on leonard cohen’s “hallelujah”

I didn’t want to write this post. I thought I wouldn’t need to. I thought our collective listening comprehension was better. I should have known.

Let me be clear: I really like this song. All of its many verses. I like it a bit less when it’s belted by some aspiring diva who doesn’t understand subtlety, but it’s still a great song. It’s a song of profound heartbreak and honesty. It is beautiful in its strophic simplicity. It is not, however — as so many people apparently believe — a religious song. I know, I know. Hear me out on this.

It started last year when I heard several (mediocre) renditions on holiday radio. Even when any song even vaguely referencing holidays or winter qualifies as a “Christmas song” or “holiday song,” this references neither. I rhetorically wondered to a coworker why this song was so heavily featured in the radio station’s rotation, and he replied, “Well, isn’t ‘hallelujah’ something they say in church?”

I… wow. Sure, yes, but… really? First off, “hallelujah” is traditionally more associated with Easter than Christmas (please, please don’t get me started on the “Hallelujah Chorus”). But more importantly, that line of reasoning qualifies Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” for liturgical inclusion. And last I checked, Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) was still verboten in church. (Please do not correct me if I’m wrong.)

I figured this coming holiday season I’d have to write something on it. As you know, I have a special place in my heart for holiday songs of all kinds, from liturgical to super-secular. This is simply not one of them. So I had it on my brain’s back burner. Until this morning, when someone sang it in church.

I couldn’t believe it. Whoever decided it was okay for inclusion in a church service apparently fell for the same reasoning as my coworker and paid zero attention to the actual lyrics. Let’s review, shall we?

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
that David played, and it pleased the Lord,
but you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall, the major lift;
the baffled king composing Hallelujah!

Your faith was strong but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof;
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you to a kitchen chair,
she broke your throne and she cut your hair,
and from your lips she drew a Hallelujah.

Maybe there’s a God above
but all I ever learned from love
was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
It’s not a cry that you hear at night,
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light,
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

These were the three verses performed in church this morning, probably the most popular. And thank heaven for that, because the other two popular verses are much more suggestive. Here, we’ve got several historical biblical references — including to Samson, brought down by his love for a woman — but nothing that even remotely qualifies it for inclusion in any church service. Which made me seriously wonder how the performers didn’t realize this is completely inappropriate. Worse, the congregation didn’t notice either. They loved it.

I am not bashing this song. On the contrary, it’s one of the better pop tunes out there. But without getting into a screed regarding the theological soundness of modern worship music, I pray we can all agree that this does not belong in a church service. Ever. Sing it at home, sing it in the car, sing it at the talent show. Don’t sing it during church.

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1 Comment

Filed under guerrilla pop musicology, this actually happened

One response to “on leonard cohen’s “hallelujah”

  1. Oh Liz, I had no idea you had a wordpress! Excellent post. Many people do not understand or look deeper into the songs they listen to, and often associate things in the completely wrong context from how it sounds or a simple keyword, like “Hallelujah.”

    Some people are quick to even judge the genre. I had church goers calling me a devil for the metal music I listen to…they were really thrown off when I revealed it was a deeply Christian band and the lyrics were rather uplifting/spiritual.

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