A Cold and a Broken “Hallelujah”

Jason Castro on American Idol: "Praise Yahweh."

You don’t really care for music, do you?

That’s the question put to a brokenhearted lover in the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” This week, on the occasion of another American Idol season finale, it’s a fitting question for the show itself. “Hallelujah” has been performed on television’s most-watched show four times in the last few seasons, which is but part of the song’s recent surge in popularity. In 2008, it was turned into a hit single in the United Kingdom by Alexandra Burke, the winner of The X Factor (another reality show produced by Idol-creator Simon Cowell). Versions of the song have been used in everything from Shrek to episodes of The West Wing and The OC. But it was not until last week’s much-ballyhooed performance by “American Idol” finalist Lee DeWyze that it became clear just how much the show is managing to corrupt Cohen’s complicated song.

“Hallelujah” makes ironic use of its title (which means something like “praise Yahweh”) as it converges a remembrance of lost love with two biblical accounts of powerful men, David and Samson, who were chosen by God and felled by sex. Like its biblical source material, “Hallelujah” has had many authors and many versions. Cohen recorded the song in 1984, then sang various versions while on tour throughout the 1980s. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale revised and reproduced the song in 1991, culling a canonical translation from reams of lyrics sent to him by Cohen, who had at one point written 80 full verses. In 1994, Jeff Buckley released the most fully realized version—more than anyone, Buckley merged the song’s biblical irony with its sensuality. His track, with its quiet but bold guitar work, is the one most recent renditions reference, including those on American Idol.

But those renditions manage to sing another “Hallelujah” entirely. American Idol contestants sing only the first and third verses of Cale’s version—a compression that is necessary for TV time but that is also thematically selective. Those verses contain key lines: “Well I heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?” And: “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / But love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” But taken out of context, these lines don’t manage to make any sense.

Leaving aside the fact that the “cold” and “broken hallelujah,” as DeWyze sang it last week, was actually a soaring, full-throated roar, what’s almost entirely lost in American Idol covers of the song are the two qualities Cale and Buckley highlighted: specific biblical imagery and intense sexuality. Those qualities are anchored in the song’s second, fourth, and fifth verses. King David’s lust and bathing-beauty affair are merged with a reference to Delilah’s cutting of Samon’s hair. Sexual ecstasies—recalled with pain and longing—are compared to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Finally, the frustration of lost love is framed by a crisis of faith: “Maybe there’s a God above / But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot at somebody who outdrew you.” As rock songs go, “Hallelujah” is rather long (even in its condensed Cale version), and these verses work largely because they take their time, building on one another gradually around a chorus that offers a haunting repetition of the song’s titular term.

“Hallelujah” is not, as DeWyze conceived it on American Idol, a shout of praise. It is too confused to shout, too self-concerned to praise. Cohen’s song is disturbing stuff. The Buckley version always leaves me reflective and bothered, if aesthetically uplifted. “Hallelujah” manages to be a psalm, a lament, and a paean to romantic ecstasy all at once. And like Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs, it manages to do so while drawing on the rich and messy personal histories of the Bible’s most notables. That’s the hard-fought lyrical production that has sustained the song, and that will—of course—make it outlast Idol. (Who won last season, again?) In the meantime, the widely viewed iterations of “Hallelujah” on “Idol” are turning the song into a confused gospel ballad, one that rushes to the chorus’ repetition of “hallelujah” without having earned the crushing irony that the word, in Cohen’s reckoning, is intended to produce. Simon Cowell says he asked DeWyze to perform “Hallelujah” last week because he loves the song, and I’m sure he does. (He does not own publishing rights, as had been rumored.) I suppose it’s too much to ask that he’d respect the song, too.

Of course, Idol is all about singers and their voices, and not so much about the actual songs they sing. That’s what makes the “Hallelujah” phenomenon so strange—on Idol, the song is rising in popularity in spite of its way with words. But, again, that rise is made possible by concisions that re-create Cohen’s song and reject its unique lyrical content. Lee DeWyze has pipes, and he has soul, and his cover of Cohen last week didn’t do any damage to his chances of winning the competition. I just hope it buys him the opportunity, someday soon, to sit in a studio and make sense of the song.

Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).