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Once again, Leonard Cohen‘s incomparable, ubiquitous anthem, “Hallelujah,” is having a moment. First, Adam Sandler stole the show at the “12-12-12” mega-concert benefiting the recovery from Superstorm Sandy with a parody version (his chorus was “Hallelujah / Sandy, screw ya / We’ll get through ya / ‘Cause we’re New Yorkers,” while his verses moved from the devastation of the storm to the disappearance of porn in Times Square to New Jersey’s “Turnpike Exit 13 stinkin’ like poo-ya”). Many listeners predicted that this long-overdue lampooning of the song would lead to at least a temporary hiatus in its use as a modern hymn, an expression of reverence that has become common at weddings, funerals, and religious services worldwide.
But just two days after the all-star event at Madison Square Garden came the incomprehensibly horrific school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and almost immediately, Sandler’s comedy was forgotten and “Hallelujah” returned to its exalted position. The singing competition The Voice opened its next episode with the judges and contestants singing “Hallelujah” on a candle-lit stage, the performers holding up cards with the names and single-digit ages of the victims. It was heard at several of the memorial services for the fallen children. A few days later, 13-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar sang it on the first part of the X Factor finale. And that same week, the 78-year-old composer of “Hallelujah” delivered the song to rapturous audiences at two sold-out arena shows in New York City.
It’s hardly the first time that a flurry of activity has surrounded “Hallelujah,” and that this unexpected contemporary standard has captured the public’s imagination from several directions at once. The song languished in obscurity from the time Cohen recorded it in 1984 (starting with his record company rejecting the album on which it was included) until Jeff Buckley cut his celebrated cover ten years later. In 2001, a version recorded by John Cale was used in a key moment in Shrek, and then, a few months later, Buckley’s rendition was inescapable as an appropriately emotional soundtrack for VH1’s video in tribute to the 9/11 rescue workers.
In 2008, it was performed twice on American Idol, including a version by champion Lee DeWyze, while in England X Factor winner Alexandra Burke‘s recording became the fastest-selling single in UK history. Two years later, Justin Timberlake sang “Hallelujah” on the “Hope for Haiti” telethon following that nation’s devastating earthquake, and k.d. lang’s performance of the song was the highlight of the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies.
In my new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” I attempt to explore the unprecedented path of this song — a protracted snowball effect that, over the course of several decades, has turned “Hallelujah” into one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of all time. Cohen’s simple, indelible melody and striking, ambiguous words — a mesmerizing synthesis of prayer and sexuality — combined with the irresistible force of that universal, one-word chorus add up to a song that is able to serve as a celebration and a lament, a versatile symbol of triumph and sorrow, heartbreak and wisdom. Bono told me that he believes “it might be the most perfect song in the world.”
Really, there was no way Sandler’s goof on “Hallelujah” could stop the song’s momentum; the only reason he would choose to send up a song is if he’s certain that it’s already so well-known that an audience numbering in the tens of millions would get the joke. “This song is pretty much indestructible,” Regina Spektor told me, and Glen Hansard (of the movie and Broadway musical Once) agreed, saying “it’s strong enough to withstand any treatment.”
So expect to keep hearing “Hallelujah” in singing contests, in ceremonies marking the most critical moments in peoples’ lives, and in settings we can’t yet imagine. “The song keeps coming up, and every time it’s like it’s brand new,” said Patrick Stump of the pop-punk band Fall Out Boy. “It sounds new every time you hear it.”
The Holy or the Broken is out now.
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