Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

"Hallelujah" Gets Enlisted in the War for a Christian Christmas

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has had a weird history. From the schmaltzy (but great!) original recording through John Cale’s lyrical rearrangement and Jeff Buckley’s radical reduction, it’s become an object of abstract emotional grammar, used less for its words than for its gestalt feeling and its ability to convey meaningfulness even in the absence of actual meaning. Its aesthetic beauty feels so timeless that it’s like being in the same room with the Mona Lisa: you just sense you’re in the presence of something important, and you should pay attention, even if you miss the point of the original object. I had always thought that this progression represented a kind of emotional flattening, a removal of meaning rather than a supplantation of meaning. But Susan Boyle’s version makes it clear that, in the eyes of the world, “Hallelujah” is now about Jesus. Which is weird, since it’s about the Old Testament.

Maura’s Johnston’s take on Boyle’s version—from that writing and a subsequent e-mail correspondence these thoughts spring—attracted some interesting comments! Here is my favorite:

You bet I'm happy to be in Susan Boyle's audience. Per this list, on the one hand the words of the verses don't matter because the beauty of the word Hallelujah means praise to God and that's what the host of Angles sang to the shepherds on that glorious night. And, you can be sure that was a big luscious chorus. On the other hand the words do matter because in spite of sin one can humbly ask for and receive forgiveness. Then be free to sing praises to God uplifting the soul to thankful worship of love with the word Hallelujah. After all this is the meaning of Christmas. The Gift is after all a Christmas album that tells "The Story" and sings praises to God. Susan Boyle has put Christ back into Christmas. She weaves all these songs all together to say so. The song Hallelujah with the true meaning of the word is only one thread in this tapestry.

Well! For those of you familiar with the song, this take will come as something of a surprise. Cohen himself has encapsulated the song’s meaning as being about the many different kinds of hallelujahs, an explanation which one might note does not include the word “Jesus.” Same for the song itself, which sticks pretty closely to Old Testament stuff: King David, Samson, the Ten Commandments (“you say I took the name in vain”), Genesis (“there’s a blaze of light in every word”), and so on. And also fucking! Boyle’s version doesn’t explicitly call out the J-dogg either, but as Maura notes, it does everything it can to avoid the verses in favor of the one-word chorus. She gives full shrift to David and Bathsheba but then only does half of the “baby I’ve been here before” verse, omitting the key “it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” line that’s been leaned on so hard in the past to create that sense of mournfulness.

All of this would be weird if she was trying to create another iteration of Buckley’s paean to attractive sadness. But she’s not. She’s trying to create a Christmas song, and those are less about meaning than about creating a mood; the approach of referencing the Bible and moving straight into the catchy chorus is not so different from, say, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or whatever. But, of course, those are rooted firmly in the Gospels. “Hallelujah” represents a kind of Christmas Creep for the Old Testament itself. What’s happened to Cohen’s song is the same thing that’s happened to Jews in America: they have become, in the eyes of Christians who don’t actually know any Jews, sort of proto-Christians.

Of course, as my future in-laws like to say, worse things have happened to the Jews. Generally speaking, America is probably the best country in which to be Jewish (at least among countries that aren’t Jewish theocracies), which you can blame in some part on Americans’ cheerful ignorance of Judaism. Not that this ignorance is honorable, necessarily. Growing up in rural New York State, I was not aware until sometime in my twenties that one of my friends in high school actually was Jewish, much less what that implied about her celebration of various holidays. (I also did not realize until fairly recently that she probably had a crush on me, which will tell you something about my high school experience.) Now that I have been to a small liberal arts college and spent ten years dating a member of the tribe, I have become aware of just how little many Christian Americans (or, in the case of me and my parents, culturally Christian/religiously atheist Americans) know about Judaism. Oh sure, we know it exists—after all, it’s right there on the census form along with Zoroastrianism! But many of us don’t know how it works, exactly. For instance, as I have forced my girlfriend into contact with the goyim, here are some things that have been thought in regard to her Judaism:

• That it would be polite to send her a card for Passover.
• That I would not be allowed into a synagogue.
• That it is really sad she is not with her family for Christmas.
• That we are actively celebrating Hanukkah.

I’ve become culturally Jewish enough now to find these mostly amusing (I strongly relate to the dentist on that one “Seinfeld” episode), and certainly beneficent confusion is preferable to anti-Semitism. (And it runs both ways: for the first few years of our relationship, I was repeatedly told that I was Catholic.) But this sort of ignorance is what allows the weird relationship between American evangelicals and Judaism to sustain itself, and Boyle’s cover plays directly into this sort of thing. I’ve always seen the way megachurchers regard Jews as kind of like how the head of the Cobble Hill car service in Motherless Brooklyn thought of lesbians: as people who are “wise and mysterious and deserve respect.” With the increased interest in the Bible as a literal document free of any historical or cultural context has come a respect for Jews as the most important figures in Bible I: The Quickening. Given that most Americans don’t spend much time around Jews, in the popular imagination they have become living historical artifacts, like a Shroud of Turin that eats latkes.

And so as context is sheared away, anything smacking of contemporary Christian values has become nominally about Jesus. That’s what all those “Hallelujah” covers have accomplished. By making a song about different kind of transcendence (joy, orgasms, triumph) just about suffering, the tune became eligible to qualify as a Song About Jesus, who also suffered attractively. Cohen’s solidly Jewish song is being used the same way Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck use stories about American history: to emphasize the importance of faith over mere humanism, the quality I always thought was at the root of “Hallelujah.” Clearly, that’s the message the commenter above got from the song, and as wrong as she is, she’s also, in her way, entirely right. Maybe Jesus wasn’t Cohen’s point, but it was certainly Boyle’s point.

Already malleable enough to qualify as a kind of consensus composition, “Hallelujah” has been transformed again, this time from a song whose lyrical meaning had been stripped away to one whose meaning and context have been entirely transformed, almost obliterating the original. I can’t imagine Cohen is too bothered by this; after all, what more could a Jewish songwriter dream of than writing the new “White Christmas”? And maybe we listeners shouldn’t be too worried, either. After all, if we know anything about the song, we know that it a master of disguise, and just when you think its story is finished, it moves again. Hallelujah, the king is dead; long live “Hallelujah.”

Mike Barthel heard there was a sacred chord.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

s. (#775)

Obligatory link to Barthel's original, genius paper on Hallelujah.

DandyKoufax (#6,590)

Respectfully, I think Canada is the best place to be Jewish because, well, we have Leonard Cohen.

Sassenach (#9,156)

Agreed. I'm in the US, but would prefer to be a Canadian.

In any case, I want evangelicals to get the fuck away from me and my landsman L. Cohen.

I'm not good at criticism, but it feels like some of the crazy from the blog comment comes from making these leaps about what the song means and lays them out as the truth. This column does it, too, but to a much smaller degree and, to me, that distracts from what could be a strong essay about the original meaning of the song (and its much deeper complexities). But then, I haven't read Barthel's original, so perhaps I just haven't done the homework and this builds on that. [also, maybe I'm just overly-sensitive to personal interpretations of music?]

Jared (#1,227)

I want to see them try this with the Happy Mondays.

mickeyitaliano (#2,202)

England itself is so non spiritual, and it freaking rankles my nerves how every year they vote on the best Christmas song. England is the twice a year visitor to church. The maniac in the parking lot after services. They can stuff this whole tradition in their arse along with hunting harmless animals. I listen to theBBC 22 hours a day. There is zero Christianity in England, only Muslim lore speaks out. Fuck them. They shoved "Do you know it's Christmas" down our walletes (sp). Fuckyou, UK. Do not be demonstrable in telling us (U.S) hoe to feel. Go start a footie riotyou stabby bitches. I could give two fucks and a crap if Susan Boyle or some no-name rides the top of thr chsrts this season.

LondonLee (#922)

We don't "vote on the best Christmas song", we buy the best (or most popular) Christmas record. It's called the pop charts.

melis (#1,854)

Listening to the BBC 22 hours a day? They let you out for yard time now?

gregorg (#30)

I can't bear to watch to the end; can anyone tell me if LenCo ever gets his jacket collar smoothed down in that 80s deChirico video?

sjc (#4,730)

Wouldn't the many and myriad ways in which "Hallelujah" has been used and abused attest to some sort of successful universality? It's one thing to parse the lyrics and get at the precise meaning of the song, but if the song itself evokes some sort of gestalt, hasn't it succeeded artistically? If the more Old Testament-y yearning (with all attendant sexuality and fucked-upness involved) has been stripped clean into a New Testament-y yearning (sexless and focused on the eternal boy-band-esque J.C. those Protestants seem to love), isn't it more a matter of a song of yearning being adapted by whoever listens to it? Could a Zoroastrian find that same strand of universal yearning and filter it through whatever spiritual filter they have?
/dick joke

sjc (#4,730)

P.S. We all have horns, Barthel. We just retract them. Don't let her tell you different.

Mine happens to be a pennywhistle, but most of us are issued saxophones at birth.

I like this but what kind of Scottish census form did you get that asked your religion? This is America, pal, we don't do that. This all fits in with the Post-Modern Right's belief in the death of the author. There is no intent, no truth, only interpretation.

dvahinarizona (#9,151)

…"and remember when i moved in you? and the holy dove was moving too – and every breath we drew was hallelujah. halleluuuuuuuuuuuyahhhhh…" (shit get me EVERY TIME) -d.xo

This article is excellent. I stumbled into the site by chance – and it fills a very interesting position in my life.
Let me explain. I was born Jewish in Argentina and later became an atheist. A few years ago I married an Australian woman and we both moved to Australia with our 1-year-old son. I feel like an observer in the games of Protestantism (Argentina being a much different, highly Catholic country) and especially about the radical turn to the right the world seems to be taking.
The media advocates nationalism, but the sheer mention of that word reminds me of the Argentinian military taking government taken by force in the 70s. Many of the media's images are downright scary, especially in light of my opinions on individual liberties: Obama turning to the right, The Tea Party, Wikileaks' Assange wanted killed, Net Neutrality, Extreme Christianity, Iraq, etc etc.
And, square in the middle of it all, the clash between a song like Hallelujah and the stupid, mindless masses that salute the flag, go to war and demonise others without questioning their leaders.
Your article reads like an essay on the cultural symptoms of modern authoritarianism.
Finally, if there's a song that's more up to date than ever, it's Cohen's "Everybody Knows".

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Well put, Andrés Nicolás Kievsky. On the top, vacuous sentimentality; underneath, monstrous rage. And as the monster's handlers have made serious mistakes, the monster is becoming restless and thrashing about. I'm reminded of Simon and Garfunkel's 'Silent Night'. Hallelujah indeed.

This is one terriffic piece of insightful cultural criticism. When you make concrete the incohate thoughts that were swimming around my head, you deserve kudos!


Apply that to what the Christians have done to the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. Ho ho ho.

By the way, she is wrong. You ARE allowed in a synagogue.

By the way, Mike – there is no reference to Samson in the song. Lots of people got their hair cut in Hebrew Scriptures.

Samson may have had his problems, but he was no "baffled king". He was a judge, if you recall.

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