted by sonascope at 3:55 AM on December 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


I liked the Alexandra Burke version. There's a bunch of hatred currently doing the rounds for Leona Lewis' version of Hurt. Say what you like about people who love the likes of Cohen or Reznor, but they fucking despise it when their holy music is translated from the original Latin to common English.
posted by seanyboy at 3:57 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Two of my daughter's 13 year old classmates sang Hallelujah at the end-of-Australian-school-year concert yesterday and blew me away. Made me cry, actually. I love the song, all versions, but seeing these two girls attempt it - amongst a setlist including Smells Like Teen Spirit, Tik Tok and Horror Movie (Skyhooks, youtube it, non-Australians) - warmed my cynical old heart.

I love it, and I can't hear it enough, and goddamnit szechuan, there go my plans for getting to bed at a civilised hour on a Friday night.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:02 AM on December 16, 2011


I had never really gotten to know it before the MetaFilter Music Hallelujah challenge. I figured if so many Mefites were covering it, it must be worth checking out, and lord it was. The title of this post, those lines in the song, there's just something outlandishly perfect about them, moreso than, honestly, any lyric I've heard in just about any other piece of music ever.

And, if you want to hear awesome, check out the version that Jon_Evil did, Skallelujah. I still listen to that one.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:11 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


re: cultural journey of the song: My impression is that this got onto a lot of people's radar via the Jeff Buckley cover, which was well known long before the West Wing.
posted by memebake at 4:25 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's a bunch of hatred currently doing the rounds for Leona Lewis' version of Hurt.

She did WHAT? Oh good grief, I don't even want to know about that. Hurt achieved the impossible when it was covered in a way that not only transcends the original, but which gets the song's writer to acknowledge that the cover is better. I honestly cannot imagine a version by Leona Lewis that would do anything other than throwing the earth off-axis thanks to the speed of Johnny Cash spinning in his grave.
posted by ZsigE at 4:27 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


*sigh*
posted by seanyboy at 4:30 AM on December 16, 2011


Obligatory link to Metafilter Music "Hallelujah" Challenge (from 2009) results: here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:31 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


We often listen to the Adult Alternative channel on Pandora (through our Tivo), as background noise when we're reading in the evenings. It seems as if each of their stations has at least one song that they put in higher rotation than others, and is really the "brand standard". For the AA station, it's Hallelujah. Doesn't matter what version, we hear it at least four times a night.

Not that I'm complaining. I was just talking to a coworker today about how I may be the only person in America who was turned on by it in The Watchmen.
posted by librarianamy at 4:48 AM on December 16, 2011


*sigh*

Heh. Yeah, I know, this is mostly nerdrage. For all I know it's actually a beautiful cover that knocks Cash's one out of the park. It's an instinctive reaction when I hear that the long tentacles of Simon Cowell are finding their way into yet another modern classic.
posted by ZsigE at 4:48 AM on December 16, 2011


You've heard it sung so many times,
Like witnessing a string of crimes
While mixed up cops surround you and subdue you.
Oh, not again, this fucking song,
It feels like it's an hour long,
So at the end you do cry Hallelujah.

(But MeFi Music Challenge 21 is pretty funny.)
posted by pracowity at 4:54 AM on December 16, 2011 [30 favorites]


seanyboy: "There's a bunch of hatred currently doing the rounds for Leona Lewis' version of Hurt. Say what you like about people who love the likes of Cohen or Reznor, but they fucking despise it when their holy music is translated from the original Latin to common English."

My problem with the Leona Lewis version is nothing to do with her actually singing, or the production. Modern pop producers do an incredible job, generally, with far, far poorer material.

No, my problem is the complete lack of believability of Leona Fucking Lewis singing those lyrics and trying to emote like it means something to her... "The needle tears a hole" - oh yeah? What needle would that be then, Leona - incompetent nurse mess up your flu shot?

Give me a break! Lyrics are not just noises... Great interpreters of songs make you believe - Lewis is not in that pantheon, and so the song just rings false to me.
posted by benzo8 at 4:55 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


My first conscious exposure to Hallelujah was probably, um, maybe five years ago? I remember it as clearly as 9/11, in all seriousness. I was playing World of Warcraft, and I was going through the horribly grindy Nesingwary quest chain in Nagrand, where you have to kill about 50 each of three types of wild critter. Those quests take forever, and are terribly boring.

I was just noodling along, shooting things kind of absentmindedly, when Jeff Buckley's version came on Radio Paradise. I'd guess it actually penetrated my skull about thirty seconds in, and it stopped me absolutely dead in my tracks. I just sat there listening, floored. When it finished, I left my avatar standing there, alt-tabbed away, looked up what album it was, and bought it on the spot.

Only later did I find out about all drama around Buckley and his untimely death, or find out how famous a song that was, and how overused it was. For me, in that place and at that time, it was completely new, with no prior expectations of any kind. It gave me real, physical shivers.

So, yeah, it's used too much. It's overexposed. But it was still possible, as of about five years ago, for someone to really hear it for the first time, and for it to sear its way into that brain indelibly. I remember exactly where I was standing, I believe down to the actual single tree, and certainly to within fifty yards. Five-ish years later, I could lead you straight there. "That tree, right there, in the clump, not too far from the quest giver. That was where I listened to Hallelujah for the first time."

I just wish I'd heard it during a better quest chain, because the Nagrand Nesingwary crap sucks. Of all the freaking quests to have burned into my brain cells forever. Argh.

So, thanks a whole lot, Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen, both absolutely literally, and with just a touch of bitter sarcasm.
posted by Malor at 5:01 AM on December 16, 2011 [17 favorites]


I like the song in general, ever since I heard it for the first time when I listened to "Grace" driving across the east coast on my first one man road trip.

That said, I was a bit weird-ed out when I realized that it has become a Christmas song.
posted by drezdn at 5:16 AM on December 16, 2011


I apologize for knowing this, but it's actually been covered by reality show contestants quite a bit. Multiple times on American Idol alone.

Again, I apologize.

And on the moratorium issue, one of my pals wrote about this for my blog a year ago. My favorite line:

The end result is the pop-music equivalent of the Galapagos Islands: what was once a pristine enclave of almost preternatural gorgeousness has been ruined with extensive tourism by well-meaning admirers.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:23 AM on December 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was a bit weird-ed out when I realized that it has become a Christmas song.


....Okay, what? Seriously?

Man, I thought it was weird they used it in the Opening Ceremony for the Vancouver Olympics. (Think about it: "Yay! We're all nations coming together in peace and harmony and the fun of sports! I know, let's sing a song about doomed love affairs and bitterness!")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:34 AM on December 16, 2011


I wouldn't mind all the covers if they attempt to express the meaning of the song, but instead ever single cover seems to be a contest as to how pretty somebody can sing a song.

It's a fine song with a good, clean, classic chord sequence. But it's not a pretty song. Its touchstone is, after all, King David, who murdered a man because he was sexually obsessed with the man's wife, and that theme of sexual obsession runs through it. It was not written nor sung by a man with a pretty voice, and the only reason I can imagine for singing it as pretty is as ironic counterpoint to its lyrics, which none of the covers I have heard seem to convey.

I don't want anymore pretty version of this song. I want to hear it made ugly. Or scary. Or obsessed. Or any of the other myriad interpretations of the lyrics that don't rely on showcasing how sweet your voice is. I'd like to hear more like John Cale's.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:35 AM on December 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Give me a break! Lyrics are not just noises...

Actually, this varies a lot between people. I pretty much just hear lyrics as noises. I could probably name two lines from Hallelujah (the first one and the chorus), and I've heard it hundreds of times. It just sounds like a pretty song to me.
posted by smackfu at 6:05 AM on December 16, 2011


From way back in 2008, Mitch Benn comments in song on the misuse of Hallelujah.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:08 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


New Leonard Cohen album coming out next month! Three song preview.
posted by gwint at 6:14 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great post, but I can't bring myself to favorite it because I'm so damned sick of the song.

Sorry.
posted by Trurl at 6:17 AM on December 16, 2011


The actual movie sountrack to Shrek used Cale's version. The CD of the soundtrack substituted Wainright (I heard this is because Rufus was signed to Sony, the soundtrack's label, and they wanted to promote their own artist).
To me, Cale's version is the best of the bunch, even better than Cohen's (it's a forgettable track on Various Positions)
posted by rocket88 at 6:25 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


An interviewer asked Nick Cave about his well-known policy of never licensing his music. I don't recall his exact words, but they were something like, "If a guy buries his best friend to Into My Arms, how is he going to feel when he hears it being used to sell laundry detergent?"
posted by vanar sena at 6:25 AM on December 16, 2011 [17 favorites]


Nina Simone's version on this bootleg of her I have is probably the best I've ever heard. The song is so successful because when you pare it down to nothing it has even more resonance.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:28 AM on December 16, 2011


I would love to see a moratorium on anyone under 40 singing this song. It just can't be done justice by someone who hasn't taken a lot of shit in their lives.
posted by Gilbert at 6:38 AM on December 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Say what you like about people who love the likes of Cohen or Reznor, but they fucking despise it when their holy music is translated from the original Latin to common English.

An utterly mad metaphor. Cohen and Reznor aren't arcane examples of high art, they are popular artists whose work has been heard by hundreds of thousands of people. It is hard to think of a more accessible art form; there is no translation here whatsoever and nor is there any need.

A lot of people like the original versions of both of those songs. Even more people than that know them for the superb cover versions by Buckley and Cash which perfectly capture the sentiment of the originals. Given this, it is hard not to see the Burke and Lewis versions as massive hubris.

I like both ('Bleeding Love' is an awesome pop song) but I like them when they play to their strengths and if you are going to do a cover, why not pick one you can stamp your own identity on? (Lewis, of course, did exactly when she covered Snow Patrol and I don't remember anyone taking her to task for that.)
posted by ninebelow at 6:42 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would love to see a moratorium on anyone on a reality show singing this song. We get it, Cowell, you like the song. But forcing it on yet another finalist in your competition cheapens it.
posted by moviehawk at 6:43 AM on December 16, 2011


It's an instinctive reaction when I hear that the long tentacles of Simon Cowell are finding their way into yet another modern classic.


Lyrics are not just noises... Great interpreters of songs make you believe

I can't bring myself to link to it, but Susan Boyle's cover of Enjoy The Silence, courtesy of Simon Cowell, enraged me. I'm sure it's on Youtube. And this trend of anodyne covers of emotional songs shows so little respect for the songwriter. Recent UK X Factor winners songs also include a Biffy Clyro song about domestic violence and this year, Cannonball by Damien Rice, stripped of all genuine emotion, but with added unnecessary key change and choir.
posted by khites at 6:44 AM on December 16, 2011


kd lang singing it at the Vancouver Olympics was weird. But Steven Page singing it at Jack Layton's funeral made me bawl like an infant.

It's used as a shorthand for 'this is an emotional moment' in a lot of places where it makes no sense, lyrically speaking, but then, people play Garth Brooks' The Dance as their wedding song, and it's about a couple that broke up, so it's clear that it's not really the lyrics that speak to people much of the time. At least not those outside the chorus.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:51 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yep. people don't even notice the rest of a song when you give them a catchy chorus to sing. Just the words "Hallelujah" (or "I can't get no satisfaction" or whatever) is enough to sell a general emotional meaning to people.
posted by pracowity at 6:58 AM on December 16, 2011


But Steven Page singing it at Jack Layton's funeral made me bawl like an infant.

I haven't been able to listen to it since I heard it at Jack's funeral.
posted by Jairus at 7:05 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm probably going to get some flack for this, but I can't be the only one who feels that the first artist (of many, many, many) to butcher this song was Jeff Buckley, can I? His voice lacked the proper type of emotion that gives the song its true power. He was missing the authority, the weariness, and the strained years that are required to move it past potential yuletide material. Buckley's was just too nice, the sound of a sensitive prettyboy in the freshman co-ed dorms singing and playing a song from his dad's record collection in order to weed out which girls might not be interested in the football team (or in the very least to get a late night drunken blowjob - he just needs to put the guitar down and turn on a U2 cd first).

Honestly, I prefer Cohen's own live versions, from his recent touring, first, followed by John Cale's, then L.C.'s tinny cocaine-and-Casios take on Various Positions. After that, well, I think I prefer to not hear it at all.

I spent a year or so obsessed with Hallelujah, an embarrassing year also steeped in pathetic self loathing and general disrespect for anything that could be seen as upbeat or cheerful. Because of that connection, it's a difficult song for me to be constantly bombarded with at the grocery store, in the mall, or wherever else schmaltzy music is piped in to mask subliminal advertising messages.
posted by item at 7:12 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


The first time I heard that song was while watching Shrek in a theater. I remember immediately thinking I am hearing one of those songs. It was like the first time I heard Jimmy the Exploder by the White Stripes. Love in three seconds.
posted by zzazazz at 7:19 AM on December 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yes, Buckley is the first, thus worst, of the butchers for me. I think BunnyUltramod describes the reasons well.

If I knew my way around video editing software, I'd pull a bunch of of scenes from the Spielberg face video and make the soundtrack the shmaltziest version of Hallelujah I could find. Then I'd probably go self-harm for a bit.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:19 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not a bad sex scene when she leaves her boots on.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


people play Garth Brooks' The Dance as their wedding song, and it's about a couple that broke up, so it's clear that it's not really the lyrics that speak to people much of the time. At least not those outside the chorus.

They also play One by U2 and Green Day's Good Riddance (a.k.a. "Time of your Life"). One is about a psycopathic, hypocritical bitch and the other is another breakup song.

What can I say? People are stupid and make bad assumptions. Hell, people still think that Born in the USA is patriotic.
posted by Talez at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love this song and I love Leonard Cohen. I might not be dialed in enough to have heard it in Shrek or the Watchmen or via Simon Cowell in any way. It gives me the chills and makes me think about the connection between love, sex and spirituality when I hear it and if that makes me a deluded cheeseball, again, I don't really care. I haven't heard many of the butchered versions but if I had it would just make me look for Leonard on youtube or pandora and listen to him over and over again, preferably in the rain.
posted by bquarters at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2011


There was a guy at my wife's church who did an incredible and moving version of this song that included him playing a trumpet solo... while continuing to play the piano. Oh, yeah, did I mention he's completely blind too? I'm not much of a churchgoer, more of a church hater, even for her Unitarian church, but it was fucking awesome.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:08 AM on December 16, 2011


I'm with bquarters. This song speaks to my heart. My heart weary heart. I agree with those who say that artists that ignore the *meaning* of the words are annoying.
Even in X factor and Idol -- contestants are told to be storytellers.
This made me go look at some of the versions on Youtube.I had to stop reading when I saw someone say how awesome it was at their grandpa's funeral...
wtf Add to that the chorus of people declaring it to be a Jesus loves you song ??!!
(hmmm all of the references are old testament "but you needed proof had to see her on the roof" / "maybe there's a god above".


Yeah, I get that people don't listen beyond the resonating chorus. But damn, the rest of the song and the lyrics are gorgeous.
To me, it just makes them look foolish to use it where the meaning is lost and worse, inappropriate.
And, I know I'm writing to the choir, but I had to vent after those crazy Youtube comments.
posted by Librarygeek at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2011


people play Garth Brooks' The Dance as their wedding song, and it's about a couple that broke up, so it's clear that it's not really the lyrics that speak to people much of the time. At least not those outside the chorus.

They also play One by U2 and Green Day's Good Riddance (a.k.a. "Time of your Life"). One is about a psycopathic, hypocritical bitch and the other is another breakup song.


And don't forget the Police's sinister Every Breath You Take as another uncomfortable wedding song, danced to by many a bride and groom back in the day.
posted by lily_bart at 8:30 AM on December 16, 2011


When kd lang covered it at the Olympics, my mom mentioned on the phone that it was one of her favorite songs.

I told her it was by Leonard Cohen and she was aghast.

Backstory: As a teen, I used to play Cohen's first two LP's out in the yard, on speakers we took out there. This was right by the beach in So Cal, and beachgoers would walk by, and it was the perfect counterpoint to the whole Surf City mythos. My mom, a number of times, expressed worry that I would love such bleak music.

I still do, Mom, and apparently you do also.
posted by Danf at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Say what you like about people who love the likes of Cohen or Reznor, but they fucking despise it when their holy music is translated from the original Latin to common English.

Nah, it just gets under their skin when facetious fame whores make a mess of a beautiful thing. Or as has already been noted with a little more charity:

The end result is the pop-music equivalent of the Galapagos Islands: what was once a pristine enclave of almost preternatural gorgeousness has been ruined with extensive tourism by well-meaning admirers.
posted by philip-random at 9:05 AM on December 16, 2011


Thanks for all the great comments in this thread...

I'm kind of a media recluse - don't really pay much attention to tv or commercial radio - but I'm very happy with the way Hallelujah has penetrated my head. I remember watching Shrek with my kids and thinking, "wow, is that John Cale?" And then the Internet says it was Louden Wainwright? And then it really got me into listening a lot more carefully to Leonard Cohen.

In American Zen there's this idea of "letters from emptiness" (I don't know if it's a real Thing, or just a line from a talk). But it's the idea that if you can be open to it, sometimes reality can reach around through unexpected channels and speak in a way that is very moving. That's my experience of this song - probably because I never expected to like it. Plus we're on the verge of having an annual Halleujah discussion, which can't be bad, right?

Heads off to listen to Skallelujah...
posted by sneebler at 9:50 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


seanyboy: "I liked the Alexandra Burke version. There's a bunch of hatred currently doing the rounds for Leona Lewis' version of Hurt. Say what you like about people who love the likes of Cohen or Reznor, but they fucking despise it when their holy music is translated from the original Latin to common English."

Can't be worse than Miley Cyrus covering Smells Like Teen Spirit. *shudder*
posted by symbioid at 9:59 AM on December 16, 2011


I remember watching Shrek with my kids and thinking, "wow, is that John Cale?" And then the Internet says it was Louden Wainwright?

The version in the film was John Cale's. If you bought the soundtrack album, the soundtrack album has Rufus Wainwright's (Rufus is Louden's son).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2011


Is this the right place to bring up the oddly subdued version of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" that was on Glee the other night?
posted by redsparkler at 10:12 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's clear that it's not really the lyrics that speak to people much of the time. At least not those outside the chorus.

Ronald Reagan's braintrust wanted an anthem for his 1984 re-election bid that would've seen the Gipper enter arenas and auditoria to claim there'd never been a better or more optimistic moment in the American century as a voice over the loudspeaker screamed:
Born down in a dead man's town
First kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just coverin' up

Born in the USA
So yeah, I think it's the beat and the chorus more than the lyrics and tone for most people. (Springsteen, for the record, told Reagan's people to leave his song alone, thanks, which is Reason No. 2,293 to love the Boss.)

As for "Hallelujah," my favourite version will always be kd lang's because I saw her perform it this summer at the Calgary Folkfest just after dark with my six-year-old daughter resting on my arm and singing quietly along. (She knows it and loves it from Shrek. Not sure how I feel about that, but it beats the hell out of Katy Perry so maybe I should be thankful.) Which goes to show, I guess, that even if you do know the lyrics and their aching Cohenesque meaning, you can still just sit back with someone you love and wonder at the power and glory of a great song perfectly sung and have it thereby define a moment of perfect transcendent tenderness.
posted by gompa at 10:12 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


k.d. lang owns this song more than anyone except Cohen himself and she sings it perfectly. Cohen himself was impressed. Also, I agree with Gilbert about not really wanting to hear young singers do this song.
posted by Anitanola at 10:37 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


This paragraph from the first link about Cohn's writing process really struck me (and comes thru in the existential angst)

He claims there are at least 80 verses to Hallelujah. "I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.'
posted by Librarygeek at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2011


Can't be worse than Miley Cyrus covering Smells Like Teen Spirit. *shudder*

Look, I stayed out of the thread because I have nothing of value to contribute to a discussion of "Hallelujah" and/or Leonard Cohen, but I can't let that pass.

Miley Cyrus' cover of "Teen Spirit" is PERFECT. It is the summation of what happened to American popular music. It is the soulless creature staring back at us from the mirror, wondering if perhaps a little more lip gloss and foundation will hide the squirming maggots. It is absolutely everything Nirvana always deserved, the hollowed-out husk at the end of it all, and it's a goddamn shame Kurt Cobain was such a coward that he didn't live to hear it. It is shameless, it is the bleak black nihilistic heart throbbing in the chest of the filthy crow plucking the rotted meat from the corpse of the American songbook. It is brilliant, it is eternal, it is PERFECT.

/derail
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:17 AM on December 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


.
posted by Jairus at 11:18 AM on December 16, 2011


Out of curiosity, I checked, and I have 6 versions of Hallelujah in iTunes.

And one Ryan Adams song that just has the same title.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:52 PM on December 16, 2011


That Glee version of "girls just want to have fun" was lovely.
posted by seanyboy at 12:59 PM on December 16, 2011


Like "Amazing Grace," whatever power might have once been there has been winnowed away to an emotional shorthand by its constant, overwrought invocation.

One way to get the power back is to listen to unfamiliar verses. (there are 15 for Hallelujah?)

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2011


Here's the ballad-style Girls Just Want To Have Fun cover...i think it impressed me because, unlike Hallelujah, it's not a song that pops into your head as being deep and meaningful, but hey, I think they made it a thing.

Also, I've heard tell of a venue in California with posted signs banning covers of Hallelujah.
posted by redsparkler at 2:22 PM on December 16, 2011


Bitter Old Punk, you're absolutely right, but Gah. Cyrus and her ilk should be banned from covers, as there's literally nothing they can't make worse. What's next, Bieber doing a peppy version of Chapman's Fast Car, with a video based on pretty young things zipping around a generic city in cars that go fast?

as for wedding music, after it was explained to me that Hikaru Utada's song First Love is a break up song, we started paying a hell of a lot more attention to the songs we picked.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:29 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


managed to be both number one and number two

Heh.
posted by chrisgregory at 6:08 PM on December 16, 2011


The only song I turn off faster is Billy Joel's 'We didn't start the Fire'. Even kd Lang, during an Olympic ceremony couldn't keep me listening for more than 3 notes.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:13 PM on December 16, 2011


"It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah"

I've studied a lot of philosophy. I've studied a lot of ethics. I know aesthetics, and I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the connection between beauty and the good. I've read from Socrates to Singer, in essence. I've thought hard about the complicated and difficult writings of brilliant human beings on the subject of life's value. More than 2000 years have been spent on this project, trying to find the words to express what is good and beautiful about our existence. Millions of pages of careful writing, trying. And, somehow, there's a deep, reverberating truth in these eight words above that none of any of those great thinkers ever came close to capturing.

Sometimes, I hear "Hallelujah," and I want so dearly to find a way to reach into the lyrics, to pull from them the meaning they so perfectly capture. If there's such a thing as the meaning of life, I feel it must cleave to cold and broken hallelujahs. This is something that just can't be put into declarative statements--it's something so emotionally significant that we don't have the words to describe it.

The song's overused. That's not the song's fault; that's people with limited talent trying to grasp its poignancy when they don't know how to recreate it. I wish it weren't so overused, but, all the same, I am moved by it every time I hear it.
posted by meese at 8:18 PM on December 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


The song's overused. That's not the song's fault;

Well, this is the crux, isn't it?

I sometimes think overuse is a song's fault, but I'd have a hard time arguing it. I just have a gut sense that the truly great songs, the ones that really will stand the test, are always just a little too strange, too intense for the crowd.

Sweet Jane, for instance. Why hasn't it been overused? It's not unknown but I seriously doubt it triggers many allergies, which is how I've come to think about Hallelujah unfortunately.

And there's even some evil mothers
Well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y'know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes, woo!
And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush!
And that, life is just to die!
And, everyone who ever had a heart
They wouldn't turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
Oh wouldn't turn around and hate it!

posted by philip-random at 8:27 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


For god's sake, philip-random, don't give them ideas!

If sometime in the next 6 months I get hit with a Ke$ha cover of Sweet Jane on the radio, I'm going to blame it on your post.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:39 PM on December 16, 2011


Back in the day, somewhere around 1969 or so, I discovered Leonard Cohen. The two Cohen songs that became part of the background for my college experience were Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy. Both of them had a somewhat erotic bent that appealed to a fairly inexperienced student caught up in the fantasy that "free love" was just around the corner if a guy wore a peace symbol on a leather thong and a turtle-neck sweater (hell, this was even before Steve Jobs).

I never really got much into Cohen beyond those two songs, but did manage to purchase at least one album that traveled with me over the years until it became part of the family collection after I got married and had kids.

Once in a while I would, though the use of some sort of parental manipulation and threat, get my two boys to spend some time going through Dad's albums, listening to various tracks, while I attempted to explain why this song or that song influenced the course of modern events.

I seriously doubted that they paid any attention to me. I eventually came to believe that there was little I could do to transition their musical tastes away from Michael Jackson and, eventually, Sid Vicious towards something more significant (meaning, of course, the music I valued). I gave up, convinced they would go through life listening to, what I considered, the sound of a ton of scrap metal being dropped on a ton of scrap metal.

Ten years or so later, I was visiting my youngest son and found, stuck in his music collection, a Leonard Cohen album. I verbalized my surprise and he told me how much he liked Cohen, mentioning some songs I wasn't even familiar with... Damn... how about that! I actually made a difference in my kid's musical taste.. who would have guessed!

Ten more years passed, and that kid is out in L.A., had worked his ass off establishing his credibility and was partnered with some up and coming director. They made a couple of movies, and then they had the opportunity to make a film based on a graphic novel that I, as a complete idiot in regards to graphic novels, had never heard of.

A year and a half later, I went to the premier of Watchmen, and heard Cohen's Hallelujah used in the sound track.

Yep, I'm taking credit for that!
posted by HuronBob at 10:14 PM on December 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


They also play One by U2 and Green Day's Good Riddance (a.k.a. "Time of your Life"). One is about a psycopathic, hypocritical bitch and the other is another breakup song.

I don't remember the gender of the other person ever explicitly referenced in One.
posted by winna at 8:55 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd hazard a guess that the gender of the person that made that comment, however, is male.
posted by symbioid at 9:58 AM on December 17, 2011


I just have a gut sense that the truly great songs, the ones that really will stand the test, are always just a little too strange, too intense for the crowd.

If you can, recall the first time you heard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Now recall the first time you heard the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane". What was the difference in your reaction to hearing these two
masterpieces? For "Hallalujah", probably something along the lines of "wow, that's beautiful and dark and the melody is lovely and this song is breaking my heart". For "Sweet Jane", I will bet money that whatever else you thought, you also thought "I bet I could play this". That simple riff. The song bares itself to the listener. It insists that YOU ALREADY KNOW IT. It is a riff of such profound simplicity that that it seems familiar on first listen.

And that, I think, is why "Sweet Jane" is not overused, and "Hallelujah" is. "Sweet Jane", by virtue of its simplicity and catchiness, ALREADY BELONGS TO EVERYONE WHO HAS HEARD IT. It is YOUR song -- you have drummed your fingers to it, hammered the chords out in your garage, sang along in the shower as Lou yelps through the chorus. It is so instantly transmittable and contagious that it has very little value as a cover. A cover would only be judged against the perfect copy of Sweet Jane that already rings in everyone's head.

But Hallelujah, despite being an equally popular (well, more popular) song, has a thorniness, an unapproachability to it. It holds listeners at a distance. And that encourages people to pick it up and bridge the gap.

tl;dr -- "Sweet Jane" becomes a part of you, "Hallelujah" exists to be offered to others.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:50 AM on December 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


Because their voices meld so perfectly on it, I like listening to Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris' version from the "Hope for Haiti Now" event.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:51 PM on December 17, 2011


It holds listeners at a distance. And that encourages people to pick it up and bridge the gap.

Back when the Mefi Music Challenge was to cover the song, my way around that distance was to completely strip the song of its melody, chord changes and rhythmic phrasing. I just wanted to use those beautiful words, but otherwise do it, erm, my way, as Frank Sinatra says.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:05 PM on December 17, 2011


I liked those three new songs, gwint. Muchas Gracias! Anyone who missed it should check out the Leonard Cohen's acceptance of the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:28 PM on December 20, 2011


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