How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Took Over The World By Making The Secular Sacred

by Happy Ron Hill www.happyron.com

     â€œI wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world, The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”  Leonard Cohen, “Interview in Reykjavik, Iceland”, 1988

     Every year it seems new versions of the Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah hit the charts and new generations enjoy it.  It has taken on the air of something that has seemingly been around forever, and so it is easy to forget that the song was first released in 1984 and didn’t have success until many years later.


    What is the song “Hallelujah” about for most people and why has it been so successful?  There is no doubt many answers to this question, the first of which must be that it an amazingly written song and has been performed by many remarkable performers.  It has also been performed by even more not so remarkable performers as anyone who has ever been to an open mike can attest to.


     Yet there are many great songs that don’t make it.  Why did this song become so ubiquitous in our culture?  What do people feel when they listen to the song and why do they feel it for this particular song?


     I believe the answer to these questions may go back to a quote from Leonard, “It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end, Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’ “  “Antwerp” 19888


     I think this song allows people to feel “spiritual” whether or not they actually believe in God, or follow or don’t follow any particular religious tradition.   It appeals to almost everyone:     

1) It appeals to people who consider themselves “spiritual”,  but would never set for in a traditional church.   The biblical imagery works for these people as biblical imagery is part of our culture and heritage, but the song doesn’t require a belief in a particular religion.   I think this group is the core of the song’s success because it’s a group that has grown over the period of time this song has been out and this group probably wouldn’t like many traditional Christian songs.       

2) The more traditional Christians like it (to the point of sometimes changing the actual lyrics to make it specifically Christian),  because of the biblical references and the title refrain, which sounds like something from a traditional Christian songbook.  This gives it an appeal to a whole group that would not like John Lennon’s Imagine song for instance.     

3) Obviously, Jewish people like it partially because it is written from the perspective of a Jewish man and starts off with references to The Old Testament and King David.     

4) People of other faiths like it because it has a general approach to belief in God and won’t make them feel excluded   

 5) Even anti-religious people like it because some versions of the song contain sexual imagery and emotional content about the nature of relationship (“all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at somebody who outdrew ya”).  Also, people who don’t believe in God still have a striving for profound things which is a need this song meets.   Much of whatever it is in human nature that causes people to want to follow a religious path still exists in non-religious people and this song allows them to access that part of their nature.


     If you compare the worldview to John Lennon’s Imagine song you can see how John’s song describes a specific point of view about life and religion, to the extent that it is often quoted in discussions of our current political debate as a perfect description of “Globalism” as opposed to “Nationalism”.  John’s song might have appealed to more people if he removed the “no religion” lines (which he insisted is about no religion – not no God, but that point is usually lost) but it would not have appealed as deeply to people who share his sentiments.   Whereas Hallelujah has a broader appeal but perhaps has a less specific and literal message.   It has an emotional connection to people’s faith, whatever that faith is in.


     It also gives people in these sometimes warring camps an opportunity for something that is lacking in music and our world nowadays: community.  The striving for something meaningful in the song can be experienced by groups of people together who couldn’t spend 5 minutes talking about religion or life without hating each other.  To me, this song is what music at it’s best is about: reminding us of what we have in common in a world that so often focuses on stroking the fire of our differences.


       Another interesting thing about the song that creates community, is that it is, in a way, an actual act of community.  The original recorded version did not have the broad appeal that the song now has.     As a songwriter and a teacher of songwriting, I find the song is a great lesson on how continuing to work on a song and getting feedback can make it successful.  The song was only successful after a series of cover versions essentially re-wrote it by mixing up lyrics from the different versions, as well as changing the feel of the song tremendously.  Leonard’s later live versions reflected these changes.  Also, the cover versions gave Leonard’s later live versions a greater sense of authority to them, as people wanted to hear the original source and Leonard fit the role of an older wise man perfectly and in a way perhaps no-one else in popular music ever has.


      As I’ve said above, even now people edit the words to match whatever point of view they have in life, so the song is actually even more appealing because it literally has different versions for different groups of people.  The endless covers mean the core message is delivered by endless different messengers to endless groups of people.


     As Leonard said “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ . . . “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all— Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”


     Perhaps that is Leonard greatest accomplishment – he took his own inner conflict and created a moment of inner peace that he brought to the world, and gave us all a moment where we can transcend our conflicts and share something together.   


     Leonard should have the last word, “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means “Glory to the Lord.” The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist. I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion. —Leonard Cohen, “Guitare et Claviers” 1985

By Happy Ron Hill

www.happyron.com


    HappyRon is a Music Coach, Keynote Speaker and a musician whose music has been described as a cross between Leonard Cohen and South Park.   He also writes custom songs for weddings.  You can find his books on music at www.happyron.com/coach He’s pretty much everywhere on the internet, especially at www.youtube.com/happyron.   He loves all talk about music.