Monday, 15 December 2008

Hallelu-you, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma

Once, there was this great song by Leonard Cohen. Like a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, it was slightly bitter, slightly angry, but with a huge reserve of irony and resignation in its tank. A quasi-religious song composed by a Jewish Zen monk ladies' man, with an eye for the tear in a famous blue overcoat. My kind of guy.

I first started listening to Leonard Cohen around 1969 on a reel-to-reel tape copy of Songs From A Room and Songs of Leonard Cohen that a friend made for me, and it became a secret vice. It was OK to listen to Joni Mitchell (boys had no idea, and girls were simply delighted) but everyone knew Leonard Cohen was for depressive freaks. Friends would pull his albums out of your box with a whoop of surprise ("Leonard COHEN??"). It's only since other singers have started covering his songs that people have retrospectively added Cohen to the ever-growing list of music they "always" used to listen to (usually the same liars who despised Motown or Atlantic Soul or Reggae at the time, but now claim always to have loved it).

Back to this song. You know the one I mean. It has the clever but tongue-in-cheek rhymes, more than a hint of sexual humiliation, and a magnificent sense of the redemptive value of staying true to your song, even while worshipping something or someone who shows no reciprocity, and whose chief pleasure and aim is to steal your strength and render you powerless. It's quite an adult song, to say the least.

I believe there are over 170 cover versions of Hallelujah. My personal favourite is the one by K.D. Lang, though I can't say I've heard them all. You know she knows what the song is about. But now it's going to be a Christmas Number One, as sung by an X Factor contestant. Soon everyone will know this song. Holy Shit: will it join the relentless Christmas medley played in supermarkets? Will the ladlefuls of syrup drown the song's bile? Or will the lyrics insinuate themselves and subvert the show-stopper treatment? I fear not: the chorus makes it sound like a hymn, and the biblical references reinforce that impression. It may only a matter of time before the song's content becomes its own fate. Tied to a kitchen chair while some warbling choirboy over-enunciates those words originally groaned by Leonard Cohen's world-weary baritone.

Or maybe not: the clever rhymes may yet save it. You can't sing "do you" or "to you" and expect them to rhyme with "hallelujah" --it can't be done, it's got to be "do ya" and "to ya," and that will always have an undermining cutting edge, will resist the attempt to sentimentalise the song or make it polite and proper. There is hope. Hallelujah!

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