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December 2014

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twain & tesla

the baffled king composing hallelujah

So how old are you, and what's your favorite version of "Hallelujah"?


In continutation of the Gross Leonard Cohen Earworm (apparently "Hallelujah" is the meme that will not quit this week) of the last few days, inauroillium just posted an an interesting link about the evolution and major versions of the song in a comment thread on cvillette's journal.

It is here, at clapclap.org.

I read it with interest. It's really fascinating.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I have... 14 versions of "Hallelujah," by 11 different artists, including three Cohen versions. (I would like the k.d. lang live versions and the Imogen Heap, but haven't tracked them down yet. Really though, I think the jewel of the collection is the Willie Nelson. He also does a bangup job with "Bird on a Wire.")

And I'm also going to talk in sweeping generalities here, and please be aware that I am talking about observed trends rather than categorical truths here, and that I'm aware that sweeping generalities are bull puckey.

But I think I really disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. I suspect that what's going on here is actually the opposite process, in which a bunch of forty/thirty/twenty-something musicians who grew up as part of far more ironical generations have found this amazing song seemingly neglected by their elders, and are covering the hell out of it.

And being limited by not being what Cohen is--which is to say, a mad freaking genius of irony and layering and evocation, the musical prodigies in my peer group are just not managing to get into it what he does. But in simplifying it they are making it more accessible to a wider range of people.

I have no idea how old the critic is, but the important data point he's missing is that a statistically significant chunk of my generation (I'm 36) and that of my immediately younger peers (in their twenties) love Leonard Cohen. Adore him. And, well, listen to his albums. Or songs, because we're often not so much an album-listening bunch.

I am going off anecdote here, and we all know what that's worth, but it seems to me that it's often baby boomers I hear calling the Buckley version "the definitive" one. (There are of course exception to this.) I think Cohen was just too ironical and fucked up for my parent's generation, who seem as a group (again, there are exceptions) to tend to prefer music that is more sincere. Cohen is not sincere. Cohen is yanking your chain, and that's a trick more commonly employed by people my age. (And the musicians of our parents' generations (because our parents span two generations) we've held on to--David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop. I had a great discussion with some friends at the climbing gym a couple of weeks ago regarding what the cutoff line for really, really, really liking Bruce Springsteen was. Determination: it's somewhere between me and the 39-year-old, and he may in fact be the line.)

So I would gess that that is a contributing factor in why metric tons of musicians (and music fans) in Gen X and Gen Y are obsessed with "Hallelujah," while our older compatriots prefer "Suzanne." Which is a perfectly nice song, don't get me wrong, but by contrast, you should hear my twenty-something friends talk about "Famous Blue Raincoat" and how they are trying to write stories around it. (Also a heavily covered song, these days. It used to be "Bird on a Wire" that got all the love.)

I'm not going to make any case that bitter ironicism is somehow more genuine than sincerity (because actually, I suspect it's a generational defense mechanism and the opposite is true). But we like "Hallelujah" because it's layered in irony and self-contradition and comes at the same thing from twenty angles. (Also, as a generation, we love weird-ass covers. Love them. When I heard Patti Smith was doing a covers album, I danced in the streets.)

Interestingly, because I don't watch enough TV to stay at all hip to current pop cultural trends, the first time I heard a cover of "Hallelujah" used in a TV show was at the end of an S1 episode of Criminal Minds. Where it is used over a brutally ironic montage of man-on-the-street interviews responding to an officer-involved shooting. Which is a good (legal) shoot, but may or may not have been engineered by the shooter--with or without his partner's knowledge. Oh, and they never tell you, either. You're left to construct the narrative on your own.)

I told the truth.
I didn't come to fool you.


I'm going to be out for most of the day, so feel free to amuse yourself arguing or agreeing in the comment threads. ;-)

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