Well, maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
Leonard Cohen from Hallelujah
I was with my wife, Linda, at the Coffee Depot Kapsali, Charlotte St, Brisbane CBD , yesterday enjoying lunch and drinking coffee. The music playing was pleasantly Christmas themed until Hallelujah by the late Leonard Cohen started playing. Up until then, I’d only been peripherally aware of the background music. However, when Hallelujah started playing I was jolted back to reality, and quite frankly, deeply offended to hear the words quoted above presented as Christmas-themed music.
I must make it clear that I’m not offended by the late Leonard Cohen, his lyrics or music. I respect his memory as a master craftsman and artisan of words in song and literature. I’m not offended per se by the lyrics of Hallelujah . Hallelujah manages to be both haunting and joyous at the same time. It’s a juxtaposition of both the despondent and the buoyant; the ribald and the reverent; the profane and the sacred. It’s music that mixes dark Old Testament imagery of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, with a light-hearted chorus of “Hallelujah!” I don’t know of anything else quite like it.
What I am offended by, is that I live in a society that sees and hears only black-and-white and ignores all shades of nuance. Of all the times that Hallelujah is played or sung; how can it be that only the light-hearted chorus is heard but the dark imagery is ignored? That the sacred is heard but not the profane; that hears the reverent but not the ribald; the buoyant but not the despondent.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
– Simon and Garfunkel, The Boxer
I’m offended that the Hallelujah is been performed so often, including popular covers by John Cale, the late Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, also by Bob Dylan, U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake and so many others. It makes regular appearances on X-factor, The Voice and similar TV talent shows, it’s played in elevators and shopping malls, even in church services, funerals and wedding ceremonies. It was featured in the popular animated movie Shrek (Dreamworks, 2001). Now Hallelujah is making appearances as a joyous Christmas song.
This is another reason why I’m offended. That the artistic memory of Cohen is being tainted by gross overuse for the profit motive. It’s undoubtedly a good little earner for Cohen’s beneficiaries and publicists but it’s doing his memory a disservice in making the sublime lyrics seem banal and contributing to their misunderstanding, by the public, as I highlighted above.
I’m offended that in our society that no one thinks that being offended anymore, for any reason, is justified. Nothing remains offensive anymore, we’re jaded, we’ve seen it, read it or listened to it before. It’s all out there on the internet somewhere. A Google touch away. Furthermore, you can cause offence just by being offended, As happened to me at the Kapuli Coffee Depot, when I tried to point out that I would like the track removed from their playlist. “No, go,” I was told, “it’s Spotify’s problem that we have no control over.”
Most of all I’m offended that the bitter irony that permeates all Cohen’s work isn’t, apparently, obvious to those who sing or listen to Hallelujah. When I first heard Cohen singing Hallelujah I could almost see the bitter irony exuding from his gravelly voice as he croons his way through the lyrics . The “Hallelujah” at the end of every verse is palpably dripping with irony. The words are from someone who is profoundly disappointed in all that has happened to them and, in the end, has nothing to offer the “Lord of Song,” despite their best efforts, excepting for a “Hallelujah” – that’s all there is. Cohen has turned the meaning of the word around: “Hallelujah” has become a sigh of deep regret. Not the joyful exclamation of worship that we expect it to be.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
The verse above ends on a defiant note that might almost be part of an anthem of rage against God. But the genius of Cohen is that he defies easy classification. With each verse, he has piled meaning upon meaning onto the word “Hallelujah.” In the verse above its despair, in another verse, “Hallelujah” has a sexual meaning, the exclamation of sexual climax. In yet other verses “[i]t’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” or “[t]he holy or the broken Hallelujah“. In this way the word “Hallelujah” becomes loaded with different meanings; varying from the sacred-secular to the sacrilegious .
I don’t lightly recommend that anyone should take offence. But in this case, I do feel that we should be offended that the hard as bullets lyrics of Cohen have been made all soft and gooey by including them in an animated movie for a heartsick green ogre in Shrek; or as background music in a shopping mall or coffee shop; or as a Christmas song. If you hear Hallelujah played in public this Christmas time in a way that seems out of place, or inappropriate, then please take offence and make a point of discussing it with someone that has responsibility for it being played.
Cohen has been called the “godfather of gloom” and all his work does fairly wallow in despondency, loneliness and brokenness. Our society has a problem with depression and suicide, which spikes around Christmas and New Year. This is a final reason why Hallelujah is inappropriate as a Christmas song.
The song Hallelujah rather dwells on the feelings of brokenness and isolation that King David felt when he came to a realisation of his sin with Bathsheba and his part in what amounted to the murder of her then-husband Uriah the Hittite. Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t rise above these feelings. In the fuller Bible story, David sought and found forgiveness and restoration with God. Whilst he didn’t live to see the kingdom that he fought so many wars for; his son with Bathsheba, Solomon, did when he became king after David’s death
David was also a forerunner in a lineage that led to the birth of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas. The song Hallelujah falls short of celebrating the forgiveness, restoration and hope that is so important for all of us to celebrate this Christmas time. For the Christian there is also the promise of resurrection; for Christ was born that that man might die no more.
 Good friendly service and good wholesome food. Highly recommended.
 I’ve heard that Cohen drafted 80 verses or more to Hallelujah in trying to get the meaning to match what he had in mind. Only a small number of drafted verses were ever published. The full list of published verses, as well as the story behind them, can be found at official Leonard Cohen Forum.