On the final night of the Republican National Convention in the US on Thursday, as President Donald Trump gave his acceptance speech for the Republican Presidential nomination, covers of a seminal song by the Canadian musician, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen — Hallelujah — were played, twice, causing an outrage among the fans of the musician, who passed away in November 2016, ironically, a day before the last presidential elections in the US.
While the cover by actor-musician Tori Kelly was played during a fireworks display after the President’s speech and between the marching song, She’s a Grand Old Flag and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA (2007), another operatic rendition of Hallelujah by Christopher Macchio was played afterwards. In a tweet that she has since deleted, Kelly said no permission was sought from her to use her cover version for the event.
Many fans claimed it was an attempt by the President’s team to co-opt the song for its apparent religious overtone. Since Cohen first wrote it, the meaning of the song has been deeply debated, with one of its most accepted interpretations being as a break-up song. So, what is the song really about and why are Cohen fans outraged by its use at the convention?
The origin of the song
In 1984, when Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen released Various Positions, his seventh studio album, it would not only mark the musician’s return following a five-year hiatus after Recent Songs (1979), but also his inclination towards a more contemporary music making. The change did not make his songs less “grim”, though. As critics noted, despite this new leaning towards country music forms, his songs continued to engage with the shadows underneath the light, and, with history, whose darkness had always had a special appeal for the musician.
Two singles from Cohen’s Various Positions would go on to have expansive lives of their own — Dance Me To the End of Love, a song inspired by the Holocaust, and, Hallelujah, which had a liturgical overtone. In an interview to CBC Radio in August, 1995, Cohen, who passed away at the age of 82, spoke of how language carries its own secret history, that changes with context and with time. “…it’s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that’s why the process is so mysterious about writing a song.”
He was speaking of Dance Me to the End of Love in particular but it holds true for many other songs from his repertoire, and, especially for Hallelujah.
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Hallelujah and its many covers and interpretations
Many songs from Cohen’s vast repertoire, spanning a career that lasted over six decades, have achieved cult status over the years, but, arguably, his most iconic songs include Suzanne (1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen), Dance Me to the End of Love, and, Hallelujah. Cohen is known to have written over 80 drafts of Hallelujah over a period of five years. Set to gospel music, Hallelujah brings together the sacred and the profane, speaking of love and betrayal, longing and sex. Its lyrics reference the Bible, in particular, the ill-fated love stories of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges and that of King David and Bathsheba. “I did my best, it wasn’t much/ I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch/ I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you/ And even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah,” sang Cohen in his deep baritone.
Despite the acclaim and critical praise for the album, when the single was first released, it did not find favour with Cohen’s recording label, Columbia. However, it would go on to become one of his most popular songs, with many renditions and cover versions of it. In the late eighties, it was Cohen’s friend and admirer, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, who was among the first to sing a cover of Hallelujah. Soon after, in 1991, Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale recorded his popular cover version. Since then, American singer Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version and Rufus Wainwright’s one for the animation film Shrek (2001) have achieved cult status. In 2010, Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris sang a version at a fundraiser for the devastating earthquake in Haiti that year. Kelly’s version was used in the animated musical film Sing (2016). In a radio documentary, The Fourth, The Fifth, The Minor Fall, for the BBC in 2008, musician Guy Garvey paid a tribute to the song on its 25th anniversary, speaking to artists who have rendered covers of it. The artistes spoke of their understanding of the song and the emotions their individual versions most encapsulated, ranging from the philosophical to the emotional, from the intellectual to the carnal. In interviews, Cohen himself spoke of the “many kinds of hallelujahs” that existed and how “all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value”.
The use of Cohen’s seminal song at the final night of the Republican National Convention in the US evoked strong reactions from fans for what they termed as an inappropriate usage and an attempt to ingratiate the Republican Party’s political philosophy on Cohen’s legacy. Coming on the heels of a spate of violence against its African-American community and an economy in turmoil, thanks to an ongoing pandemic, the election in November is being seen as a decisive indicator of the political discourse the country will turn to in the coming days. Many critics also saw in it a literal acceptance of its Biblical underpinning, without understanding or acknowledging its nuance.
American actor James Urbaniak tweeted, “The bump you hear is Leonard Cohen making a ‘what can I do’ shrug in his grave”. Writer-producer Paul Haynes, known for the HBO series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, tweeted, “An opera singer belting out Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the RNC is one of the most grotesquely dystopian things I’ve seen emerge from this administration to date”. American activist and writer Charlotte Clymer wrote, “Leonard Cohen wrote 80 verses in the original composition of “Hallelujah”. He couldn’t stop writing. The song grew into a reflection about love and loss and spirituality and empathy. Above all, it has space for countless views on what it means to be human. The opposite of Trump”.
Even though he did not speak much about his politics, Cohen, a Jew who grew up in Montreal, was deeply aware of his heritage and made known his distrust of extreme positions. Social justice was a recurrent theme in his songs. In the song, Democracy (1992, The Future), for instance, Cohen wrote, “From the wars against disorder/ From the sirens night and day/ From the fires of the homeless/ From the ashes of the gay/ Democracy is coming to the USA”. Cohen’s music was self-interrogative and inward-looking — virtues that many of those against President Trump’s use of the Cohen cover, hold, are lacking in the incumbent American President.