Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pet Peeve #2589: Singing Hallelujah, Big Stupid Song Endings, and American Idol

Let's talk about Hallelujah.

Canadian Leonard Cohen, a prolific writer of prose and poetry before venturing into music, wrote a beautiful song that has now been sung, recorded, and popularized in multiples. It was even featured in the movie, Shrek. It is a sad song, highlighting the irony of love and loss, the rise and fall of attraction, infatuation, and relationship.

Besides the obvious spirituality of the title, (which I think draws the Christian community to the song - at least until they read the lyrics), the song features a clear and unfettered reference to the love story between David and Bathsheba. It may even be a song about that relationship.

The song is also sensual, unabashedly so, as the writer reminisces about intimacy with a slow mourning - not full out weeping and wailing, or even a tear rolling down the cheek, but just a stare off into the distance of memory. It is a private song. It is not to be sung while looking strangers in the eye. It should be sung looking down at the piano or guitar (as when Rufus Wainwright does it, or the late Jeff Buckley performs it), or with hands on your knees sitting in a straight-back chair in the middle of an empty room. (Here's another version of Cohen singing Hallelujah in front of thousands in London - close to Lee's rendition. Is there a difference?)

Here are the beautiful, haunting words:


Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Last night on American Idol, Lee DeWyse sang this song to the acclaim of all the judges and the raves of the fans. Good for Lee. He's got a good voice. He could win, and he would deserve it. Hallelujah.

Lee's arrangement started out quiet, and then got bigger. There is room for some of that in the song. It calls for some dynamic, because of the underlying anger and angst of the lyric. OK.

But then the choir came in behind Lee. Alright. That's nice, as long as they back right out the same door they came in from. They stayed, however, and were followed by the horn section--a big brass band. The song built from there, with DeWyse matching the Hollywoodisms of the arrangement. Lee has a gravely, natural voice, but he turned that off to become Robert Goulet for the big, impressive finale, which crescendoed and catapulted the song right out of the stratosphere. It was spectacular. 

Was Leonard Cohen listening? If so, just how big were the chunks that he tossed at that moment? Did he lose just his lunch, or did he lose the inner lining of his stomach? How much damage did he do to his TV, his living room, his home--and will the insurance cover it? Is there even a policy that covers loss due to stinky, unnecessary, stupid song arrangement?

I usually agree with Simon Cowell on Idol. Sure, he's brutal. But he's honest. And the performers at that level have to know how to take it. But Simon shares a certain problem with many other performers and listeners. Call it Big Finish Syndrome. Big Finish Syndrome is the delusion that any song is better if it ends with a huge crescendo, cymbals crashing, horns blazing, strings full-out. (Cowell last night suggested that Casey James' song, Daughters, should have had a bigger finish! BFS, for sure!)

Beethoven, Handel, and some other classical composers suffer from BFS. They just can't end a piece without this flashy ending. Sometimes they end the song, but the flash wasn't big enough, so they do another one, which also isn't big enough, so they add two or three more. This gets the audience all riled up, thinking that the first ending was the real one, so they jump to their feet and applaud louder and louder at each subsequent faux-conclusion. 

This is what happened to Hallelujah last night. Be honest. Go back and read the lyrics again. Do you see a Big Finish ending there?

The same Big Finish Syndrome is perpetuated in the Christian Music industry. I think it's getting better, but there is still this requirement to end big, end happy, end with a screeching, building, awesome Hallelujah. But that's not the way it goes. That's not how reality is all the time. That doesn't reflect the lyric of life.

I love Cohen's song. It is provocative (it is NOT Christian). It is beautiful, not because it white-washes pain, but because it portrays it accurately. It is lovely because it leaves you with a taste in your mouth that is not honey, but more grapefruit - rind, and seeds, tart and sweet. And the gnawing in your heart is familiar, recognizable, reminiscent. But it is not hallelujah, in the way we think of the word. The whole point of the song is the irony expressed in the repetition, juxtaposed with the pain of relationship lost.

There is a place for Big Finish songs. But not every song, just like not every day, calls for a big finish ending. Many days, just a quiet, soft song will do just fine.