The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’: How a Seemingly Carnal Song Has Now Even Become a Christmas Perennial (Book Excerpt)

In Alan Light's newly expanded book about the strange, growing legacy of 'Hallelujah,' he explores how the sexy song became a country favorite and then unlikely holiday hymn.

Leonard Cohen
Courtesy Hipgnosis Songs

If Leonard Cohen built a tower of just one song, it was “Hallelujah” — the subject of a film that hits theaters in July,  “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.” That documentary is inspired by music journalist Alan Light’s much-acclaimed book, “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’,” originally published in 2012 and being reissued June 7 with substantial additions that have Light bringing the history of one of the 20th century’s most remarkably enduring songs forward into its arguably most impactful years yet.

In this excerpt from the afterward, exclusive to Variety, Light explores some of the unlikely lives that “Hallelujah” has taken on in recent years — starting with its adaptation into a country song, and especially focusing on how it’s become a favorite pick for singers to include on their Christmas albums, as a holiday hymn… quite a contrast to the more carnal connotations that many associate with the original lyrics. (Pre-order the new edition of Light’s book here.)

Our excerpt has Light picking up the song’s story in the 2010s:

“Hallelujah” continued making inroads into other genres of music. Country stars LeAnn Rimes, Brett Young, and Wynonna all performed the song. The night after Leonard Cohen’s death was announced, Keith Urban played it alone, with his acoustic guitar, at a Nashville concert; on his Facebook page, Urban posted the clip with the caption “RIP Leonard. And thank you for being a vessel of glory on high.” He repeated the song in an “In Memoriam”–style medley at his annual outdoor New Year’s Eve show in Nashville and posted another video playing it alone in his living room.

Modern-day outlaw Eric Church — who was named the Country Music Association’s 2020 Entertainer of the Year, has won Album of the Year at both the CMA and Academy of Country Music awards, and has racked up seven Number One country singles — was getting ready for his 2016 appearance at Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks amphitheater when Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” came up on his iPod. He decided he would take a shot at performing the song that night.

“I think it’s the most brilliant song ever written,” Church told filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine. “I know some people find sexual undertones in it, but for me, it’s a spiritual song. I think that the great thing about the song, and what makes the song special, is you’re able to attach so many different meanings from so many different people about the song. And they’re all right. None of ’em are wrong.”

Church describes his brawny, characteristically impassioned rendition of the song at Red Rocks — “I use to own this place before I knew ya,” he shouted—as one of the most memorable moments in his career. Following that performance, he opened the rest of the shows on the tour by play- ing Buckley’s recording, in full, with a single spotlight on a microphone stand at center stage. “Every night, the whole arena sings the song,” he said. “I’ve never found anyone that has said, ‘I just don’t get the song’ or ‘I don’t think it applies to me.’ You can look at the number of artists that have covered the song, from all different genres of music, and you can tell pretty quick that it’s just a timeless masterpiece.

“The thing about ‘Hallelujah’ is every time you hear the song, it feels like something big has just happened. You don’t just hear the song and pass by it and move to the next song. When you hear ‘Hallelujah,’ it feels important.”

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“The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” by Alan Light. Published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Courtesy Simon & Schuster

“Hallelujah” may not be the easiest fit for country singers, but — given the genre’s relationship to storytelling, emotional expression, and even religious themes — it makes a certain sense that it has tentatively found its way into the canon.

Another tradition that has somehow carved out space for the song is Christmas music. Though it was written, of course, by a Jewish Buddhist, it’s hardly the first time that the composer of a yuletide favorite came from a different religious tradition; don’t forget that “White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin. The first direct association of “Hallelujah” with Christmas had come in 2010, when Susan Boyle included it on her holiday album “The Gift,” which hit Number One on both the Billboard 200 and the UK’s Official Albums chart.

In 2015, the violinist and singer Lindsey Stirling, who came to prominence on YouTube, released a version that reached Number 81 on the Hot 100 and Number 21 on the Holiday 100 (which was introduced in 2011) the follow- ing year; that same year, German superstar Helene Fischer included the song on her hit album “Weihnachten.” (In 2014, a Christian rock band called Cloverton wrote some new lyrics — opening with the lines “I heard about this baby boy / Who’s come to Earth to bring us joy” — and released the results as “A Hallelujah Christmas”; YouTube is littered with homemade covers of this version.)

Since 2016, however, the most popular version of “Hallelujah” on streaming services by far has come from a cappella superstars Pentatonix. The Texas-based quintet won NBC’s singing competition show “The Sing-Off” and has gone on to win Grammys and release multiple gold- and platinum-certified albums. Their technically impeccable, emotionally generic recording, which was included on the 2016 “A Pentatonix Christmas” album, has been streamed 350 million times in the United States since its release, according to Nielsen Music. It reached Number Two on Billboard’s Holiday chart and returned to the chart in 2018 and 2019. Their “Hallelujah” also went to Number One on the Austrian pop charts and hit the Top Five in Germany and Hungary.

Usually, Christmas songs have some kind of reference to the actual holiday—or, at least, are somehow adjacent to Christmas, with mentions of snow or winter or Santa Claus or something that would make the lyrics specifically seasonal. “Hallelujah” has none of those things. So why does it qualify or function as a Christmas song at all? Billboard asked Scott Hoying of Pentatonix about the song, and the most he could offer was that “when people hear it, they feel something.”

Hoying went on to present the lack of holiday content as an advantage. “We were originally going to put Christmas lyrics in it,” he said, “but we wanted to honor the poetic original. It’s inclusive — people who don’t celebrate Christmas can enjoy it.”

Which is certainly true, though it remains odd that the song’s ambiguous, imagistic lyrics about sex and spirituality, Jeff Buckley’s “hallelujah of the orgasm,” resonate with anyone as being synonymous with Christmas. (In a 2021 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Hoying admitted that “I don’t totally know what the lyrics mean, but I’m pretty sure that song is about sex.”) In 2019, Chris DeVille, a self-described “Christmas music fan,” responded to the ubiquity of Pentatonix’s recording with a rant on Stereogum.com titled simply “‘Hallelujah’ Is Not a Christmas Song.” Though he described the group as “hokey and saccharine in the way only a cappella groups can be,” he acknowledged that they are “great at singing Christmas songs.” He noted that they had successfully shoehorned such “winter songs” as Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal,” Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter,” and the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” onto their Christmas albums, but called out their choices of the Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe,” Frozen’s globe-conquering “Let It Go,” and especially “Imagine” as holiday selections.

In sum, writes DeVille, “some of Pentatonix’s Christmas bullshit I can begrudgingly abide.” But their use of “Hallelujah” is a step too far. “Every time I listen to the Essential Christmas playlist on Apple Music,” he writes, “this is exactly what happens: I’m cruising along enjoying the likes of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Santa Baby’ and ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ and ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,’ and along comes this endlessly covered Leonard Cohen ballad about sexual ecstasy, crushing heartbreak, and existential doubt to make me spit out my hot chocolate. . . .

It shares a certain reverent awe with certain carols and nativity ballads, but it constitutionally has nothing to do with Christmas. It exists on a different plane.”

And yet, as we’ve seen over and over, “Hallelujah” assumes the meanings that listeners find in it. There is no logical reason that it should work as a Christmas song. But the devotion and power represented by that chorus, that melody, that feeling, somehow connect to people in this context. If it happened once, maybe it would just be a fluke or a novelty, but the fact that it has taken on this role at the holidays repeatedly speaks for itself. Like it or not, “Hallelujah” is also a Christmas song now.

From the Book: “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” by Alan Light. Copyright © 2012, 2022 by Alan Light, Published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Reprinted with permission.

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival June 12, then opens in New York and L.A. engagements July 1 before going into wide release July 8. J
The newly expanded edition of Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” hits bookstores June 7.