A passing thought in as the second or third day of Christmas (depending on how you count) draws to a close here: I have to wonder how Leonard Cohen feels about the Cloverton cover of his classic, “Hallelujah”. I mean on the one hand I imagine that the increase in his royalty check from this version of his song going viral will be many times more than my annual salary, so I can’t imagine him complaining about it too loudly, but on the other hand it is an out and out rape of the original meaning of the song in question. Cloverton effectively offers those who are incapable of appreciating the poignant and sublime message of the original lyrics an opportunity to sing along with the beautiful melody of the chorus without having any farting idea of what it was meant to be about. How does that really make an artist feel?
Other than the one-word chorus, the only part of the cover that quotes directly from the original lyrics at any length the is the middle of the first verse: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” but the follow-through from there loses all poignancy. Rather than noting King David’s confused and desperate pursuit of the transcendent (“the baffled king composing Hallelujah”) it becomes an evangelical cliché (“with every breath I’m singing Hallelujah”). It almost completely fulfills the prophecy of the second line of the original version’s first verse: “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”
The core message of Cohen’s original lyrics is found in the song’s third verse: “It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light. No, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.” The Cloverton version, by contrast, is all about a group of young “pilgrims who claim to have seen the light.”
The cover version goes through all the essential core elements of the western Christmas hymn tradition: the failed search for the inn, the shepherds hearing from the angels, the “wise men three” and finally a summary of the passion of the Christ, which contains the most historically and theologically problematic lyric of all: “That rugged cross was my cross too. Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah.” Forgetting about the rife pronoun confusion throughout this verse (you really can’t tell from one second to the next whether “you” is being used to refer to Jesus or fellow believers), the one thing believers really shouldn’t be claiming is to have shared in the process of making Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This is the essential meaning of “Pelagian” as a label for a particular heresy. Beyond that, in the tale of his very real suffering, Jesus’ words on the cross were not “Hallelujahs” but rather “why have you forsaken me?” and “it is finished.” But the cover version is crafted carefully enough to keep too many people from actually listening to the lyrics in anything like a rational or critical manner it would seem.
It’s not just the complete castration of the song’s original message and the details of the new lyrics that I find mildly disturbing about this cover version; there’s also the video setting, made to look like a pseudo-Irish pub, just stripped of all offensive references to alcohol. You have a crowd of adults of roughly pub-going age sitting around chatting calmly in a sparsely furnished wood paneled room with steamy windows and wall-to-wall shelves that look as though they were meant to hold bottles, but completely empty. On careful examination of the audience shots you discover some people drinking from cans that could contain pretty much anything, and others drinking from ceramic vessels that fall somewhere between coffee mugs and beer steins. But if you take this investigation to the next level you notice that there’s a donut box that intermittently appears on one of the front tables, and in a couple shots they accidentally capture the name “Varsity Donuts” on the windows and pub-style etched mirrors.
This in turn reveals something fascinating about the band in question. Running a web search for “Varsity Donuts” got me nowhere, so I went to the band’s home page to see where in the US they were from, so as to get to the bottom of this mystery. It says there that they are “Manhattan based”. Fine, so what kind of place is Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts? Plug that into a search engine and you find this. Pictures of the shop there leave little doubt that this is where the band shot their video, and that in turn leads to one obvious conclusion: the “Manhattan” that these boys come from is not the most densely commercialized part of New York City, but a little town west of Topeka, Kansas! Not that you’d ever realize this from their poses in generic hipster outfits in front of generic urban concrete walls, but…
So rather than normally being a setting for getting people drunk, the video was shot in a place where people go to get an intense junk food sugar buzzes. And rather than being part of some major city’s music scene, we’re talking about about a band from the wind-swept prairie that Dorothy left to go to Oz. From there it’s no big surprise then that the “pub crowd” consists of mostly over-weight and exclusively white people. It seems we have a number of factors pointing towards rather pretentious image building. No out-and-out lies, just images being projected that have little to do what is actually happening. All this focused on marketing a sanitized, white bread version of a song that they clearly “don’t get”. This doesn’t speak very highly of the critical faculties of those who have been writing rave reviews for the video.
But perhaps I’m being a bit too cruel. Musically the cover is actually quite tastefully done. A somewhat imaginative quartet arrangement, going for a predominantly acoustic sound (though the guitarist still needs his wa-wa pedals), featuring a cello in place of bass and a variety of classical percussion instruments in place of a standard drum kit, really works quite nicely with Cohen’s sweet melody, perhaps better than Cohen’s tour band arrangement even. The technique of building musical complexity as the song progresses, from a lone vocalist on an old upright piano at the beginning to an impressively orchestral sounding quartet with everyone in the “pub” singing along at the end, achieves the overall effect they’re aiming for quite resoundingly. Setting aside the inconsistencies between audio and video in building this mini-narrative, it is clear that these young men are talented musicians who are quite capable of drawing in an audience. The lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Cat Stevens, and the band jells behind that vocal style magnificently. All that’s missing is integrity.
The “about” section of Cloverton’s web site starts out trying to build an image of stylistic independence and solid integrity –– a radically indy and radically Christian band fighting to make it without major label support. All I can say is that if such values are important to them, as opposed to being nothing more than cheap, cliché advertising copy, based on this single it would seem they are going at it pretty seriously bass ackwards.
Not that there is anything particularly new or unique about this case in some regards. It actually brings me back to parts of my childhood among “Jesus freaks” who routinely “borrowed” songs like Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend and Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, with the lyrics ever so slightly modified to slip Jesus’ name in every now and again. I remember, on such a basis, being able to relate quite thoroughly to an article I read in some Christian youth magazine in the early 80s complaining about the widespread phenomenon of “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Modifying generic love songs so as to speak about “loving God” really isn’t that much of a stretch; in many cases it’s just a matter of trading one disposable cliché for another quite similar one. In American English in particular it’s real easy, in so many ways, to go from singing, “I’m yours, Lord,” to “I’m yours, love,” and back again without terribly many evangelicals noticing the difference.
To break free of such clichés and to build integrity into the Christian/Christmas message in music, you have to start with ceasing to pretend to be something you’re not –– in this case pub-going urban hipsters who are really into what Leonard Cohen has to say with his music –– and it can’t end there. As the pope has pointed out so powerfully in his various messages this year, and as evangelicals should broadly be able to agree, the point of Jesus’ message is to go beyond religious clichés and dig into the messy business of relating to the non-utopian lived experiences of “the poor in spirit” –– those who need to know they’re loved in spite of their misfortunes and failures, and those who cry out for justice in a world where sometimes justice is hard to find. A good second step for Cloverton in finding such integrity then, after dropping the pretenses, would be to actually listen to what Leonard Cohen has to say in his original version of “Hallelujah”.
The first verse there tells of the composer’s struggle to touch something transcendent in his music, much like what we see with Kind David in the psalms. From there the second verse comes to consider the transcendent quality that King David, and many since, have found in erotic connection. For those whose religion is based more or less exclusively on a message of erotic restraint, Cohen’s message here may be rather hard to listen to, but there is still truth to it. Painting the scene of David’s first tryst with Bathsheba, Cohen brilliantly mixes biblical and contemporary motifs to explain the effect this had on the king: “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’.” If you want to break out of the standard mold of gospel music, guys, dare to talk about the spirituality inherent in sex, even the sort of sex that the religious establishment fails to properly control. I dare you!
The third verse, as I said above, comes to the central point of the song. After confessing to religious agnosticism and to love having become an area of violent conflict for him (“…all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who out-drew you”), Cohen tells of the “hallelujah” being a cry of anguished searching. And folks, if you can’t honestly accept to the experience of such anguish, and relate without condescension to those who are stuck in it, you have no business trying to present any form of spiritual message to the world, especially the Christian message!
The fourth verse further reinforces this honest message, talking about his familiarity with loneliness and reminding us that the “Hallelujah” experience is not about arches of triumph or victory marches, but rather a very cold and lonely place at times. The fifth verse goes from there into a prayer of sorts: looking back on spiritual experiences of the writer’s youth, crying over the loss of the epiphanies he used to have, but in prayer fondly remembering “how I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!” (the source of a the problematic lyrical adaptation in the Cloverton version which I pointed out above). From there, in the sixth verse, comes Cohen’s plea for divine mercy of sorts. He stresses that he has given his best efforts, though mostly without success, and that there’s no point in pretending otherwise. This leads to the song’s final sentence, leading into the concluding chorus, of, “even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’”
Yes, amen, hallelujah! Let us come to the Lord –– in whatever form we are able to relate to his lordship –– confessing our weaknesses in understanding both God and each other, and in the brokenness to which this brings us let us cry out asking for the connection with what lies beyond us that we haven’t been able to earn. Let’s ditch the kitsch and dare to move towards the heart of the broken human experience in this matter, for it’s only in relating honestly to that that we can find the salvation we long for –– that Jesus came to bring us.
I write this in the middle of the night after finishing the last of the Christmas celebrating I had scheduled for this year, with nothing resembling the generally dependable “white Christmas” in this part of the world, no presents properly exchanged and overall a very broken Hallelujah to be sung. Yet a “Hallelujah” I still sing, because in spite of my failures, and circumstances the sort I would not normally choose for myself, I still have a sense of being connected with people and things well beyond myself. That is ultimately what I want and need to keep building on in my own broken way in the year to come.
Here’s hoping that this post-Christmas message touches your hearts, and brings you to an honest place of looking at your own world not as you would like to fantasize it to be but how it really is; yet with the hope of not being stuck within the limits of your own skin but being able to be lovingly part of something far greater than yourself. In spite of my limits as a saint and/or a poet I selfishly wish to share that with you. Please pass this general message forward then, for the greater joy of all of us.