The other night, NBC’s The Voice opened with a stirring tribute to the fallen innocents of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre. As each contestant and judge held the name of one of those tragic souls, the judges took turns singing the moving stanzas, and the entire group joined in for the chorus. As usual, when I hear that song, I choked up. It is a powerful piece of music, and juxtaposing it with the memories of slain children amplified that power immensely. I have little doubt the producers of the show knew that. That’s what they were aiming for. This is television after all.
But even while my emotions were being toyed with, and the lump in my throat reached tennis ball size and ember heat, my mind was stuck on one resonating, singular thought: “HUH?” When it was over, my wife and I looked at one another with the same stunned look on our faces, as if to say, “Did they really just do that?”
Perhaps it’s the old English teacher in me, but I still cling desperately – perhaps foolishly – to the notion that words have meaning, and that, as sophisticated apes, we lump them together to create even more complex, nuanced meanings. Then, if that wasn’t tricky enough, we throw in metaphors, and symbolism and really arcane things like Biblical allusions to add subtlety and richness to this thing we call language. Sadly, it’s that very richness which sometimes loses people.
You see, if you’re going to sing a song, you can’t just focus on a word or two and determine that the song conveys what you want based on that cursory reading (no more than you can understand the Bible by reading and citing a tiny subset of verses. Leviticus, anyone?). You really ought to read the entire thing. And then you ought to think about it. After that, and only after that, should you perform it on public television.
So, case in point, just because “Hallelujah!” has all those Biblical references in it and, of course that word in the chorus, some people jump to the conclusion that it’s a sacred song, Well, folks, If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m here to tell you that while it may be passionate, tortured, sensuous, and many other things, “Hallelujah” is anything but a religious song. That much is apparent as early as the first stanza in the dismissive frustration of, “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” and is certainly later reinforced by the conspicuous agnosticism of “Well, maybe there’s a God above.”
I don’t intend to sort through the lyrics word by word and give you my in-depth analysis, but suffice to say the biblical stories that Cohen references – Samson and Delilah, and David’s infidelity with Bathsheba – aren’t exactly chosen to set us on the straight and narrow; they are stories of love, lust, loss, betrayal and anguish. And as for the chorus, well, “Our love is not a victory march; / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
Yes, I have to acknowledge that Cohen wrote numerous stanzas for the song, so I suppose, technically, it’s possible to sift through them and arrive at an end product that more closely resembled a religious song, but, to me, that wouldn’t matter, because that wouldn’t be the song we all identify with.
Everyone will have his or her list of favourite covers, I suppose, but for me three stand out, those of Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and kd lang. None of those is sung as a sacred song. In fact, Buckley described his cover as, “a hallelujah to the orgasm.” That’s probably going to make some people squirm a little, but read the lyrics carefully; it’s not an unreasonable interpretation.
It’s a curious sidenote that two of those artists are, like Cohen, Canadian and all of them are/were gay. I’m not sure there’s really any significance to that, but there it is, at any rate.
Hallelujah isn’t alone in being misunderstood. I always cringe when I hear someone cover Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” – an anthem to control freaks and stalkers everywhere – and treat it instead as some sort of tender love song. And only a while ago, The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council embarrassed our entire country by ruling that Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” was too offensive for Canadian airwaves because it contained the phrase “that little faggot.” Apparently, no one at the Standards Council had ever heard of a song or poem being written in persona before.
As for Hallelujah, some, including Cohen himself, have suggested that perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on covers and performances of this song. I think that may be going a bit too far. I still want to hear the song, I just want to hear it sung as the aching, tortured love song it was meant to be.
And while we’re at it, let’s find a more appropriate means to pay tribute to slaughtered innocents.