Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An X-Factor Christmas: What are we to make of "Hallelujah"?

Anyone who listens to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah needs to bear in mind what he said about it himself: I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.' and you get the impression he's not entirely sure what it's about. Nonetheless thanks to the Simon Cowell everyone will be singing it this Christmas with over 100,000 copies sold in the first day that Alexandra Burke's cover of it was available.

Cohen picks up on the stories of David and his adultery with Bathsheba and Samsons fall that cost him his hair. Stories worth re-reading. Hallelujah is a song of for the baffled and the broken. That's a bit odd since Alexandra sings it like some kind of power ballad - I can't help but think that the faltering Diana Vickers version possibly fits a bit better (though it wouldn't sell so well).

The music is sweet while the words are bitter, captures much of our experience. An experience that isn't just for Christmas but is for life. An experience we find articulated by Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes. Something akin perhaps to the experience of an X-Factor winner who just had "the best moment of her life". That might just be as good as it gets long-term...

The song taps into something that most of us feel - the sense of bitterness, loss, bafflement, emptiness that life throws at us, that we just drift into - and the desire for some kind of transcendence, something more, something that can lift us. Few can embrace an entirely bitter reflection, most of us hope for something that cal extract a 'hallelujah'. The question for most of us, is what reason have we to think that there is any such distinction as bitter and sweet? We feel bitter and we want the sweet but in a meaningless world don't we just have to be indifferent? Indifferent unless we find good reason for more.

And it's not that being a Christian dissolves the bittersweet sense of life yet. Life is still vapour. It's still Abel. The creation still groans. Life still breaks. We need a story like the story of Mara who is redeemed to be Naomi in the book of Ruth... a story of a woman and a son. The coming of a son who redeems what was lost and gives good reason to sing Hallelujah.

Zoomtard: The Scriptures tell the compelling story of a man who let’s his lust serve his insecurities and he loses a son, a soldier and almost loses his Kingdom. Alexandra Burke sings it as a hymn of thanksgiving to a plastic god that made her famous. And people buy this s****?


  1. The Jeff Buckley version wins hands down imho.

  2. Yes, Buckley seems to get that it's a cold and broken hallelujah. An incredibly sad song.

  3. We studied about 4 versions of the song at uni. The Buckley version fits the words best, but it is, perhaps a little self-indulgent.

    I heard the X-factor version in Woolworths and thought the same thing. Typical of 'X-factor winner' style. Nohing new to see here, move on.

  4. I just heard Em's school sing it - she'd been rehearsing it with them for a month. Genius.

  5. I think in terms of how the music and singing feels, I like Damien Rice's and Jeff Buckleys best. But Jeff Buckley, or maybe John Cale, switched the final two verses for one of their own, and I prefer the original verses which go :

    You say I took the name in vain
    I don't even know the name
    But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
    There's a blaze of light
    In every word
    It doesn't matter which you heard
    The holy or the broken Hallelujah

    Hallelujah, Hallelujah
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah

    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

  6. I like the way the song has forced a whole variety of people to rhyme the word "you" with "hallelujah".

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  8. Dave you may have already seen this but there's a very interesting article on the lyrics of Hallelujah from the Times a few years back here.

  9. good analysis. thanks. Interesting to make the links to Ecclesiastes. One of the West Wing series finales used it well in just that way, where there was great moral turbulence for Bartlett and devastating loss for CJ..... (thinking you're a west wing buff too...?) We need something more.