Justin Timberlake’s Help For Haiti Now’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is the fastest selling download of all time. It’s a shame he obviously has no idea what it’s about.
Thinking Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is an appropriate supplication to God and succor for Haiti is about as smart as performing Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to praise the tenacity of Haitian women.
It’s a song centerpieced with a pretty word. A nice religious word, surrounded by a soft cascade of other words that touch on love and faith. With just enough edge to keep your attention.
But “Hallelujah” is a song like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. Have you ever really listened to “Respect”? She is telling her man she knows he is cheating on her, but as long as he pretends he doesn’t when he comes home, she’ll keep pretending she doesn’t know. Nowadays who know that when a woman makes such a tradeoff it is often the “gateway” for harder abuse. But we still think it must just be an empowering, positive song, because after all that’s what those 7 letters are about. She does feel some empowerment, in making her own money, but it is really is as much a part of its time as The Supreme’s “Love Child”.
Like the less subtle Village People’s “YMCA” or Frank Zappa’s “Dancing Fool”, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is ironic. But it is at another level altogether, it is self-depricating irony, like 10cc’s “I’m not in Love”. As when Zappa sang “Love is for Assholes” onstage, when he said “assholes” he would literally point to himself.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is not a hymn in praise of God. Cohen is a Zen Buddhist. It is not even about imperative Christian faith in the face of confusion and pain – as would make it seem befitting about Haiti – although at first blush, with the music slow with its steady minor chords and some key phrases (David as “the baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah'”) someone not paying attention – or not used to working out subtlety – would think so.
“Hallelujah” comes from the mouth of a middle aged man stunned at the sustained power of sex and the love that comes from it. Awed at the sway with which passion can still grip him. It’s just that Judeo-Christian framework is the lingua franca of spirituality in our culture.
But this does not belong in a telethon for disaster relief:
“She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne
And she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew
Granted, while in his 60s Leonard Cohen had the fortune and the wherewithal to get with Rebecca DeMornay at the height of her fame. But his “Hallelujah” is his admission to being stunned by the tangible power of love and lust – and passion and sex – even after everything, through heartbreaks and losses, after being overwhelmed by fiery moments of coupling and eternities of loss. By the cosmic joke that Love is the greatest of things and also the cruelest and the most fragile.
And this does not belong in a telethon for Haitian relief:
“Now maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody
Who outdrew you”
And he admits that ever after his lifetime of spiritual seeking and his contemplative dispatches to us along his journey, all he knows is he is forever a fool for trying to pin down life and love.
I have not see the Shrek version, but here is kd lang – she understands “Hallelujah”.