Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hallelujah by Justin Timberlake/Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley/Rufus Wainwright

On January 22nd, the entertainment world came together to raise money for Haiti. Movie stars made pleas for donations and answered phones while pop musicians supplied the music.

Some artists like Madonna performed songs from their past.

Other artists like Jay-Z and Bono composed music specifically for this event.

Some artists like Justin Timberlake covered songs by other artists and it was Timberlake’s performance of “Hallelujah” which is the top selling single from the Hope For Haiti Now album on itunes and is currently the top selling single as well.

“Hallelujah” originally composed and performed Leonard Cohen in 1984 is unique song in popular music. It’s never been a number one hit but it’s a widely covered and loved song that has inspired generations of musicians and songwriters. Known for spending inordinate amount of time writing his songs, Cohen is an artists’ artist, a true craftsmen of music who has written some of the most memorable music of our time. If your life hasn’t been influenced by his music, I guarantee you that an artist that you love has been.

I can’t begin to explicate the lyrics of this song. The allusions in this song are as thick and interwoven as a T.S. Elliot poem. Images personal, historical, religious are spoken through words that are angry, regretful, bitter, depressed and joyful all at the same time.

The fact that I can’t really effectively articulate what this song is about in words is credit to the power of this song. Music can express different levels of emotion all at the same time. This song is a beautiful tragedy, it's a mournful celebrations, and “it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.”

“Hallelujah” has become a tradition, a test, a way for artist to really show if they have “it.” Because of the ambiguity in the lyrics and the colors of emotions that Cohen painted, artists can bring forward different shades through their interpretations. This is something that few artist have effectively done and Jeff Buckley’s interpretations is one of the most successful.

Stripped down and bare, Buckley’s recording features his light tenor that contrasts Cohen’s powerful baritone. Where Cohen sounds like an old man looking back on life, Buckley’s version is a young man making a revelation about the nature of the rest of his life.

Probably the most famous cover of this song is by Rufus Wainwright who’s cover was featured on the soundtrack of Shrek.

Wainwright’s faster and almost detached interpretation adds a sense of wonder to the darkness of this song. when Wainwright sings it almost seems like he’s being uncaring but it’s not so much that as viewing from a distance what it means to be human.

Knowing all of the performances that came before and the responsibility to treat “Hallelujah” with reverence, Justin Timberlake took an enormous chance. If he failed, if his interpretation faltered, and was disingenuous at all it would have come across flat and uninspiring. Instead, Timberlake proved that they were true artists performing “Hallelujah” with great care and artistry.

Is “Hallelujah” the most appropriate song to reflect on all the lives that have been lost and the unthinkable living situations of the survivors? Yes.

When we listen to great music, we associate emotions in the art to experiences in our lives. We relive these moments and reflect on what they mean in our lives. “Hallelujah” somehow encapsulates what it means to struggle, to need, and to celebrate to be alive. It forces us to consider what we value, what we need and what we believe in.



  1. Once again, you beat me to the punch for a great song. However, I plan on focusing mine on John Cale's version, which I feel is the best version.

  2. John Cale. . . his version never really connected with, but go for it, convince me why his version is important. I'm looking forward to it.