moments before the wind.

April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #2 – Hallelujah

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, distribution, folk, indie, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 9:19 pm

I’m always a big fan of song analyses through cover versions. The psychology behind cover songs is so fascinating, so when the versions drastically change from version to version it’s like a cosmic game of Telephone. Cosmic in the Gram Parsons sense. (non sequiter: Can anybody tell me why 4 is cosmic?)

Michael Barthel’s chronology of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was entertaining and very much of-this-era, in the sense that his focus on the song was about where in TV and film the various versions have been licensed. The validation of the popularity of the song, and implicity, the meaning of the song, depended on the media outlets which employed it’s services. I would have appreciated a more poetic approach, really looking at the lyrics of each version, but I was satisifed with his witty, sarcastic and humorous approach.

The basic gist is that Cohen’s original recording is very different from the later, more popular covers. They are most likely based on a 1988 performance of Cohen’s, which John Cale covered, and the subsequently Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and everybody else and their mother. Nobody that Barthel brought up has bothered to do a cover of the original version which is strikingly dissimilar to the 90’s, 00’s versions. Cohen’s original was wry, ironic, dour. The others are one-dimensionally sad, and Barthel illustrated this, what he called “emotional flatness,” by showing the repetetive overuse in shows like “The OC” and “Scrubs.” He clearly felt that the song, in it’s newer versions and particular placements, had been reduced to a cliche. His actual words were that the TV shows were, in effect, “reducing a song about the varieties of grace to a mere lament.”

A few things.

Did you know that it was John Cale who switched the word “broken” in for Cohen’s “lonely”? That’s my favorite part of the song. Interesting.

Barthel’s delivery was in the spirit of the absurd, mirrored in his opinions about the licensing choices as well, eliciting loud laughter when he said that the song makes “even the shallowest character seem tragic,” showing a picture of Shrek on the screen. I wish that he had gone beyond laughter, beyond mocking, and made a larger point about the song itself, about the versatility of Cohen as a writer, or the nature of the song that has allowed it to perpetuate such a strong lineage of associations. Because even if it has been reduced to a cliche, it’s still an extraordinary achievement, and is, few would disagree, an extraordinary song.

Speaking of cliches, Charlie Kronengold made a necessary point about cliches in his talk today as well. Through a series of examples of music I’ve never heard, he arrived at the truism that cliches are part of human nature, that they themselves are truisms. People should not be so negative about them.

Kronengold’s talk left me wondering about the cliches that enter the lexicon because of a popular song. He spoke of the other way around, the cliches pulled from life or experience that are in song, but I went off on a tangent in my head. Phrases like “knockin’ on heaven’s door,” “shelter from the storm,” “the times, they are a’changin’,” and any reference to some sort of knowledge or peace found in the blowing wind always, always make me think of Bob Dylan. And I think that these songs sort of created the cliches that we use in regular talk. Only strange and curious characters like myself use these phrases as direct references in regular conversation; I assume that most people just use the phrases because they express something particular.

So we know how popular culture informs the language of our art, but have we really thought about how our art informs the language of popular culture?


  1. Thanks for the nice comments. To be fair, I think I did address the song’s strength in the finale of the paper, when I said that there are a thousand possibilities in great songs and that only a few are actually explored. I’ve written about the song before on my old blog ( I think, in which I get more into the ways in which the song itself is powerful. I’m going to post the entire paper later this week, in a (hopefully) expanded edition where I get to address some of the larger themes that time constraints wouldn’t let me.

    I also realized belatedly that I misread my audience. I take The OC probably more seriously than I do Jeff Buckley, so when I’m talking about its use on TV shows, I think that’s extrodinarily important and meaningful. I should really have gotten more into what The OC (and, to a lesser extent, Scrubs) symbolize before I introduced those subjects, because I know there are rock critics who don’t really watch TV.

    That’s one of the things I’m going to try and get into more, and also, I know the video I showed is initially funny, but when you watch it a few times, it’s really remarkable how seamlessly those different shows flow into each other, which I think is meaningful in a way I didn’t explain as well as I could.

    Anyway, thanks again!

    Comment by Mike B. — April 22, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  2. The nature of the modern recording and music publishing industry has, quite obviously, contributed to the repeat use of the Jeff Buckley recording of Hallelujah.

    Whatever one feels about that – the song remains, and, in many a different context, has great power and beauty that is not informed, or impacted, by any commercialization of a specific label-promoted recording.

    Comment by Adrian — April 22, 2007 @ 10:53 pm

  3. Yeah, I think it’s possible, even with the audience there, to establish the seriousness of your approach on the teen drama shows. I love this sentence:

    “I take The OC probably more seriously than I do Jeff Buckley.”

    Which is probably the more useful way to approach pop culture analysis, since in terms of popularity the OC is much higher on the list. But I don’t take Jeff Buckley too seriously either, I think because I am a fairly optimistic, happy person. It just made me laugh.

    People who are passionate about music don’t necessarily want to believe the paradox of commercialism that is by definition inherent in the existence of the music. All the time I vacillate on this. And I think a lot of people do.

    Thanks for your comments!

    Comment by alimarcus — April 23, 2007 @ 8:34 am

  4. Hey, the much-expanded version is now online:

    (although I need to upload the music clips still.)

    Comment by Mike B. — April 26, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

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