"It Doesn't Matter Which You Heard": the Curious Cultural Journey of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
by Michael Barthel
Let me take you back to the long-ago time of mid-February, 2007. Popular emo band Fall Out Boy had the number one album in the country and, being a responsible music critic, I of course illegally downloaded it. As my train crossed the Manhattan Bridge, I reached track five on the album. And I heard this:
Fall Out Boy - "Hum Hallelujah" (clip)
What they're singing there, aside from what I believe professionals call "twaddle," is the chorus of a Leonard Cohen song. This is mildly incredible. Twenty-five years ago, a character on the TV show The Young Ones named Neal--the hippie--said, "I'm beginning to feel like a Leonard Cohen record, cause nobody ever listens to me." Today, in contrast, one particular Leonard Cohen song is featured prominently in no less than three separate episodes of teen uberdrama The OC, and can be heard in at least twenty-four separate movies and TV episodes, almost always as the soundtrack to a montage of people being sad.
What I hope to show today is how, exactly, that happened to a song called "Hallelujah."
What's now considered the definitive version of this song is by dreamy, dead troubadour Jeff Buckley. (Some people are even under the impression that Buckley's cover is the original version.)
Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah" (clip)
It's an almost unbearably sad song in this incarnation—slow, keening, and heartbroken. But originally it was something different.
Leonard Cohen - "Hallelujah (original)" (clip)
This is more like your uncle's band playing in a warehouse, assuming your uncle was weird and labored under the impression that he was a crooner. It passed into the public realm almost unnoticed, and remained that way for some time; in the major Cohen biography, published in 1996, there's no entry for the song in the index, despite the fact that the book's name is the same as the album on which "Hallelujah" originally appears.
It's a weird little song in this incarnation. Check out this sound. It's not sad--in fact, it's kinda funny. The entire performance is so hyperserious that it's almost satire. Certainly there's a healthy dose of irony here, especially in the sneeringly wry line "but you don't really care for music, do ya?" Cohen sings: "There's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah," and the lyrics, far from being unremittingly dour, explore these different Hallelujahs—holy, broken, profane, transcendent.
On Cohen Live, an album recorded in part on a 1988 tour, Cohen radically revises the song. The tempo slows down drastically:
Leonard Cohen - "Hallelujah (live)" (clip)
More importantly, Cohen adds three new verses. Whereas the original begins with some light musician humor, the new first verse ends with the line "it's a cold and a very broken Hallelujah." Combined with the slower tempo, the overall effect is considerably sadder.
At the same time, Cohen explores even more Hallelujahs: a verse containing the line "I remember when I moved in you" is unambiguously about sex, and the final verse --also the original's final verse, and the only verse they share--is defiant, coming as close to shouting as Leonard Cohen can while declaring "Even though it all went wrong, I'll stand right here before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."
John Cale - "Hallelujah" (clip)
John Cale's cover of "Hallelujah" for the 1991 tribute album I'm Your Fan clearly refers to this live version. Since Cale's cover dates from before the release of Cohen Live, Cale most likely saw Cohen perform this new version in person, on the 1988 tour from which that recording is taken. It's almost as radical a reworking of the song as Cohen's own.
Cale preceded the three new verses of the live version with the original first and second verses, while speeding up the tempo to the more natural andante of the original and simplifying the arrangement to just voice and piano. He also changes the last of the three new verses in small but important ways.
Where Cohen says "It's not a complaint," Cale says "it's not a cry." Cohen's "It's not the laughter of somebody who's seen the light" becomes just "It's not somebody who's seen the light." And finally, "It's a very lonely Halellujah" becomes "it's a broken Hallelujah." Where Cohen depicted bittersweet regret, Cale has utter despair: a complaint becomes a cry, laughter is gone, a shot that could miss becomes a murderous hit, and it's not just a lonely Hallelujah—it's a broken Hallelujah. Moreover, this verse now ends the song, taking the place of the I-will-survive statement Cohen used to end his versions.
And so when Jeff Buckley decided to cover "Hallelujah," he didn't really cover Cohen, he covered Cale; the form and lyrics of their versions match almost exactly, while none of the three previous versions (Cohen studio, Cohen live, Cale) match at all.
Musically, though, he slowed the tempo back down again, and let it float in a way that Cale's regular piano arpeggios didn't.
Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah" (clip)
The effect was to flatten the song emotionally, to take out all the different Hallelujahs Cohen depicted and reduce them to one: the cold and broken, which appears here twice. Even the "you don't really care for music" dig sounds more wronged than cutting, and the sex is now the ecstasy of the brooding artiste, an image Cohen always seemed careful to subvert.
This simplification resulted in a torrent of covers. Following Buckley's version in 1994, we see a slow but steady increase, until it becomes a veritable tsunami around the turn of the century.
If Buckley was covering Cale, there's little doubt that almost all of these people were covering Buckley. And no one was really covering Cohen anymore.
It took a while longer, but Buckley's reductio ad despairium also inspired musical directors to include the songs in their filmed entertainments. Here's a list of all the usages.
And here's a graph showing the usages by year.
If we overlay that onto the graph of covers by year, we see that, while it took a while for TV and movies to catch up, they undoubtedly did.
The first significant use of the song in a soundtrack was, somewhat logically, Cale's version in Basquiat (1996), followed by, totally illogically, Cale again in Shrek (2001). While it seems clear that the gradual revision of the song is what made it appealing as a soundtrack device, it's also possible that when directors saw that the song was so potent, it could impart gravitas on a cartoon Ogre voiced by Mike Myers, it could make even the shallowest character seem tragic.
After these two uses of Cale in movies, the song, almost always Buckley's version, begins to pop up on television shows. The West Wing is the only usage in 2002, but in 2003 it was everywhere.
"Hallelujah" appeared in the fourth episode of Zach Braff's medical dramedy Scrubs, and twice in the first season of teen drama The OC, including an extremely prominent use in the finale. This established it, and it popped up regularly in every subsequent year, in numerous different versions, as artists like K.D. Lang and Rufus Wainwright recorded their own covers. (Wainwright's is nearly indistinguishable from Cale's, suggesting that perhaps Cale had begun to refuse usage requests and Wainwright was brought in as a ringer.)
Why was it used so frequently? Featurettes on the DVD sets of Scrubs and The OC talk about the music used on these shows, and the OC's creator, Josh Schwartz, says that "the music was going to be expressing the characters' inner lives." Why did they pick the music they did? Schwartz says that, for the first five or six episodes, "it was everything that was on my iPod"--echoing "Hallelujah"'s appeal as a personal discovery, a secret hidden in plain sight. Interestingly, though, they at no point in the featurette mention the song "Hallelujah," despite using it twice in the season they're ostensibly discussing, and once in the third episode, which is when Schwartz himself was soundtracking the show. Are they embarrassed about it? They shouldn't be. To say that using "Hallelujah" to express sadness is unoriginal is like saying a picture hanger using a level is unoriginal: the point is not novelty, but functionality. The damn thing just works so well, you'd be a fool not to use it.
The usage was so pervasive that, based on the numerous OC Mix CDs that were released, it seemed to inspire musicians to create their own soundalike songs, and to boost those artists who had already been working that sound. (This was the "indie rock boom" that the OC supposedly instigated, bringing sensitive-crooner bands like Death Cab For Cutie to fame and fortune.)
The most prominent example is Imogen Heap, someone who I, at least, had not heard of since a cassingle was mailed to me in 1998. But Heap's song "Hide and Seek" soundtracked the final moments of the OC's second season, the slot occupied a year before by a full rendition of Buckey's "Hallelujah." This pairing was so successful that, for the finale of season three, the final moments were accompanied, once again, by Heap, this time covering --and, to be clear, I am not shitting you--"Hallelujah." This is the point where the OC consumes itself whole, and it is a sickeningly gorgeous thing to watch.
(Incidentally, Heap is also a member of Frou Frou, a group who gained prominence by Zach Braff's including their song "Let Go" in his film Garden State, the other indie-boom instigator.)
What's fascinating about all this is not simply the song's ubiquity on TV dramas--it's that it's used in the exact same way every time. Songs can be used sincerely, ironically, as background shading, as subtle comment, as product placement. But "Hallelujah" always appears as people are being sad, quietly sitting and staring into space or ostentatiously crying, and always as a way of tying together the sadness of different characters in different places. In short, it's always used as part of a "sad montage."
Now, I could go into details about how exactly the "sad montage" is constituted, but it's more efficient and probably more effective just to show you a montage of the montages. You'll see what I mean.
"The Sad Montage, in Brief" (video, 27 megs)
The way Hallelujah is being used here is the auditory equivalent of a silent film actress pressing the back of her hand to her forehead to express despair—emotional shorthand. It's sometimes called a needledrop, and it's an element of visual grammar that signals the mood of the scene loudly and unmistakably. In the Scrubs musical featurette, creator Bill Lawrence says, "How are we gonna make a show where a lot of the comedy comes from broad, silly jokes switch gears on a dime and suddenly be dramatic? What we found is we were able to make that transition quickly if we chose the right song."
But it doesn't work if it's too explicit. That theatrical gesture of hand to forehead has no obvious connection to the emotion of despair, and neither does "Hallelujah." It gets used in scenes more obviously soundtracked with songs called, say, "We Are In a Hospital And Everyone is Dying Or Facing Difficult Choices." But that would be too explicitly about sadness, whereas the chorus of Cohen's song was designed to apply to a range of emotions—the different Hallelujahs. It can both reinforce and counterpoint.
If its use is becoming less common, that's because its overuse has erased the line-by-line, verse-by-verse meaning and replaced it with an overall feeling of sadness. You hear those opening chords now and the words hardly matter. The visual emotions it was used to counterpoint have overtaken the lyrical content. This is the nature of tools--they are imprinted by their materials--and there's nothing wrong with tools per se, but making a Matisse into a washcloth would erase some of the details, and Hallelujah's overuse has had a similar effect.
In twenty-five years, Leonard Cohen has gone from a punchline on a TV show to a sideways joke mixed with a tribute in Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea"--"give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally"--to a totally serious starring role in a song by Fall Out Boy, a band not especially known for their irony. It seems like this has been accomplished by an emotional flattening--reducing a song about the varieties of grace to a mere lament. But this is not the only direction the song could have gone in. Something of Cohen's defiance, sensuality, and triumph could just as easily inform a cover. A cover such as this one:
Michael Barthel - "Hallelujah" (excerpt)
This is the beauty of the pop song: it's an artistic hooker with a heart of gold, always willing to be used. It can become a tool, but a song isn't a Matisse—if it's used as a washcloth, just wring it out and it's good as new. We may call something the "definitive version," but it's not, not really. It's just the temporary consensus, a beautiful beach house built always within reach of the next great flood. There's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter which you heard, and every song contains a thousand possibilities—or, at least, the great ones do. Hallelujah's place in the pantheon was assured only by the song's mutability; were it not open to change, it would have remained an ignored album cut. Instead, it went on to function as a performance standard, a perfect piece of visual grammar, and even a raw element of creation for an entirely new song. Among all those covers and all those montages, Fall Out Boy's reappropriation of Hallelujah is undoubtedly the most radical, interesting, and adventurous. It reminds us that if you disagree with the journey a song has taken, the original and all its revisions are always there, waiting to be born again.
(many, many thanks to Alta Price for helping with the video.)
The above is the as-presented version of the paper, which should probably be preserved for purposes of historical veracity and so on and so forth. ("Where did the tide finally turn against the evil that is Jeff Buckley?" future historians will no doubt ask, and I want to make sure they have the answer.) But there were a few points that I wanted to expand on, and a few comments I received before and after I delivered the paper that deserve addressing.
Mainly I will be playing off two things:
1) "Hallelujah's appeal as a personal discovery, a secret hidden in plain sight."
2) "the 'indie rock boom' that the OC supposedly instigated"
Christopher Monsen left a comment on my blog that goes like this:
The influence of Buckley's version is especially strong here in Norway. Not only does buying his Grace album seem to have become some kind of rite of passage for the average University student, it also seems to be the one record that every non-record buying person owns. Last year, a group consisting of two ex-Norwegian Idol contestants, a one-time Prince-wannabe turned producer, and a fourth guy recorded a live version of 'Hallelujah' based on Buckley's - taking turns singing the verses. The subsequent record named after the song went on to become the biggest selling album in Norway last year - almost solely on the strength of 'Hallelujah.'While, as I say above, the song's popularity as a soundtrack device seems to be winding down, the song itself is more popular than ever. Why is that?
Musically, I am almost certain I once wrote a whole dissection of the song, which I of course cannot find at the present time. Nevertheless, the gist was that Cohen et al employ a fairly classic chord progression (in my cover the bassline during the verse is meant to evoke the doo-wop songs that also used this shift), but then instead of trying to disguise it or merely riding it, Cohen calls attention to not only the chords he's using, but their very commonality: "the minor fall, the major lift." Note the definite article there--it's not just some sort of minor chord, it's the iconic minor fall, which it pretty much is; you can find this progression, in the abstract, in all sorts of pop songs. By calling it out, he both makes you aware of its pop status while simultaneously apologizing for it and mythologizing it as not just chords, but a sort of Biblical imperative. But then, when he gets to "composing," there's an atypical chord, an E major, that doesn't fit in the C major key we've been in so far, and this is the little bit of novelty that turns the song from the pop of restatement to just pop. This ability to turn the common into the timeless while leavening it with something to set it apart is a big part of the song's appeal.
The non-musical appeal of "Hallelujah," though, must be understood in the context of generations X and Y, who are the ones responsible for the song's canonization. The people for whom Cohen's song (in Buckley's version) is a generational touchstone are not the people who consider other Cohen songs, like "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire," generational touchstones. They're not Cohen's original audience, and are unlikely to have paid much attention to a weird synth-crooner album by an old folkie when it came out in 1985. And so for them, it was something always existing, way out there in an area they wouldn't usually venture; an object to be discovered.
However you come to the song, it's got an aura around it. If it's through Buckley, well, he's this beautiful dead boy with an apparently "ethereal" voice, and he's singing this song that sounds like a long-ago thing. Cohen himself is distant enough at this point to be symbolically equivalent to an old blues guy: mysterious, wise, world-weary. Buckley's martyrdom cleanses him of the "dude with a guitar who signed to a major label in the 90s" status, and Cohen, cheesy though he may be at times, comes from the pre-corporate past of the music industry, and is untainted by its commercialism.
This is all awfully contextual, though. What about the song itself? The religious imagery and language should be a hindrance among the sensitive college students (and, as mentioned in the quote above, the secular-humanist Europeans) who make up the song's fanbase. But, certain acquaintances' "Christians are fucking weird" attitudes to the contrary, the Bible has an enduring appeal to millions of people, for whatever reason, and no matter how sensitive a college student you are, the thing can still work its magic. (Like vegetarians really wanting a steak every once in a while--doesn't mean you’re a meat-eater again, just that people who love it aren't fools, after all, just bad people.) Shorn of the offensive trappings, old time religion looks pretty awesome, and indeed people who like Jeff Buckley also like the idea of fire-and-brimstone preachers and dilapidated churches and gospel choirs. Unfortunately, actual gospel music doesn't shed those trappings. It tends toward the cheesy rather than the "earthy," and the words seem more interested in talking about how great Jesus is than in exploring the mysteries of faith or making Moses jokes.
"Hallelujah," though, offers all those great, resonant Biblical signifiers and intense religious emotions without the proselytizing or the attempt at a modern updating. Spiritually, it keeps things at a nice distance and doesn't ask too much. In Cohen's hands, this makes sense, since it's explicitly a literary exploration into an alien culture. And for Buckley, it works as a signifier of depth, allowing him to take on the symbols of an old country preacher, in keeping with his attraction to Sufi mysticism: whirling dervishes are nothing if not pentecostal. In sum, "Hallelujah" is able to function as a kind of accessible gospel music, smart and beautiful and allusive to classic themes without demanding any kind of actual faith or any translation from evangelicalese. It presents the emotional experience of religion shorn of the cultural barriers.
And this particular--and particularly amazing--trick is a big part of why, no matter how it comes to you, "Hallelujah" always manages to seem like a discovery. It can pass through a thousand corporate paws and be marked by them all, arriving at its destination in the form of a TV show or a mass-market major-label CD or a bunch of pop idols. The song is just so strange--so alien, so smart, so densely packed with signifiers--that it doesn't seem possible that it's actually part of mainstream culture, no matter how much mainstream culture embraces it. Clive Davis himself could hand it to you, but this would just seem like evidence of Clive's human side rather than another slime-dripping part of the corrupt music industry. Its strange incursion of Biblical poetry (as well as, to be honest, Buckley's unusual guitar work, curse him) seems like nothing more than an anomaly. It's the Teflon song.
And this is why it's interesting that it popped up so many times in The OC. Once is just, as I say, a tool, something you whip out to enhance a mood, but generally you can only use it once without it ceasing to be a tool and starting to be a character, or at least a symbol of something. The fact that The OC used a song immune to the appearance of co-option so many times means something--it meant that a network TV show was trying for legitimacy. This is both unusual and seemingly nonsensical--even shows that achieved some sort of genuine subcultural capital like Saturday Night Live or David Letterman didn't feel the need to defend or generate cred, since the shows themselves were the sources of credibility--the writing and the performances, in other words, not the accoutrements. But The OC was clearly concerned with this, a fact demonstrated most ably by their apparently sincere championing of Death Cab for Cutie, who were on Sub Pop and had a ridiculous name and were thus quite credible. Much of the show concerned the awakening of Seth Cohen, an unreconstructed geek character (comic books, unpopularity, social awkwardness, intelligence, embarrassing bedroom accessories) who suddenly found himself inching towards coolness, and this was the character championing Death Cab. The use of "Hallelujah" here was like wrapping a strange new vegetable in bacon: you know this is good/true/right, so why not try what goes along with it?
The song had a different meaning every time it was used. The second and third times it was notable for the repetition and referred to all previous uses--number two (on the season 1 finale) was "OK, we have come into our own" and number three, when Marissa died at the end of season 3, was a completing-the-cycle thing--but that first usage made The OC what it was, like the thread of saffron that turns rice and seafood into paella. There's the cliché as banality, like in Scrubs, fulfilling its role precisely and simply echoing what's around it, the very heightening it performs becoming workaday in its predictability and obviousness. And then there is the cliché as element of transcendent over-the-topness, when there are so many iconic elements that the cliché makes it an identifiable context and ties everything together.
The first time "Hallelujah" appears on The OC, the situation is as follows: on his last night in town, a good-hearted but troubled wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid who's in a fish-out-of-water situation has been visited by a all-wrong-for-him skinny blonde rich girl who's defying her parents by professing her feelings for him, but he turns her down in an act of noble self-sacrifice only to have the rich-kid boyfriend pull up in a jeep and start a fight, and then the house he's in catches on fire. Through all this, "Hallelujah" plays. This willingness to go for the jugular so quickly and so shamelessly is one of the many reasons the OC was so great, and also, not coincidentally, why it wasn't so great for the next two seasons.
To put it another way, it was Casablanca, at least as Umberto Eco described it:
When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as theWhat's interesting about The OC was that there was a particular specificity to some of the clichés. Seth Cohen, for instance, was both a stereotypical social outcast character and a character actually stolen, along with the actor, from another show--Adam Brody, who played Seth, played an almost identical character on the show Gilmore Girls. (There is an entire paper to be written about the Gilmore Girls teen-drama diaspora, what with all of Rory's boyfriends that have gotten their own shows.) This brings up some interesting issues about art's tendency toward referentiality also being a tendency toward clichés as building blocks, and if this might not cause us to reconsider the merits and uses of both, but more importantly it shows just how densely packed The OC was as a TV show. It was essentially an intensification and acceleration of everything about the established genre of teen dramas, and as such, it acted as a center of gravity to attract all sorts of new things, like, I suppose, Andy Warhol. (The CW = The Factory.) Like in cooking or geology, its density created something new, and novelty creates more novelty, so the things that attached themselves to the show by the time it ended earlier this year could serve as a checklist for the tenor of our times. This acceleration and concentration was, as I say, a good thing for the first season and a bad thing for the next two, when the show felt decidedly burnt out. This served as an object lesson for just why teen dramas don't go to such heights, and subsequent shows have not really approached its pace, perhaps wisely. The OC is important as social history because of its compact evocation of the decade it helped soundtrack, but important as art in the same way opera is: ridiculous in its scope and occasionally breathtaking in its beauty.
height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion
border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a
glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If
nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.
Its status as cultural big-bang helps explain why The OC served as year zero for the indie-rock boom. But it's also a big part of why it was dead in the water before it even began. The 00s indie boom and the 90s indie boom, which we also call grunge, were qualitatively different. Nirvana appeared as a separately-constituted incursion, a band of a piece making its way into the mainstream, whereas the most recent boom came through the debased form of network TV (or, to a lesser degree, movie soundtracks). Hackles were raised from the start, but the products of the boom still maintained their credibility, which raised even more hackles. The problem seemed to be that instead of having whole albums you could buy and shows you could go to and bands you could support, now there were singles you could download and soundtracks you could buy, clothes you could wear to signal your sympathy that were, unlike grunge, not really all that different from what people already seemed to be wearing. It was not an activity but an accompaniment--not something you listened to but something you watched other people listening to. In other words, it's lifestyle music.
But what's wrong with that? All sorts of styles have served as lifestyle music in the past without it debasing the styles themselves, from crooners to bebop to bossa nova to R&B to dance; hell, even Kanye West recognizes that Talib Kweli is something you play primarily to get girls to have sex with you, which is I guess the definition of lifestyle music.
Still, as I say, "Hallelujah" is a weird fucking song (and "Death Cab for Cutie" is a weird name for a band), and whether in Buckley's version or Cohen's version, it does not seem like it would function in the same way that something like, say, Johnny Mathis or Gilberto Gil does. And yet it does. How? Well, the short answer would be "the 90s," but there's also the fact that Jeff Buckley kinda sounds like Johnny Mathis, and that another name for indie is "college rock," which admits its lifestyle status right in its name. Essentially, no matter how hard it may struggle against it, any genre achieving some sort of mainstream popularity is inevitably brought to a fully commodified state, as indie clearly has become given that no one really uses the term "sellout" anymore.
But wasn't the whole point of the 90s that things shouldn't be commodified, especially culture? Wasn't the rule that you picked hot emotion over cool style, grit over lifestyle, ethics over aesthetics? How did the tide turn so completely? To put it simply, the 90s ended, and when we all looked back, we realized that we were being ridiculous. It's all style in the end; a flannel from JC Penny's is indistinguishable from a vintage flannel after a few wash cycles, and we don't therefore conclude that the style of dress doesn't matter, but that the point of origin doesn't. These songs we were being so precious about served essentially the same purpose as clothes do: to express our true inner selves. In other words, they were, like clothes, just tools of expression. We couldn't really use music to feel or seem cool, because it's just music, and instead saw it worked best as a way of quickly expressing what we are truly feeling: I am sad, so I am playing a sad song; I am horny, so here are so slow jams. And this, of course, is exactly how "Hallelujah" is used on TV. It expresses my inner life as surely as it expresses that of Seth Cohen, and that's amazing: the way art uses it is the way we use it, which is true for very few things.
The fact that aesthetics won is indicative of how the 90s lost. By focusing their moral and political critiques on aesthetic forms, they guaranteed morality and politics would be subsumed by aesthetics. If authenticity is merely a stylistic choice, then how could it matter very much? Seriously applying political issues to music inevitably trivializes them, and indeed, here were are in the apolitical present.
Jeff Buckley had to reach back to an artist of the 60s to touch the kind of consensus that "Hallelujah" has generated and maintained; nothing escaped the 90s similarly unscathed except Sleater-Kinney and Biggie. When we demand purity of our art, all art is inevitably impure, and possibilities are closed off; when we recognize the beauty of ambiguity, as in "Hallelujah," a universe opens up.