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?