What Makes ‘Hallelujah’ Such a Transcendent Song?: Excerpts From New Book ‘The Holy or The Broken’
“There is no ‘right’ way to sing ‘Hallelujah,’” writes Alan Light, the author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” As noted by several sources in the book, which was released this week, possession of the song has achieved hymn status: It seems to belong to no one yet remains one of the most ubiquitous songs in popular music.
Of course, the song actually belongs to sardonic rock poet Leonard Cohen, but in the public eye, it’s singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley that changed the song’s fate. Buckley’s own fate was far more tragic than the song he covered and subsequently launched into the public consciousness. On June 29, 1997, Buckley, just 30, drowned while swimming in a Mississippi river. Does this somehow add to the emotional narrative of the song – knowing Buckley’s own story? Does this play into “Hallelujah’s” role as one of the most misunderstood songs ever written, right up there with Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”?
Light, former editor-in-chief of Spin and Vibe, explores this and more in the fascinating book, proving that few songs deserve the level of examination as “Hallelujah” gets in this oral history, which includes interviews with Bono, Paul Simon, Jon Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake and more.
We have two short excerpts from The Holy or The Broken, courtesy of Light and the publisher, Atria/Simon & Schuster. In the first excerpt, he explains just a bit of what makes “Hallelujah” so unique:
“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally,” Kurt Cobain once sang in tribute to the only songwriter, many believe, who belongs in a class with Bob Dylan. But “Hallelujah,” which first appeared on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, has already had one of the most remarkable afterlives in pop music history. The song has become one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of its time. Salman Rushdie’s description of the contrasts in the lyric holds true: Joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, “Hallelujah” is an open-ended meditation on love and faith—and certainly not a song that would easily be pegged as an international anthem.
“Hallelujah,” however, has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists—from U2 to Justin Timberlake, from Bon Jovi to Celine Dion, from Willie Nelson to numerous contestants on American Idol. It has been sung by opera stars and punk bands. Decades after its creation, it became a Top Ten hit throughout Europe. In 2008, different versions simultaneously held the Number One and Number Two positions on the UK singles chart, with Cohen’s original climbing into the Top 40 at the same time.
“Hallelujah” has been named to lists of the greatest Canadian songs of all time and the greatest Jewish songs of all time (though in writing about the song for America: The National Catholic Weekly website, one minister mused that the singer’s melancholic worldview might indicate that he “has some Irish blood”). It plays every Saturday night on the Israeli Defense Forces’ radio network. It made the list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and, in a poll of songwriters by the British music magazine Q, was named one of the Top Ten Greatest Tracks of all time, alongside the likes of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Born to Run,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
According to Bono, who has performed “Hallelujah” on his own and with U2, “it might be the most perfect song in the world.”
Martin Bandier, chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing (which owns the rights to both Cohen and Buckley’s versions of the song), phrased it a little differently: “‘Hallelujah’ is a brand.”
It’s a brand that’s in no short supply on television and in films. As Light chronicles, the song took on a new meaning when VH1, in the wake of the attacks on September 11th, synched the song with footage of the Twin Towers burning and put it into near-constant on-air rotation as a music video. The song soon become an easy way to evoke emotion in a “deep” scene on TV and in film. Pop singers began using the same basic tactic in live shows, and then came the American Idol effect, in which contestants on reality singing competitions used the anthem as a heart-strings K.O. with viewers and judges. In our second excerpt, Light explains how the song’s multitude of verses helps to makes it easy for artists to personalize to maximize its effect. He also gets into what differentiates “Hallelujah” from another commonly-covered anthem, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
As both the soundtrack usages and the covers of “Hallelujah” were becoming pervasive, one thing becoming evident was that the song had a peculiar advantage over and above its compositional merits. Since its best-known version was already a cover, and the song’s author had himself altered the lyrics almost immediately after recording it, it was somehow understood that the words were never truly considered fixed or set in stone. With Cohen’s tacit approval, and Buckley not around to object, verses could be cut, lyrics could be changed, with no real sense of betraying the song’s meaning.
For a song as weird as “Hallelujah,” this open invitation to experiment and adjust is perhaps its greatest allure. Depending on preference and context, the different elements— religion, sex, hope, despair, love, death—can be turned up or down at will. Certainly, the “I remember when I moved in you” verse was often abandoned, especially for religious or charitable uses. Sometimes even “She tied you to a kitchen chair” was a little too much for the setting. But with its abstract and disconnected imagery, the song’s contradictions and nuances could easily be elided, which gave “Hallelujah” a versatility that went beyond its ambiguities.
“I tend to be a wordy person, and I think every verse is so beautiful that I just couldn’t part with one of them,” said Kate Voegele. “But I think the song has this unbelievable ability to take a personal concept and elevate it to the universal. So I think people pick and choose the verses because they’re all sort of little stories within themselves, and no matter what order you sing them in or hear them in, it means something.”
“It’s very open to interpretation,” said Lee DeWyze, the 2010 American Idol champion. DeWyze sang one highly abbreviated edit of the song on the show, when the stakes were high and the contest had come down to three finalists, but he has altered the choice of lyrics on his own subsequent tours. “The only other song like it would be the national anthem. Because there’s no one national anthem that every- one’s like, ‘That’s the one.’ People just do it however they want. ‘Hallelujah’ is one of those songs that doesn’t feel like it has an owner. When people sing it now, it’s almost like, ‘This is my song.’”
Some artists offer more practical reasons for the revisions of the lyric. “I’ll drop the fourth verse if I’m running out of time,” said Brandi Carlile. “A lot of times, I close with it, so if I’m playing a union hall and I have six minutes before it goes into overtime pay, I’ve got to drop a verse.” This ability to truncate would prove invaluable as the song became a staple of televised singing competitions.
The impressionistic composition of the verses, with shifting perspective and nonlinear narrative, means that there’s no functional loss or disruption in meaning if verses are skipped or moved. “I think with that song,” said Rufus Wainwright, “as is the case with a lot of Leonard’s work, there are certain phrases that really jump out and hit you in different ways, and mean different things to different people—‘learn to shoot at someone who outdrew you.’ I think it’s more about those tiny nuggets of words than any broad meaning, but then once ‘hallelujah,’ that word, is placed in there, it kind of gathers up all of these elements, which is the essence of existence anyway: There’s no general theme for the world—it’s all little tiny pieces.”
Consider the contrast with one of the few songs that goes on a list with “Hallelujah” as a modern-day anthem— John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Yoko Ono has said that she constantly has to turn down requests for people who want to record the song and change just one word. The possible uses for “Imagine” multiply dramatically if she would allow singers to modify the line “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too”—which she refuses to let them do, feeling that a change to the less radical “And one religion, too” would interfere with the song’s message and intentions too much.
CeeLo Green performed “Imagine” on NBC’s 2012 New Year’s Eve broadcast from Times Square, changing the lyric to “And all religion’s true.” Predictably, Lennon loyalists, especially in the online world, immediately went nuts: Rolling Stone reported a typical tweet, from @geekysteven, which read, “The whole point of that lyric is that religion causes harm. If ‘all religion’s true’ it would be a pretty bleak place.”
In the end, though, Lennon’s recording of “Imagine” is so iconic it can never truly be challenged, or even fully re- imagined, by a cover; as with “Bridge over Troubled Water,” with Art Garfunkel’s distinct vocal, any new performance is instantly, however subconsciously, assessed in relation to the original. And, as CeeLo learned, any alteration of the lyric dramatically changes the song’s message in ways that many listeners are unwilling to accept.
“Hallelujah,” on the other hand, isn’t fixed and formalized in the same way. Before it had even penetrated the general population’s consciousness, it had demonstrated that it is capable of withstanding multiple modifications, possibly resulting in a change of its emphasis, but not its essence. This fluidity helped open countless doors for the song over the years.
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” is available via Amazon and book stores now.
- Jillian Mapes, CBS Local