This year, for the first time, the same song is competing for the UK Christmas no. 1 music slot, with a title borrowed from a famous Jewish-Christian exclamation.
Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song ’Hallelujah’ exploded into mass consciousness after it was sung by this year’s "X Factor" winner, Alexandra Burke, a 20-year-old former waitress from north London whose soaring, honeyed voice and good looks wowed both the judges and the public. Her cheesy version -- watch it here, complete with clips from the hysteria-heavy show -- has become the fastest-ever music download.
Alexandra’s success has provoked Jeff Buckley fans into campaigning for their hero’s angst-ridden version, which is not so far from Cohen’s growly original. (The best rendition of Hallelujah is, in fact, that of K.D. Lang. She doesn’t have Burke’s or Buckley’s looks, but manages to hit emotional heights without ever being overwrought. TV contestants, take note.)
Alexandra’s version is likely to make the number one spot, with either Buckley or Cohen hitting number two. Whatever happens, the money rolls in for Simon Cowell, the X-factor mogul whose company owns the rights to all three versions.
Meanwhile, what does Hallelujah -- a first-rate pop song, which took Cohen five years to finish -- mean? Praise the Lord for what, exactly?
He boiled down some 80 possible verses into its present five. David plays a secret chord that pleases the Lord; then a picture of domestic surrender, that some read sexually; then a love ’n war verse -- "I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah" - before ending with a typically Cohen fusion of sacred and profane: "..remember when I moved in you / the holy dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah."
At the time he wrote it, a Jewish contemporary who had also gone religious, Bob Dylan, said Cohen seemed to have taken to writing hymns. (Dylan discovered Christianity, Cohen Buddhism). Hallelujah might just be that very modern hybrid -- a secular hymn, that offers faith in something bigger, a transcendence, while avoiding anything that smacks of taking responsibility for the new knowledge.
What Cohen himself thinks it means --
"Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by ’Hallelujah’. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ’Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation."
-- suggests what contemplatives call a "peak experience", when the awesome oneness of everything hoves into view. But "embrace the thing"? What thing? What name? The Jewish "cannot-be-named" or the postmodern "nothing-outside-me"? Without the knowable God at the other end of a peak experience, it’s narcissism, not otherness -- however it feels. As a snapshot of contemporary religiosity -- quite happy to borrow from the language of faith, while seeking its intensity if not its morality -- Hallelujah may be worth putting under the magnifying glass.
Back here in secular, recession-hit UK, there is not much theological discussion about the meaning of Hallelujah -- and a good deal of parodying, which is a standard British response to excess of any sort. My favorite is from a radio DJ, Chris Moyles, who describes the melancholy tragedy of missing out on part of his family’s food order from the local Indian restaurant:
"Oh Saturday was a special night
The X Factor final was so tight
We ordered takeaway from the Prince of India
We had onion bhajis for the wife
And chicken korma with pilau rice
But when it came they’d forgotten my lamb bhuna
My lamb bhuna, my lamb bhuna,
My lamb bhuna, my lamb bhuna".