Maybe you first heard it on VH1 after the Sept. 11 attacks. Maybe it pulled at your heartstrings during the 2010 MTV telethon to benefit Haitian earthquake victims or the memorial montage at the 2011 Emmy Awards. Or maybe you’ve admired the original from the moment you heard its stirring chorus. It — Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah — has rocked episodes of The West Wing, ER and House.
“The song has become one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of its time,” writes Alan Light in The Holy or the Broken, a biography of Cohen’s mysterious song. “Joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, Hallelujah is an open-ended meditation on love and faith — and certainly not a song that would easily be pegged as an international anthem.”
Hallelujah isn’t the first song to achieve puzzling ubiquity. The Star Spangled Banner combined Francis Scott Key’s patriotic lyrics with the melody of a ribald drinking tune, and Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s bleak Born in the U.S.A. at campaign rallies (to the Boss’ horror). But Cohen’s composition, which combines Biblical references to Samson and Bathsheba with sexually charged lyrics, is an unlikely candidate for covers by American Idol contestants.
“In a world polarized by the black-and-white politicization of religion, the song offers a rare example of both reassurance and doubt,” Light writes. “Obviously it has a recurrent prayerful element, but it’s also evident in even the most superficial reading that the verses undercut any sense of simple, blind faith.”
Light’s book chronicles the song’s bizarre trajectory from hipster playlists to prime time. First recorded by Cohen in 1984, the track was covered by Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale in 1991, and then made famous by doomed folk singer Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997. Although Light explores the differences between these versions ad nauseam — and dissects performances by U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy and cabaret-goth provocateur Amanda Palmer, among many others — Hallelujah’s success isn’t about art but business.
A former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin, Light estimates that every time Buckley’s version of the song appears in a TV show, Buckley’s estate, Cohen and Cohen’s record company and publisher split $50,000. Since Light also traces the recent Cohen boom — new records, a poetry collection and live performances at youth-friendly festivals such as Coachella — to the 78-year-old singer’s financial woes, Cohen fans may feel more broken than holy after reading his book. Is the final act of this icon’s career little more than a money grab?
Light didn’t interview Cohen so we don’t know where the singer stands. Those who want to know more about him should turn to Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, a fawning 500-plus-page biography released in September. But surely a near-octogenarian Jewish Buddhist known for his wit and wry lyrics has something more to say about Disney’s popularization of his work in the 2001 film Shrek. Cohen has said he’s ”very happy“ that Hallelujah is being sung. Then again, he’s also said that “too many people sing it.”
Justin Moyer reviewed this book for The Washington Post.