The unlikely ascent of ‘Hallelujah’

December 28, 2012

Maybe you first heard it on VH1 after the Sept. 11 attacks. Maybe it pulled at your heartstrings during the 2010 MTV telethon to benefit Haitian earthquake victims or the memorial montage at the 2011 Emmy Awards. Or maybe you’ve admired the original from the moment you heard its stirring chorus float off dusty vinyl. It has rocked episodes of “The West Wing,” “ER” and “House.”

It’s Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” coming soon to an elevator near you.

“The song has become one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of its time,” writes Alan Light in “The Holy or the Broken,” a biography of Cohen’s mysterious song. “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” isn’t the first song to achieve puzzling ubiquity. “The Star Spangled Banner,” for example, combined Francis Scott Key’s patriotic lyrics with the melody of a ribald drinking tune, and Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s bleak “Born in the U.S.A.” at campaign rallies (to the Boss’s horror). But Cohen’s composition, which combines Biblical references to Samson and Bathsheba with sexually charged lyrics, is an unlikely candidate for covers by Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake and “American Idol” contestants.

“In a world polarized by the black-and-white politicization of religion, the song offers a rare example of both reassurance and doubt,” Light writes. “Obviously it has a recurrent prayerful element, but it’s also evident in even the most superficial reading that the verses undercut any sense of simple, blind faith.”


Leonard Cohen performs. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

“The Holy or the Broken” — the title refers to one of “Hallelujah’s” more ambiguous lines — ably chronicles the song’s bizarre trajectory from hipster playlists to prime time. First recorded by Cohen in 1984, the track was covered by Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale in 1991, and then made famous by doomed folk singer Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997. Although Light explores the differences between these versions ad nauseam — and dissects performances by U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy and cabaret-goth provocateur Amanda Palmer, among many others — “Hallelujah’s” success isn’t about art, but business.

A former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin, Light estimates that every time Buckley’s version of the song appears in a TV show, Buckley’s estate, Cohen and Cohen’s record company and publisher split $50,000. The next question seems obvious: If audiences first hear a song as nuanced as “Hallelujah” on a reality show such as “The X Factor,” are they missing something? And if they are missing something, is the wealth the song’s licensing generates tainted money?

“The Holy and the Broken” isn’t much concerned with what’s lost in translation.

Isn’t this what pop songs do?” Light asks. “Once a track has been released, the public takes it and goes with it, or they don’t.”

This focus on profit over art is depressing. Since Light also traces the recent Cohen boom — new records, a poetry collection and live performances at youth-friendly festivals such as Coachella — to the 78-year-old singer’s financial woes, Cohen fans may feel more broken than holy after reading his book. Is the final act of this icon’s career little more than a money grab?

Since Light didn’t interview Cohen, it’s hard to know where the singer stands. Those who want to know more about him should turn to Sylvie Simmons’s “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen,” a fawning 500-plus-page biography released in September. But surely a near-octogenarian Jewish Buddhist known for his wit and wry lyrics has something more definitive to say about Disney’s popularization of his work in the 2001 film “Shrek.” Cohen has said he’s “very happy” that “Hallelujah” is being sung. Then again, he’s also said that “too many people sing it.”

If only Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would voice similar concerns about “Gimme Shelter.”


"The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah'" by Alan Light (Atria)

Moyer is an editorial aide for The Post’s Outlook section.

THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN

Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

By Alan Light

Atria. 254 pp. $25

Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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