Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a Christmas Song

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

 

Leonard Cohen performing in 2013.
Cohen performing at King’s Garden, Odense, Denmark, 2013.

I was with my wife, Linda, at the Coffee Depot Kapsali, Charlotte St, Brisbane CBD [1], 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 which seems out of place, or inappropriate, then please take offence and make a point of discussing it with someone that has responsibility for it been 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 which 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.

____________

[1] Good friendly service and good wholesome food. Highly recommended.

[2] You can find the lyrics that I’m referring to at Genius lyrics. One of the best cover versions of Hallelujah, sung by the late Jeff Buckley can be found on YouTube.

[3] The original Leonard Cohen version of Hallelujah can be found here on YouTube, complete with lyrics.

[4] 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.

8 Replies to “Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a Christmas Song”

  1. Beautiful and insightful. I’d never looked at it from that perspective before. I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to Cohen version, for which I will make certain I do. Thank you for the perspective that only one that truly hears with their ears and mind can hear.

    1. Thanks Marianne. I still want to teach but to a wider audience and on a wider range of topics. Your comment is a validation. Much appreciated!

  2. Cohen’s version is certainly taken for Sherk and used for children, whom have no idea, what they are listening to, that are innocent of the double meaning, the double meaning does make it a inappropriate Christmas song as it is not one, this would mean, this is now, another, commercialized song used to make money, to get bottoms in seats, to make people think they are playing Christmas music. So many are Isolated at this time of year, this is not a good song for the depressed, to be hearing, but if people are earing money by playing music, people don’t care about mental heal, which is sad, some one said to me, they only way to get some one to stop playing it, is a partition, but with spotify, they don’t work that way, even if some one, dies, the song will still play, they care not for their community, as it is global.

    “And remember when I moved in you
    The holy dove was moving too
    And every breath we drew was Hallelujah..” it goes straight into the other words..

    Wow..
    The words.. before the the verse you mentioned is worse.. Listening to Leonard Cohen in live london. I didn’t think it was that bad..

    I can see how some one can be offended in public. I love the Cartoon, it is not the first cartoon, were adult themes were placed in it, so the parents can enjoy it too.

    That is not a Christmas song, in my book.

    1. Thanks Amy for the long and considered reply. The lines you quote from Verse 4 (Genius lyrics) are definitely sexually charged. The holy dove would seem to be a reference to the Holy Spirit, so I guess he’s saying that sexual congress and spiritual communion are basically the same thing. This is something that any Christian would be offended by. But I’m trying to put aside my personal convictions and say that,: even so, there’s good secular reasons to be offended by Hallelujah as a Christmas song. I’m not sure what you mean by the “cartoon” though. Is this about Shrek?

      1. Many Cartoon Movies Like Sherk, Al-laden, Lion king, and frog princess, and many others of Disney, have adult undertones.. while focus towards children, to keep adult attention.

        The dove represents purity.. normally.. also a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

        For such a play of words.. and imagery.. yes.. not a Christmas song. An old song of the broken hearted, but also, sexual, and religious, double talk, to almost confuse people.

  3. In general I think, a lot of people take offense but imho offense should never be a statement of power or a substitution for a argument (not that this is the case here. To often this is the case and people become numb to it). Secondly, in my opinion art often means different things to different people as is likely the case for Cohen’s Hallelujah. It is very sad that more people don’t realize the place the music comes from however wanting to have it removed from a public setting is going a bit far, if you consider there are those that might find solace in the ‘gloominess’ of the music.That being said offense can be personal and/or completely justified but especially in the realms of art I think removing yourself from something distasteful is better for the individual and society in general imho.

    1. Yeah. I get that its a balance between freedom to stand up for what you believe in and the responsiblity of paying your dues as a good member of society. On this occasion I was thinking that the cost placating the feelings of others was too much. My wife Linda thinks differently,

  4. Art is subjective, as a non published poet, I understand a line can be taken and turned to a lyric, my works are private, a piece of the soul, in those times they sold them, sung them.

    People think a poem is okay to classify, since it has a religious word, as a Christmas. The one word in the song “Hallelujah”.

    People have the right to free speech, but they also have the right to be respected and show respect, you can have pictures in a restaurant, that is art, music sets a tone, if the tone makes your guests get up and want to walk out, or tell you off for it, your doing some thing wrong.. The tone should be non-intrusive on the dining experience. If it is karaoke or a live bar band, people just leave.

    Yes, Art is Art, Everyone has their say in Art, and music is a Art, which everyone’s view is different.

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