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Should Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah Be a Christmas Song?

Susan Boyle Hallelujah

Is Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" a Jewish, Christian or secular song?

Mike Barthel has written an extraordinarily compelling case against Susan Boyle’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s famed composition “Hallelujah” titled, “Hallelujah Gets Enlisted in the War for a Christian Christmas.”  His post on The Awl is largely written is response to (and in support of) Maura Johnston’s criticism of the Boyle cover, Johnston having included it in the 20 Worst Songs of 2010 list she compiled for The Village Voice.

It was Johnston who first insinuated that Boyle recorded the song in an effort to co-opt the tune for Christ’s sake, which might be a stretch if Boyle hadn’t released it on a Christmas music album.  Indeed, I can’t imagine why or how “Hallelujah” belongs on an album with “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “O Holy Night.”  Then again, I’m not sure who authorized its use in Shrek, either.  I think Boyle’s use of the song is less about “a kind of Christmas Creep for the Old Testament,” as Barthel writes and more about the tune’s ability to be heard as “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.”  That’s Barthel’s initial analysis of the song, and I think Boyle’s version proves no exception. Take a listen:

Barthel is worried that conservative Christians will take “a song about different kinds of transcendence (joy, orgasms, triumph)” and turn it into a “Song About Jesus.”  I doubt it, unless you believe Boyle’s version has already done that.  Barthel notes that “Boyle’s version doesn’t explicitly call out the J-dogg,” the J-dogg being Jesus, obvs.  I can’t imagine there will be too many other recordings of the song in this vein, because the truly conservative will never get past lyrics like “remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah,” which is probably why they were cut from Boyle’s recording.  In fact, the entire second half of Cohen’s original was cut, in an effort to focus on the one-word chorus and to diminish the overtly sexual overtones of the verses.

My biggest complaint about Boyle’s “Hallelujah” is not that she included it on a Christmas album, but rather that her rendition is terrible.  In her Voice post, Johnston describes exactly what’s so bad about it:

The singular quality of a lousy “Hallelujah” cover is the way that it treats the verses – bad covers of the song either approach them as a penance that has to be suffered in order to reach the transcendent chorus, or as completely incomprehensible blather. Boyle’s version does both; her overly enunciated, hollow singing of each word that doesn’t mean “praise God” makes you wonder if she was actually given phonetic instruction in the studio.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Johnston makes fun of Boyle’s inclusion of the “kitchen-chair bondage” lyric, which I take exception to.  Not because it isn’t hilarious to listen to old lady Boyle sing about kink in an otherwise purified version of the song, but because I think those lines are the only ones Boyle actually sings with feeling.  I don’t think Susan Boyle is as afraid of sex as the general public might imagine she is.  Sure, she’s a proper British woman who remained a virgin because she never married – just like Queen Elizabeth I.  Think about the song that brought Susan Boyle her current fame: “I Dreamed a Dream.”  That song isn’t about wanting to make it in showbiz or envisioning little black children playing with little white children.  It’s about taking a lover who leaves you cold and lonely in the end, as in “Hallelujah.”

I’m not saying Barthel isn’t on to something when he says, “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.”  Like Barthel, I grew up in rural New York State, where I was raised Catholic.  I knew two Jewish kids growing up, but I didn’t know anything about Judaism.  When I came to learn more about the religion and the culture in college, I realized that while Jews may not be proto-Christians, Christianity – and Catholicism in particular – is derivative of Judaism.  The church I attended as a kid put tons of emphasis on the Old Testament, which is probably why to this day I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus as Savior.  I prefer to see him as another in a long line of prophets.

That said, maybe Boyle’s “Hallelujah” represents something greater going on in American culture, but as Barthel points out, the Jewish community has contributed to the “beneficent confusion” some Americans have about the chosen people.  He writes: “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’?”  Except, I hope “Hallelujah” isn’t the new “White Christmas.”  As former Strollerderby blogger Helaine Olen joked, “First they turn Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ into a Christmas song, now this?”

Here’s an interesting post-script: it looks like Boyle isn’t the only one trying to use Cohen’s secular song to further her faith.  When I sent this story around to my colleagues, fellow SD blogger Robin Aronson responded, “At Rosh Hashannah services this year the rabbi staked a claim for Jews taking back the word Hallelujah, and then he sang some of the song.  It was very moving.”  Fascinating.  Whether or not you prefer your Hallelujah sung by Cohen or Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright or K.D. Lang, let’s all agree that it’s best left in the hands of rock-and-rollers and not holy rollers.

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