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Thursday, April 26, 2007


Below is my EMP paper as it was originally presented, followed by a new afterwards.

"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)

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 the
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.
What'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.

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.

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At April 27, 2007 7:12 PM , Blogger Dave said...

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.

Funny, I was going to use a different (well, several different) starting points to the inevitable rant/comment about this post. But this one is sticking for me, because it presents a framework that, retroactively, I can't work with for the rest of the essay. A few problems with it: (1) "authenticity" can't be any one thing, it requires a context (there's been some recent discussion about this in my inbox); my "authentic, faded 70s Ramones shirt" is a stylistic choice if I'm wearing it to go with my pants, a social choice if I'm identifying with the Ramones, a social choice if I'm calling it authentic in relation to inauthentic Ramones shirts that are pre-faded and sold at Urban Outfitter (and by association, the people wearing the UO version are inauthentic punks, or inauthentic Ramones fans, compared to me, the authentic fan).

(2) In the above example, authenticity matters a LOT, as a stylistic or lifestyle choice (my appreance is important to me), as a social argument (what my appearance says to others means a lot to me), and a general filter for who's allowed into my world (anyone wearing an inauthentic shirt cannot be friends with me, esp. while I'm wearing my authentic shirt).

(3) Seriously applying political issues trivializes music only to the extent that the issues themselves are trivial or presented trivially. Music is not the most effective way to put forward a political platform (as I've said before, no good pop song has ever contained the phrase "patriarchal hegemony," but "Stupid Girls" is a good pop song with piss poor politics), because it requires shades of argument that can't be reduced to slogans (a pop song functions more as a bumper sticker, an aphorism, a jingle, than an explicit argument). But a pop song can also encompass arguments implicitly, which is where they're useful as political tools. Paris Hilton's music is an excellent jumping off point for a very political debate -- but it's not in and of itself "political" in the message it's conveying (if it were, it would necessarily be oversimplified, since I can't even START talking about Paris without a good thousand-word running start).

(4) I disagree that we're at an apolitical present, but that we (or at least I) realized that we can't look to music to give us our arguments, we can only look INTO music to facilitate our arguments. If we want to be political, and use our music to be political, we can't get our politics from the inevitable bumper-stickerism of a "protest song" or "political song." We can explore our sexual politics by using Ashlee Simpson, we can explore our racial politics by using Ms. Peachez. We can do these things, and many of us (meaning everyone listening to it) do. The key is to push harder on the analysis, not to ask more of the music, since, according to me, the music is totally incredible. (And it sounds awesome.) (Ha, I actually have much much more to say about this post but I'm going to give it a break and re-enter from a different sentence...)

At April 27, 2007 7:13 PM , Blogger Dave said...

(PS, I really really loved this paper/post if that wasn't clear.)

At April 27, 2007 11:57 PM , Blogger Adrian said...

Fascinating read, Michael - thanks for posting your presentation and afterward, and the audio portion of your own version of "Hallelujah"

btw, Drowned in Sound, the UK music discussion forum, earlier this month tossed about the song, and, therein, you'll see a continuation of what you describe as the turning away from Jeff Buckley's version:

I mentioned in a previous post that I have the joy of working with an artist, Allison Crowe, who's recorded "Hallelujah", and who performs the song regularly in concert.

Consequently, I've come to witness a range of relationships people have to this remarkable song.

I've never seen the OC or any of those tv shows you've cited, so my observations are based on live concert experiences, as well as communications in connection with Allison's recording (which, fwiw, was inspired by Rufus Wainwright's recording and by her bassist; neither of us heard the Buckley version until after Alley's CD containing "Hallelujah" was released).

It's a murky territory to explore, but, in my role as artist manager, I'm inclined to be interested in such things as how songs are pitched and marketed to the music supervisors who place them in their shows. It's, obviously, not an open and free-flowing system.

It's pretty much self-evident, that, with increasing global access to high-speed internet, the public, music, audience is gaining opportunity to hear beyond the mainstream, and this will have a profound effect, I believe, in reclaiming "Hallelujah" from what you've tagged its "sad sack" status.

On a different note, the appearance of "Hallelujah" in the movie "Shrek" has introduced the song to a new generation of listeners. (And this movie soundtrack release may have as much, or more, to do with the broad popularization of the song in recent years than the Jeff Buckley rendition - which reaches a prior generation.)

One of my most surprising moments in concert came about one year ago, when, in Halifax, Canada - Allison was performing "Hallelujah", and, during the chorus, a group of young children, seated in the theatre balcony, spontaneously joined in singing sweetly.

It was a beautiful sound and moment, but it had us scratching our heads - until we realized the "Shrek" connection. And, even though the lyrical content of the song is more mature than is known to these elementary school agers, their harmonies were not at all out of place in the sonic sphere - and, even such an unfamiliar juxtaposition is not unknown to Leonard Cohen's longtime fans.

(I currently know of several schools - elementary and secondary grades - that are working "Hallelujah" into their repertoires.)

People love this song. Each and every version has its audience. And, with Cohen's "Hallelujah" now on the tongues of folks younger than Peter, Bjorn and John sing about, it's going to evolve and be heard on and on... sadly, joyously, and more.

At April 28, 2007 11:07 AM , Blogger Mike B. said...

Dave--to go backwards:

4) I completely agree with you on this, so sorry if it didn't come through. (It's sorta the main thing I'd like to address in my work in the future, so.) I complain because I think people do still very much think that politics only comes through in music via very explicit you know "save the whales FOR MY LOVE [guitar solo]" kind of things. And I think the whole mode of inquiry that the 90s pushed was very much about the explicit; they expanded the scope of poltical expression not to ambiguities and the context surrounding performances but to where you have your CDs manufactured. It's disappointing, but I think it's still the primary way people think about things--witness the baby boomers complaining about how these damned kids today haven't written any protest songs. That said, I do think we're living in an apolitical age in terms of the culture of music. This is more Matthew's issue, but think of the kids raised on the 90s--they grew up and embraced emo, which, though I'm beginning to appreciate it more and more, is maybe the most apolitical genre ever--mememememe.

3) I was trying to say more that the political issues are trivialized as a result of someone attempting to convey them sincerely/stupidly via music. The outright feminism of "Stupid Girls" is expressed so stupidly that I think it makes outright feminism look a little stupid, even though obvs. it's not. My traditional argument on this goes something like, "If a songwriter said shallow, unoriginal things about, say, love, or loss, or whatever, they would not be a very good songwriter. The same thing should go for politics. Anyone has the right to speak their mind but that doesn't make them right or the song good."

More later, gotta eat breakfast.

At April 28, 2007 3:21 PM , Blogger Dave said...

*woops, that was a typo!! The political issues are trivialized set to music obv. Sorry!

At April 28, 2007 11:29 PM , Blogger Say Anything Syndrome said...

Definitely made for an interesting read. I always (mistakenly) thought that it was the Rufus Wainwright version which appeared on the Shrek soundtrack. My main reason, I guess, being that every time someone put on the Rufus Wainwright version of the song, they'd say something like "Yea, did you hear this song on Shrek? It's so amazing"... or alternatively, "everyone else who's heard this song has only heard it because it was on Shrek".

My first contact with the song came from Jeff Buckley's Live A L'Olympia album, at the time of its release... in fact, I hadn't heard the original, despite having been brought up listening to Leonard Cohen albums around the dinner table (I'm Your Man, and Songs of Love & Hate, specifically), until recently.

Anyway, the one point within the article that I object to is this ridiculously sweeping generalisation:

"and indeed people who like Jeff Buckley also like the idea of fire-and-brimstone preachers and dilapidated churches and gospel choirs"

At April 29, 2007 12:11 AM , Blogger Say Anything Syndrome said...

w/r/t my earlier comment on thinking it was the Rufus Wainwright version used in Shrek:

On* they give the track-listing as it being John Cale, however in the review they mention Rufus Wainwright. Thus I am no longer sure of anything and won't be until I actually watch the movie again. For now though, I'll assume it's Cale.

(*see here)

At April 29, 2007 6:12 PM , Blogger Gardner said...

Re: Shrek - The Cale version is used in the movie, but the Wainwright version appears on the soundtrack album.

At September 5, 2007 10:54 AM , Blogger Inverarity said...

Well, that was an exhaustive analysis. Brilliant work. I don't think I agree with your basic assertion about soundtracking - adding depth to shallow situations and characters via musical chainjerking seems to provide little artistic value - but you've made a very cogent argument. It's something to think about. Thank you!

At March 5, 2008 1:42 PM , Blogger Economy Films said...

It may also be worth noting that Cohen described a little of the process of writing the song in an interview with Mark Rowland in Musician Magazine, 1988. He quotes his new lyrics in full, which at that point had been covered by no one else -- read for yourself here

At March 5, 2008 7:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's an a-capella version with a female lead vocalist that's really quite good.

At March 5, 2008 7:35 PM , Blogger Darby said...

Interesting little article. I'm not going to read through all the comments, but has anyone considered this song's appeal from a technical standpoint? Speaking as a musician, I am in awe of how well this song is put together -- the chord progression, the melody, and even the little self referential joke in the first verse (playing the fourth, fifth, and a minor chord as one sings those lyrics) are so brilliantly constructed, that any musician attempting it is bound to fall in love. It's a fun song to sing and play, and not surprising that so many musicians want to have a go. And of course the lyrics are terrific; as near to excellent poetry as lyrics ever swing.

At March 5, 2008 7:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

kd lang, people, kd lang - she nails this song - you all must listen - if you enjoy any of the many version, this will become your new favorite

At March 5, 2008 8:06 PM , Blogger robnashville said...

i would also tie the explosion of covers to the song's use in around the 9/11 event. For the 3 or 4 days after 9/11, they showed several songs on a loop on MTV and VH1, this song being one of them (the buckley cover that is).... i remember one of the others being POD's Alive. Being a bit older and owning Grace in college, i was familiar with the song but i imagine it was a younger generations introduction to the song. I think that is the cause for the explosion of airplay/film use the song has seen.

At March 5, 2008 10:11 PM , Anonymous Aaron Mintz said...

Very interesting analysis, but you have one mistake: Scrubs uses John Cale's version, not Buckley's.

See , at about 1:30. Definitely Cale.

At March 5, 2008 10:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's another version on iTunes by Brandi Carlisle...

At March 5, 2008 11:47 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

Aaron--d'oh! Yes, you're right. The especially embarassing thing is that I watched the Scrubs usage many, many times in the course of making my montage. Whoops. Thanks!

At March 5, 2008 11:49 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

Rob--you may be right, and thanks for the info, but it's probably hard to separate the 9/11 usage from Shrek, which came out the same year. But like I said, it's a song continually being "discovered" in different ways by different people. That usage may have exposed Buckley to a new demographic. (Though I suspect that demographic was already aware of Buckley.)

Thank god I didn't have cable then--that would've been crushing to hear after 9/11!

At March 6, 2008 4:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fersiwnau Cymraeg gan Brigyn/Welsh language versions by the folk/electronica group Brigyn.

At March 6, 2008 9:04 AM , Blogger John Foz said...

Great paper - rarely has a throw away tv show been disected and had its guts used to illustrate an idea. The ancients did it with the entrails of sacrificed beasts to foretell the future. Buckley's version is indeed moving. The original song is one that keeps you thinking, long after the final note is sounded.

At March 6, 2008 11:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also worthy of flippant note is "The Minor Fall, The Major Lift", possibly the most influential blog in NYC media history, authored by the then-anonymous Alex Balk. (Later of Gawker, now of Radar.)

At March 6, 2008 12:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. I had no idea that Gordon Downie (of The Tragically Hip) had recorded a version:

At March 6, 2008 12:50 PM , Anonymous Stefan Hayden said...

amazing article. I could read pop culture analysis for ages.

I would pay good money to read that "the Gilmore Girls teen-drama diaspora"!

Keep them coming!

At March 6, 2008 1:07 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

Thanks Stefan--I actually get into that a bit in my Gossip Girl piece.

At March 6, 2008 1:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to the Fall Out Boy song, an interview with the lead singer, Patrick Stump, (if I recall, it's been over a year) that I read seemed to indicate that the use of "Hallelujah" in that song was because it is what the bassist (and lyricist) was listening to when he attempted suicide a few years prior. So I'm not sure if it's intended to be a cover, but moreso an inspiration?

Regardless, bravo on the article. I must re-read it a few more times.

At March 6, 2008 2:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick Cave also does a great version. Don't sleep on him..

At March 6, 2008 5:43 PM , Blogger Adrian said...

Continuing the cycle of the song's rediscovery, in the past day or two, there's been lots of discussion following the performance of half the song by a contestant on American Idol, Jason Castro.

Castro follows the Buckley-Cale line, and, reportedly, there's been a spike in iTunes sales of Buckley's version - and, as far as I can tell, the recordings of various artists covering Hallelujah have also been boosted on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube views etc.

Increasingly, we're seeing the once monopolistic marketing dominance by the major labels weaken. Not sure how a song gets picked/licensed for Idol. This could still be a vestige of the old-style campaigns. Maybe. Maybe not.

Whatever be the case, audiences now following up on mass media exposure, have greater access to choice - and, they choose differently to one another. There's less and less of a mass "consensus".

At March 6, 2008 7:34 PM , OpenID Mark said...

I also remember hearing the Buckley version a ton immediately after 9/11 in all sorts of unexpected places. It would make sense that kids reacted strongly to it on the OC if they had already associated the song with major tragedies.

At March 6, 2008 7:40 PM , Anonymous kcortez said...

My Old Kentucky Blog has an amazing overview of this song with lots and lots of samples.

At March 6, 2008 9:48 PM , Blogger Russell said...

Bravo. It's good to know there are some people who can get more obsessive about a song than me. Ah, and what of the Dresden Doll's cover!

At March 6, 2008 10:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dylan also sang "Hallelujah".

At March 6, 2008 10:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully the Dylan version.

At March 6, 2008 10:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It IS the Dylan version- copy and paste into browser.

At March 7, 2008 3:53 AM , Blogger zed said...

interesting. I'll be watching "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" by Peter Sarstedt to see if it does a similar thing, after its appearance in the Darjeeling Limited.

At March 7, 2008 5:47 AM , Blogger Yousef Tuqan Tuqan said...

Great article, mate.

Here's another version that you might be interested in, which is done by Bono in the tribute album "Tower of Song"

At March 7, 2008 8:56 AM , OpenID lxvxjxnkie said...

I'm not sure what it says about you that you tag this entry 'political theory' and then skip right over the ICONIC usage of Buckley's "Hallelujah" in the West Wing. That was the usage that established the song as the soundtrack for Tragedy with a capital T, more than just pretty music to play over actors looking sad.

At March 7, 2008 9:55 AM , Blogger cxe2m said...

Really very blown away by the depth of the piece and the follow-on postings. I have to admit that for a quite a while I was unaware that the Buckley was a cover and didn't get to Grace until after his post-humous release.

Not being a muscisian, I didn't even know what the minor/major lyrics was in reference to. The explanation robs a little from my own dramatic interpretation.

At March 7, 2008 1:01 PM , Anonymous Aint too pleased.. but thats the world we live in... said...

Tis true. These many covers of Leonard Cohens song follows the tune of Jeff Buckley's dramatic and acousticly stunning version.


These covers of a cover happen to be after the poor boy drowns and Brad Pitt,VH1 and 'everybody and his mother' exclaim their love for his music and shy charm and talent..

Jeff's cover choices (and his interpretation of those) always left me with the impression that he was a musician humbled by the works of his older influences and sung them to pay homage in his own way. I felt that he was singing of his love for/to Nina Simone when he chose to do his rendition of 'The Other Woman'.

He sung Bob Dylan's 'Just like a Woman' as if he needed to get some sort of unsaid approval from the man. No. as if his life depended on it!

He sang to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Just)like a Groupie..

And even when he covered Van Morrison's 'The Way that Young Lovers Do' in a most unconvetional and brilliant format, it was not to outshine his predecesor but to honor him.

I truly believed he got more joy singing covers than his own written tracks...You can hear it.. The songs are out there in the bloggers crevices of the internet to be heard. Listen!

Everyone knows that he was a kid with uber-amazing talent -with his chords(vocal) and the strings(guitar). But he was a bit naive in believing that he and his pretty-boy face could have signed with and survived 'Big Label' and still maintain his simple underground image. I think he signed, thinking that he could be heard without being changed to their specifications.

The fact that he turned down movie roles and Ad Campaigns for Prada (without even a pause or a breath to think about it) proves his intention in music.

I imagine that he'd be rolling in his urn to know that his song has come to be compared and re-compared with Leonards and Rufus's by way of TV and movie liscenses.

Had he known what 'Big Label' would have done to make a buck with his songs, post-humously, I think that he'd be ashamed.
He would have regretted putting the song on the Grace studio album and he may have even felt the need to apologise profusely to Leonard Cohen for the bastardisaztion of what was, a well intended interpretation of a brilliant lyric from a talented, sincere, good little boy.

Lets ask Leonard Cohen what he thought of Jeff Buckley's acoustic interpretation BEFORE it was tainted by the likes of lazy film and TV directors and 'Big Label'.Im sure he'd say 'flattered'.

I think (in theory...dont get your panties in a twist and sue) that'Big Label' may have felt that Buckleys death was the best thing to ever happen for that contract.. Cause he never would have let them capitalize and do with him as they wanted...

And had this song stayed in the back of some vault for years or simmered in the underground music scene, the music snobs that we find critisizing a dead man's rendition would most probably be in great praise of it.

Somebody, ask Leonard Cohen, please.

And if you ask Bob Dylan what he thought of Hendrix's version of 'Like a Rolling Stone'. He'll tell you that it's infact better than his(!) - when infact both renditions are wonderfully incomparible and unchangeable neither by time nor popularity.

At March 7, 2008 1:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Where did the tide finally turn against the evil that is Jeff Buckley?"

Well, apparently in the Mississippi river, on May 29, 1997. Unfortunate choice of words, is what I'm saying.

At March 7, 2008 2:38 PM , Blogger Scott said...

Just for factuality's sake: At the time, Death Cab would have been on Atlantic Records, where they moved from Barsuk.

They have never been on Sub Pop except for a Singles Club release.

The Postal Service, however, are on Subpop and have the label's 2nd (?) best selling record.

At March 7, 2008 3:43 PM , Blogger Ken said...

Here is a version done by Bon Jovi at an Unplugged concert...

The best I have heard, IMHO

At March 7, 2008 4:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only read enough to get the gist, but it's all music to my ears. Nice one.

At March 8, 2008 7:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warren Haynes does a great version, too.

At March 8, 2008 10:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Norwegian groups version, which is the first I heard, is here

It's my favorite, but I have to admit I have not heard every version ever done.


At March 9, 2008 12:34 AM , Blogger Patrick said...

Do foreign versions count? The German band Janus did a cover in German for their limited edition EP Winterreise, lyrics here. I can't seem to find a link to listen to it anywhere online, but I think it's pretty good.

At March 9, 2008 2:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really is an excellent topic, and bravo for spending so much time & effort on it. Worth looking into and generating buzz as a topic.

I have to agree with an earlier poster though and say that I think you disservice your argument by skipping over the usage of the song in "The West Wing". For one thing, I think it's the key to understanding how the Buckley version took such precedence. I'd never heard of Jeff Buckley before I saw that episode, and heard that song. It's undoubtedly renewed interest in his music, and it stems from that usage.

I'd also argue that a great deal of interest in the song itself stems from the West Wing usage, as well as Shrek. With all due respect, I think your theory gives undue attention to "The OC", a show with a great deal of popularity, to be sure, but also, to be frank, a limited range of audience. Analyzing "The OC" usage may tell you why 15 to 25 year-olds enjoy the song, but not other cultural generations to the same degree.

Just a thought. It's definitely an excellent topic, and worth pursuing. The version comparisons are spot-on, I just think the quality of the essay (very high) demands a broader basis of comparison.

At March 10, 2008 11:35 AM , Anonymous ondioline said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this article and all of the comments. A great way to start a Monday. I would just add that I think there is one element of this that deserves some reconsideration: If people are indeed connecting with this song on some sort of religious basis, it is important to get a more clear understanding of the roots of those connections. The Biblical signifiers in the song are not inherently Christian/gospel in nature, so the underpinning of the "Christians are weird" part of these ideas is relatively thin. There is no rollicking "Come to Jesus", "hellfire and brimstone" context in the song because that's not the tradition that Leonard *ahem* Cohen was writing from/in/through. The religious themes he's using are "old testament" stories which one might also reasonably refer to as "Hebrew Scripture." If people are connecting with the story told in song because the themes are familiar, they are familiar in a pre-Christian way, and there is no "evangelicalese" from which to translate.

At March 10, 2008 11:46 AM , Anonymous adriana said...

Great post! You can add to the TV list Cold Case 3.66, which featured the John Cale cover. It was a "sad moment" usage, featured at the end when the ghost of the victim appears:

At March 10, 2008 12:25 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

ondioline: yes, that's come up before, and I totally got called on it. Just pretend like that one sentence about it being an alien culture to Cohen isn't there. I think it still applies to Buckley, though.

At March 10, 2008 9:39 PM , Blogger Clinton R. Nixon said...

To find such a rich essay on my favorite song (the original original version, thank you very much) really made my night.

I humbly offer up my own cover - very humbly, as I'm one of the worst musicians I know. If you've ever wondered what a ukulele would sound like electrified with a tone-deaf guy screaming "Hallelujah," though, I'm your man:

At March 11, 2008 3:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Clinton

One of the essential aspects of rock-n-roll (and/or pop or whatever) is that we are all free to grab a song that has meaning for us and perform it in our own way. Garage bands and cover bands and great artists have all done it, and you've done it too. Congratulations.

I suppose not everybody will like it (you seem to be aware of that) but sadly they're missing out on part of the magic of making music.

And Mike B., thanks for a great essay and your thought-provoking comments. I'm glad there are folks who look at so many levels of meaning. I admit I became aware of this incredible song through Shrek (although I'd heard it earlier, vaguely, probably Buckley) and then it somehow became attached to my own personal tragedy of divorce (definitely Buckley), and only now am I starting to recognize that it's a tremendous song with the flexibility to apply to many different situations, interpretations, and performances.

I think it's a great song, and thanks to your insights I'll be interested in tracking its continued usage.

As a matter of fact, I just might play it sometime as a postlude at my church job, and see what people say about it...

At March 11, 2008 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved reading this....

So Buckleys version catapoulted this song into the movie theme song of the this generation Hall of Fame. I fear that most of this generation will not appreciate a song like this for more than a mere traslation of the movie scene they heard it in.

Okay. No othe cover of this song was ever as clear and moving as Jeff Buckley's. (Tell me of another and I'll call you a liar..)

His voice is incredible but I think it has an actors quality to it. The fact that you can pull so many things from his tones make this version mor versatile than the others for a film track..

Just take a look at the German indie fim 'The Edukators'. There were so many characters with so many different emotions at the same place and time and yet, the director chose to put the entire Hallelujah track in. I will not say if, in this case, it worked to the dierctor's advantage or not but if an etire song was to be played I think there could not be a better choice.

Just for fun lets imagine a Publishing Company shopping this song around the film world...








The one thing this vocalist lacks is that age old wisdom and humour from the versions of Leonard Cohen. But the fact remains that Clint Eastwood Western films that demand that old Leonard Cohen version are few and far between whats coming out these days.

But to summarise the above mentioned joke, Buckleys version has become more popular than the rest, because it was performed as dramatically as the singer lived, performed and died.. You know, the 'minor fall and the major lifts'.

That's where the bankability comes in for big TV and movies...

Also, for those who remember or respects Buckley's struggle to remain humble through his career, it adds that 'indie' credibility to any film, no matter the budget.

At March 13, 2008 8:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought you'd want to know that your article has a new life:

At March 19, 2008 7:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The original recordings of Jeff Buckley performing Hallelujah from the Bearsville Recording Studio have been posted on various sites.

They're worth a listen if not just for the oddity of hearing Buckley imitate Eddie Vedder growling "Hallelujah"! Followed by Buckley as Vedder singing "Leonard Cohen spoke in class today". All wrapped up in the outro with an apologetic admission by JB that he's "just jealous" of the Pearl Jam lead singer.

Producer Andy Wallace was nicknamed "The Fist" for the tight control he kept on things. You can hear Wallace's influence on everything in that recording - right down to the breath that's appended to the start of the Grace album version of the song.

One of the Columbia records people around at the time has written: "The sessions started with Jeffy recording all by himself. He did about 30 takes of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", and all 30 or so were pretty different (the album version is a composite of the best parts of 3 takes)."

Some fans prefer the raw recordings. Since you don't like the slick version that's so suited to tv and movies you may too. Whatever be your take, in his own way, Andy Wallace's hand is as important in the creation of Grace, and the sound of Buckley's best known Hallelujah as is Glen Ballard to another iconic '90s disc, Alanis Morrissette's Jagged Little Pill.

Without the sonic processing and studio polish, it's hard to imagine that Buckley's Hallelujah would have the same place in your essay - for better or for worse.

At March 27, 2008 4:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting paper! Musically, my favorite version is kd lang, but I too miss the last two verses on most of the covers. Only Bob Dylan uses them and his version is almost unlistenable. I'd love to know if anyone has done a cover that uses those last two verses (these verses made me love the song in 1985).

At March 31, 2008 6:04 AM , Blogger Ian said...

Am I the only person who still thinks John Cale's version is the greatest track ever recorded?

At April 6, 2008 1:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here are some thoughts on an aspect of the Buckley version that doesn't seem to have been discussed: the issue of musical form. It seems clear that Jeff was aware of following the words and mood of John Cale's very classical version with string trio; and this is the version that RufusW. and several others present also. Leonard Cohen's deplorable performance on German TV, on the other hand, uses the first two verses of this version and two verses not found in the Cale tradition (from the 15 verses all told). In the Cale trad. there are small variants in wording ("The holy dove was moving too" sometimes has "holy ghost" and in one comatose RufusW. version "holy dark") that don't matter greatly. What does matter is musical form and thus meaning. In this respect the JeffB. version is an art-song, the others simply more or less successful "renditions." The emotional point of the version in "Grace" is already anticipated (or echoed) in the b/w version on YouTube, but a more substantial significance emerges in the studio production. It begins with a tentative, improvisatory introduction in which the theme emerges (mi so la-la, la so mi-mi), to which a flowing accompaniment is added, and then the first verse begins, addressed to "you." Another addressee appears in the next verse, apparently David the psalmist, though he is conflated with Samson (and Bathsheba becomes Delilah), and it seems clear that David/Samson is simply a projection of the singer himself. At this point (where the Cohen sequence is abandoned) the singer returns to the "you" of verse one, whose preoccupation with victory marches seems to answer her initial disinterest in music (and now the singer), and the song could--and indeed seems to--end with the demise of ecstasy in their lovemaking ("remember when I moved in you"--a wonderful physicality in that phrase: Jeff himself was quite direct about orgasm as the subject of the song). And now there is an extended instrumental postlude that could balance the prelude; but as before, the song begins again, providing a different and more embracing closure (with "It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah" uniting the third and fifth stanzas in what the Germans call "Ritournell-komposition." To judge from the production notes the guitar is Jeff, not someone called in; and the interlude is clearly his idea (not derived from the Cale tradition or his producer) for providing the transition from the particular reminiscence to the bleak general conclusion in verse five about his experience of love's mixed blessings. The anguish continues to rise into the final Hallelujahs, then dissolves not in a painful minor but a quietly accepting major resolution. I find this awesome. (It also recalls the ancient proverb "Every animal is sad after coitus except women and roosters," but I guess that's another matter!)

At April 6, 2008 2:24 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

When considering the musical form of Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah as it's heard on Jeff Buckley's album Grace it does seem that the album's Producer has to be acknowledged for his key role.

According to various first-hand reports, and the chronicle of Buckley biographer David Browne ("Dream Brother"), 21 or more quite different versions of the song were recorded. None of these performances was used whole.

Andy Wallace took three of these versions and constructed the composite recording which is heard on Grace. That's the job of a producer - especially one working for a big record label like Columbia/Sony.

Wallace succeeded in creating an album track that has endured. The fact that it sounds natural rather than artificial demonstrates his skill in combining the elements of the various versions.

For many Jeff Buckley fans, this is the defining version. That it is actually an artful studio production by Andy Wallace does not diminish the appeal. There are some fans I know, who consider this version too slick, and they prefer the actual live performances by Buckley.

That's a different discussion. When it comes to Hallelujah (and all songs on Grace) whether one likes the production or not, it's Wallace most of all who is responsible for the sonics.

At April 7, 2008 7:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone explain the drop in covers from mid-1997 to mid-1998? Looks like the chart bottoms out and then rises - perhaps in tandem with precious metals futures. What about an overlay of Sony's stock price?

At April 9, 2008 3:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the drop in covers coincides with the death of Jeff Buckley in 1997...

To tender to touch at that point maybe?

At May 13, 2008 10:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

where can i purchase imogen heap singing "hallelujah"?;
i've got it on my L. Cohen cd, but would love to have a copy of imogen's rendition.

At May 21, 2008 2:08 AM , Anonymous Rev. Dan said...

> and in one comatose RufusW. version "holy dark")
> that don't matter greatly

I think you've quite misunderstood the lyric. He sings "holy duck" (instead of "holy dove").

It's a joke, see?

At May 21, 2008 2:31 AM , Anonymous Rev. Dan said...

> "I remember when I moved in you" is unambiguously about sex, and the final verse --"

Forgive me if somebody has already pointed this out, but this line is actually about more than just sex. There's a spiritual pretext as well... Cohen is contrasting a physical expression which is often viewed as crass with a spiritual expression which is not similarly viewed.

"Remember when I moved in you, and the Holy Dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah."

A Christianist explanation/expression of this would be the acceptance of Christ (I moved in[to] you[r heart]), the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Dove), and the continuing process of sanctification (every breath we drew was "praise God").

I'm not suggesting that Cohen, Cage, Buckley, et al are/were Christianists, but rather that there are definitely Judeo/Biblical allusions/references that permeate the entire song, not just the obvious "David played and pleased the Lord" and Samson bits.

There's more there than just innuendo, which is part and parcel why I like Cohen's songwriting so much.

At May 26, 2008 12:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please remember that Cohen's spirituality is Jewish rather than Christian, i.e., the sacredness of the word -- "the blaze of light in every word" is a concept that's more emphasized in Jewish mysticism and spirituality than in Christian. Though, of course in other ways there are a number similarities. But this is not a song in which one would look for the presence of Christ per se, more for the presence of Spirit and the broken offerings that humans can present. Cohen has a number of songs that explore similar themes, and that explore sexuality and spirituality as well.

I'm not surprised that Dylan is the only one who sings the last verse, as he wanders this same territory. (And yes, it's been over 25 years since he left his born-again phase.)

It would be nice if more people could recognize that there's more to religion than Bible thumpers and that there's stuff there for grown-ups.

At May 26, 2008 1:02 AM , Blogger gary said...

i am 59 and i sing the song with my 16 old son on piano. one additional layer to the song for me is that Jeff Buckley's father, Tim, is one icon of the singer songwriter 60's who wrote and performed some of the most compelling music of the time. The Fiddler, Once I Was, In My Life (?) and Morning Glory... Tim died too young as did his's almost too much, dig?

At May 27, 2008 4:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hallelujah has become part of the popular music canon in the way of a folk song.

Commercial dictates and imperatives that placed the Jeff Buckley version in so many places now are balanced out by the freedom of the internet which allows people to hear many more, and more interesting, versions.

The corporate-controlled recordings may still dominate in the mainstream forums of tv and movies, but overall, if you can somehow graph overall audience patterns, there'll be seen much greater diversity in listening. Maybe something to try in another few years.

At July 18, 2008 9:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The hottest female singer Ava Leigh who just came off tour with Lupe Fiasco has recently put out her single Mad about the boy which is available on I tunes or visits

At August 12, 2008 11:23 AM , Anonymous cindyhotpoint said...

Sir: A correction. Adam Brody played Dave, Lane's boyfriend (and bandmate) on "Gilmore Girls". He was most definitely not Rory's boyfriend.

At August 22, 2008 1:36 PM , Anonymous Rev. Mike Oxford said...

Here is an extract of a sermon I gave recently. I thought some readers of this blog might find it interesting. Your article (Michael Bathel) and some of the comments on the blog were really helpful in preparing this sermon. Thanks!

‘Finally I’d like to play you a song. It’s the original version of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen who is of course Jewish and well versed in the Bible. You might recognise it from the movie Shrek where - at least on the soundtrack album - the song is covered by Rufus Wainwright. Lots of other people have covered this song including Jeff Buckley, K D Lang and Alison Crowe. And it’s played - generally as backing to a sad situation - in lots of other movies besides Shrek and also in various episodes of TV programmes such as the OC and Scrubs [Mention Bathel article]

I think Rufus Wainwright sings it better than Leonard Cohen but he uses different words to those that Leonard Cohen used. The original version is firstly less sad than the Rufus Wainwright version and secondly its words are - in my view - much easier to understand. Here are the words [I handed them out]. I’m not absolutely sure what the song means but it contains clear references to today’s story [the story of the affair between David and Bathsheba to be found in 2 Samuel Chapter 11: you’ll have to read this for the rest of this extract to make sense.]

First you probably don’t need reminding but ‘hallelujah’ means ‘praise the Lord’: the word is constructed by putting two Hebrew words together: hallelu (meaning ‘praise’) and Yah (for the name of God, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘the Lord’). It is the opening word for at least ten of the psalms in the Book of Psalms. But obviously people use it in other contexts. And in doing this, as the third verse acknowledges, they can be accused of taking the name of the Lord in vain because the word contains the name of God.

The first verse of the song is about someone composing music that ‘pleased the Lord’. According to the Bible David composed most of the Book of Psalms. I can’t find a direct reference in the Bible to David pleasing the Lord by composing psalms but presumably he did - and in clear contrast to what he was up to in today’s story. Note that in 2 Samuel 11 the only mention of God comes in the very last verse and it says of the events described in that chapter: ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord’.

The second verse has the clearest references to today’s story. It says that: ‘You (David?) saw her bathing on the roof’, that ‘her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you’ and that she (Bathsheba?) ‘broke your throne’. The affair with Bathsheba, did according to the writers of 2 Samuel, metaphorically break David’s throne - at least in the long term. If you read further into 2 Samuel the affair had ongoing repercussions for ‘the House of David’ which in the end left David virtually powerless. Of course Cohen’s suggestion that Bathsheba tied David to a kitchen chair and in this way broke his throne also has pretty passionate sex in mind - no wonder David then shouted ‘Hallelujah’ - ‘Praise the Lord’.

The reference to the women cutting the king’s hair in this verse is - of course - to another Biblical story of sex and politics: the story of Samson and Delilah. On the face of it this is a bit confusing but when you think about it there are strong parallels between the David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah stories: both are stories of rulers loosing their powers (both sexual and political) because of extra-marital affairs.

The third verse is, I think, about David explaining his affair with Bathsheba afterwards. In 2 Samuel 12 we have the story of the prophet Nathan castigating David for what he’s done. Nathan does this in an extremely clever and subtle way: he tells David a parable about a rich man with lots of sheep stealing a lamb from a poor man who has just one and in this way gets David to admit that he was wrong. Obviously it takes time for David to come to regret having sex with Bathsheba. You can imagine him saying to Nathan, ‘You say I took the Name [of God] in vain…But if I did well really what’s it to you?’ ‘OK they heard me shouting hallelujah but so what?’

In the fourth verse David seems to have come round (perhaps a long time later) to admitting that his affair with Bathsheba wasn’t exactly a good thing: he now agrees that somehow ‘it all went wrong’. However he still trying to justify himself: ‘I did my best, it wasn't much. I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch’ but he only regrets things up to a point: ‘Even though it all went wrong, I'll still say Hallelujah’

OK I’m probably making too much of this. It seems clear that the second verse is definitely ‘about’ the affair between David and Bathsheba but you may not agree with me that the third and fourth verses are. But what is surely undeniable about this version of the song is that it is making connections between passionate religious and sexual feelings.

And the feelings we sometimes (rarely for most) get when we feel in touch with God and the feelings we get in the best of sex surely do have a lot of similarities. Both (well in my experience) can be tremendous, explosive and both are rarely unalloyed - both are generally tinged with sadness - if only because climactic and transitory - you know that they not going to last. Both can lead to you shouting ‘Hallelujah’: and there is a blaze of light’ in the (holy) Hallelujah you can feel when you know for sure that God is there and in the (broken) Hallelujah that you feel in orgasmic sex (even sex you know you might come to regret afterwards).

Both in our relationship with God as in sex there is an inevitable and/or a necessary ‘letting go’. With sex this is pretty obvious. In our relationship with God we surely have to bow to the inevitable. We might in retrospect be able to see clearly how one thing has led to another, how the bad things we have done - even if they seemed relatively harmless, even good, at the time - have sometimes had dire consequences. But although there might be some point in recognising our part the course of events (confessing our sins) there is little point in regretting what we have done. In the end all we can really do is ‘stand before the Lord of Song’ and say ‘Hallelujah’.

At August 22, 2008 1:53 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

That's a really great take on the song. Thanks for posting it!

At November 2, 2008 4:52 PM , Blogger Adrian said...

Looks like spam bots have invaded!

Should any flesh-and-blood characters read this far, (beyond the spam), fyi, there's a BBC Radio 2 documentary about Hallelujah online for about the next week.

Until November 7 or 8, 2008 - "The Fourth, The Fifth, The Minor Fall" can be heard @

"Guy Garvey, front man of Mercury Award winners Elbow, examines the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah by talking to the artists who have covered it. Marking 25 years since Hallelujah was first recorded, Guy explains why the track has been analysed by both academics and theologists and looks at how the song has graced anything from teen dramas to Hollywood blockbusters."

Contributors include Kathryn Williams, Andy Wallace, Mary Guibert, Imogen Heap, Alex Patsavas, Allison Crowe, The Bishop of Croydon, Christine Collister, and Jon Wilde.

At December 2, 2008 5:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Adrian. I made it past the spambots. I was too late to get the doc on iPlayer, but someone has posted it in 7 parts on You Tube.

My favourite version is John Cale. I think that one is the definitive version, and Buckley, Wainwright, et al have used it as the reference point. I find Buckley's too idiosyncratic. In fact, I find his album "Grace" more overwrought than a work of genius. But that's just me.

At December 16, 2008 6:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watching the Welsh version makes it so obvious that the music alone gives you chills. Sure, no doubt Cohen's words are haunting and brilliantly constructed. But it's the way the music is put together. That fourth, fifth, minor fall, major lift never fails to seriously make me tingle and go all goose-pimpley. Excellent essay.

At December 16, 2008 4:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Death Cab for Cutie, although a weird name for a band, is after the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's song of the same name. You can see them perform it in the Magical Mystery Tour.

Now back to Hallelujah. Although I like Cale's version, and Buckley's and kd lang's, the best of all is Cohen's own recent live version, which aches and burns with all the many years of experience, and which has evolved to greatness lyrically, musically, and vocally.

The fact that it is now being used for a winner of talent show X-Factor to pitch for Christmas number one in the UK is sobering, but not unexpected. As you say, many assume the song is Buckley's, and a young death always increases interest.

At December 17, 2008 7:59 PM , Blogger AlisonW said...

Although I know that logically I must have heard the Cohen version earlier, my first 'recognition' of the song was its use on West Wing as a powerful counter-point to the off-screen action. So memorable that it haunted me for ages. Or maybe it was because the Buckley version gets straight into one's mind. Anyway, I've since bought his Grace album so that I can hear it with my ears and no only in my head ... A great paper (and the idea of a Gilmore Girls diaspora paper is a great one - a favourite series of mine where the OC never was)

At December 27, 2008 5:41 AM , Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for an interesting essay which gave me a lot to ponder in unfamiliar genres. It's a pity the links to the sound cuts are broken but the cuts are mostly on you tube.

My comment is these aren't musician jokes, this is a very dense example of a backstager. The ambiguity of who "you" is, a cruel god or an ex female lover cycles this but the point remains the same, this is someone who is proud of his singing but knows it is futile as a way to heal his life. The layers of ambiguity pop you back and forth into the singers frame of reference in the same way "Roses Turn" does in Gypsy.
As mentioned, the overuse of the song as a rhetorical trope is in part the writers saying the story transcends their ability, take mercy because of their sincerity.

At April 20, 2009 7:17 PM , Anonymous Pam Welsh-Huggins, Columbus Ohio said...

Hey,Michael: Nice work. My favorite comment you make is the notion that the song has become the auditory equivalent of the silent movie star's hand to the forehead. I'm the music director of a musical theater troupe of Shrek-era kids -- ages 10-16 -- one of whom is singing the song in our upcoming concert. To help the kids develop a sense of context for their repertoire, I'm writing a little timeline of moments in musical history -- and want to mention your remark b/c I think it's so perceptive...May I refer to you as "cultural critic & blogger Michael Barthel" or do you have a better tag for yourself?

At April 20, 2009 8:19 PM , Blogger Mike B. said...

Hi Pam. Sure, that would be fine. Can I ask what this is for?

At May 7, 2009 3:32 PM , Anonymous Pam Welsh-Huggins, Columbus OH said...

Thanks, Mike. Yeah: The timeline is primarily for the 21 members of our troupe to gain a sense of the history of the songs they're performing. If I can squeeze enough time together in the next week, though, I wanted to display the material in a way that the audience can check it out, too -- printed out & displayed on the wall of the theater lobby...

At November 8, 2009 11:44 PM , Blogger dad2rem said...

I was working on my computer with Radio Paradise playing when the Buckley version was played. Initially, it was hard to place, though it was familiar. I confess that I placed in Shrek. (I must add that I do think Shrek is one of those movies that somehow captured some magic in a bottle, but I digress.) My interest piqued, I started looking into its background. Somehow, I just knew there had to be some history there. Obviously, I came upon the innumerable versions and artists covering it since its origin. Very confused, I eventually got to this blog. I just wanted to give, in Colbert's words, a "tip of the hat." Thank you for your thoughts and for presenting them clearly and with examples.


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