Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah: Am I missing something? (Redditor's interpretation vs. my interpretation)

Despite the title I am just going to post the link to the comment section about Cohen’s estate refusing to let the RNC use it in their convention. That is only the source, this post is NOT about politics.

My opinion is these Redditors have very little grasp on one of the best songs of the 20th century. Leonard Cohen was a master of lyrics and I think this whooshed over their heads.

Because I am a coward I will keep my interpretation to myself because maybe I am the one who is mental and I don’t want to face that just now.

Suffice it to say I think this song speaks to people who have had love kick them in their proverbial balls and these youngsters, lacking such enlightening yet painful experiences, are missing the wisdom such pain brings.

Which comments (plural) are you talking about? I see one comment about the song, and then they immediately move on to talking about Rage Against The Machine, Midnight Oil, and Springsteen.

Would “draws its imagery from the story of a Biblical king who had an affair with a married woman and had her husband murdered.” suit you better? Because that’s completely true (unless you think it’s better expressed as “raped a married woman and had her husband murdered” - also a reasonable interpretation). Of course, it’s probably not a description that people who like that song would naturally reach for. But people do have differing opinions about songs.

Do you think that song is about rape?

I’d consider it more an eclectic collection of somewhat depressing images of relationships (that are very different from any relationship that I’ve ever had anything to do with).

As you can probably tell, I don’t much care for it. I expect the dude on Reddit doesn’t much care for it either, but I think his motive in finding the most negative possible description that could plausibly be defended was probably just to mock Republicans, rather than because he woke up that morning thinking “lets slag off Leonard Cohen”. The song’s just a vehicle for getting at his real target.

Do you think he meant his lyrics to be interpreted literally?

No - but why does that matter? The redditor isn’t trying to produce a nuanced critique of the song. He’s drawing parallels with the subject matter so that he can mock Trump.

I matters because it tells us what you think the song is telling us.

You said:

I’d consider it more an eclectic collection of somewhat depressing images of relationships (that are very different from any relationship that I’ve ever had anything to do with).

That is you. Not the Redditor.

I am now interested in your relationships and wonder if you are the first person on the planet to never have their heart broken.

Well, the woman of the relationship comes across as a bit bondage-y (not me) , the singer apparently got invested in her because of her visual appearance without noticing that she doesn’t share his core interests (also not me) and apparently they end their relationship by trying to hurt each other rather than just quietly going away (not me number three). Yes, the experience of being sad is pretty universal, but there’s enough specific detail in there to move the actual song quite far away from universality.

Basically, people tend to have the same relationships over and over again. So it’s quite common for a song to sound like every relationship you’ve ever had … or like none of them.

Maybe because musicians don’t like to have their songs hijacked for political ends, or associated with a particular event?My failing memory tells me that Born in the USA got adopted (by the Republicans?) as their election anthem and Bruce was not amused. Plus, the hijackers evidently had not bothered to listen to the lyrics. Frankly, that goes for Hallelujah as well. The lyrics have layers of meaning.

And being associated with an event can be a lasting pain.I gather that Enya really, really hates the fact that “Only time” is indelibly associated with 9/11.

Try listening to the song again and don’t take it so literally.

Read between the lines a bit.

I do not know if this song is the most covered song of all time but it has to be up there. There are a jillion songs about love and lost love, this one stands high among all of them for a reason.

Well now we’re really into “how could anyone have the bad taste to dislike Hallelujah” territory - and for that, I’m definitely your woman.

That song is really all imagery. If the first couple of images fall flat (for a particular listener), there’s no saving the song in total. “Tied you to the chair and drew from your lips the hallelujah” is really so far from anything that could even vaguely metaphorically describe anything that I might do, or might aspire to do … certainly a long long way from anything I’d want to tolerate in a romantic partner. At that point I know there’s nobody in the song that I either empathise with, or want to learn from.

I always thought that the feel of the song didn’t really gel very well with using the story of David as a jumping off point either. In the song, the woman is the powerful and in-control one . In terms of specific images he merges Bathsheba and Delilah - not a very obvious paring to my mind. And he’s inviting the listener to empathise with him, the singer, about how terrible everything has turned out.

The actual David and Bathsheba story is completely the opposite of that. David is calling all the shots. He acts like kind of a psychopath. Bad stuff happens (losing his son) but at the end of the story he has everything he wants - king of all he surveys, still married to Bathsheba, succeeded by his favorite son. The singer of Hallelujah isn’t anything like that - he’s not a psychopath, he hasn’t done anything wrong … there’s a feeling that he might consider himself the victim of malice. In any case, he isn’t really in charge of what’s going on. He doesn’t have anything to blame himself for - but he’s just sad.

Also bear in mind - I’m a woman. In a song about relationships sung by a man I’m being invited to compare myself to the woman in the song - that’s a vastly different experience to being invited to compare myself to the singer.

No, he didn’t. None of it. Not the religious elements, not the romantic ones. Or at least, not entirely. He’s actually spoken on what he meant:

(From this interview.)

It is fine to not like something…even a popular something.

But, usually, it is possible to appreciate something for its artistic value even if it does not conform to your personal tastes.

Or, you can stake your claim that it is actually shit.

The “embrace the whole mess” idea is something that really doesn’t come through for me when listening to him actually sing the song. He sounds more bitter than accepting/embracing.

Or you can say that if it’s a long way from your actual experience then you won’t like it or get value from it. Which is a lot closer to what I actually said.

There are dozens of covers you might try listening to. They tend to vary a lot in style. Loads of artists have tried their hand at this song.

Personally, I think a few are better than the original. (K.D. Lang is a good start)

If you’ve never loved and lost then yeah…this is a part of life the song is speaking to that you will not get.

I do not know whether you are lucky or not for not having that experience.

I disagree, myself.

I mean, there’s a couple lines that, when read on the page, or performed by certain other artists, could come across as bitter, but his own performance on Various Positions ranges from feeling emotionless and detached (the bulk of the verses), through amused (‘but you don’t really care for music, do ya?’, the whole Samson and Delilah verse), to triumphant (the chorus). All of which are consistant with ‘embracing the whole mess’. His live performances tend to have less of an amused feel, but never break into bitterness to my ear.

It is? This is the first I’ve heard of such an association, and I’m an Enya fan.

And @Aspidistra, I don’t think that I agree that a problem with the lyrics means that “there’s no saving the song in total”. Truth be told, I’ve never paid attention to the lyrics… but even if you don’t understand English at all, it’s still a beautiful song. Now, good, meaningful lyrics could make it even more beautiful, but even if the lyrics are poor, it’s still got the beauty of its sound.

Well I’ve heard there was this song of “love,”
That Cohen sang to much acclaim
But it don’t really sound like music, do it?
It rattles off some music terms—with Bible verses mixed in, too—
But mostly it’s just some guy slowly talking:

And it goes on! and it goes on!
And it goes on! and it goes oooooon!

The lyrics change, but the beat don’t much,
The tone in essence is mono,
And meaning is so often quite elusive.
It sounds an awful lot like rape,
And as he groans, here it makes me think,
Is that what this guy thinks that love is, really?

And it goes on! and it goes on!
And it goes on! and it goes oooooon!

You say that you could “still go on,”
That all in all “it’s all okay,”
But it’s really, yes really, not, don’t you see?
Cause love’s not rape, and a rape’s not love,
It really matters that you hear
Free, informed, and ongoing consent to sex,

And it goes on! and it goes on!
And it goes on! and it goes oooooon!

And if you don’t get that, that’s where you leave it. The end.