At last night’s “12-12-12” concert benefiting the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, in between sets by Roger Waters and Bon Jovi, Adam Sandler and Paul Shaffer took the stage and began playing a familiar, waltz-like melody. Known for his imitations and song parodies since his Saturday Night Live days, Sandler started singing the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in his familiar tuneless warble. The lyrics, at first, were reverential enough: “The terror of the hurricane/The unforgiving wind and rain/ New York, the world held its breath as the storm took it to you.” When he hit the chorus, his play on the lyrics actually held close to the song’s sense of battered uplift. “Hallelujah/Sandy, screw ya/We’ll get through ya/’Cause we’re New Yorkers.”
As the verses went on, of course, Sandler got ruder and more topical, with references to such local struggles as “Times Square losing all its porn,” and “the mayor’s ban on 32-ounce Mountain Dew-ya.” (As a fair-weather New York Knicks fan, I especially liked these lines: “The Mets have sucked since ’86/Isaiah tried to ruin the Knicks/But now Jason Kidd and the boys can freakin’ school ya.”)
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With Shaffer’s first notes, my iPhone was immediately besieged by texts and emails. My new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,“ traces the remarkable journey of this one song from virtual obscurity to international anthem over the course of almost three decades. When Cohen first recorded the song in 1984, the album it was included on was actually rejected by his record label. Yet through covers by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, kd lang, and more than 300 more; placements in the soundtracks to films like Shrek and dozens of TV dramas; and frequent use in American Idol, X Factor, and other singing competitions, “Hallelujah” has become an improbable modern standard, a staple at weddings, funerals, and religious services worldwide. Bono told me that he thinks it might be “the most perfect song in the world,” and lang said that now, “it doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s just infused in the culture.”
Toward the end of the book, I wrote, “It’s a bit surprising that no one has created a devastating ‘Hallelujah’ parody yet. You would think that after all this time, and no shortage of ludicrous usages, there’s an opportunity for comedy – maybe not the full ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic treatment, but at least a gentle poke at its ubiquity . . . for now, though, the song still seems too sacred to spoof.”
Being Adam Sandler, of course, soon enough his own gentle poke at the lyrics had degenerated to “the lady who said she was a man right after she blew ya (sorry, that was just me!)” and, in the final verse shout-out to New Jersey, “Turnpike Exit 13 stinkin’ like poo-ya.” I suppose it was at this point that my Facebook page started filling up with people saying “Leonard Cohen won’t be amused . . . and I’m not either,” or, “Terrible – as if I needed more reasons to hate Adam Sandler.”
You know what? Having spent the better part of the last two years thinking about this song, I thought it was pretty damn funny. Most of all, Sandler’s “Hallelujah” was a testament to the composition’s universal popularity – you don’t stand up in front of hundreds of millions of viewers watching the “12-12-12” broadcast and spoof a song unless you’re pretty confident that most of them know it. And while the magical spirit of “Hallelujah,” the meeting of prayer and sexuality its lyrics embody, may not benefit from jokes about the Situation or “the congressman who tweeted his dick,” the song has taken more severe hits before – I mean, have you heard the version on Susan Boyle’s Christmas record?
Cohen himself has expressed concern about the ubiquity of “Hallelujah”; he once said, “I think it’s a good song, but too many people sing it.” If Sandler’s comic assault on the song was long overdue, I hope that what it does is make people think twice before using it in obvious and hollow situations (“In Memoriam” tributes at awards shows, Big Emotional Moments in Special Season Finales), and instead look even deeper at the magnificent language and imagery of these lyrics, and the simple, elemental beauty of the melody.
“Hallelujah” has demonstrated its resilience and tenacity, and having its solemnity tweaked a little – letting a little air out of the balloon – is probably a good thing at this point. “So many songs you have to sing a certain way, or at the right emotional temperature, or they just collapse,” Regina Spektor said to me. “This song is pretty much indestructible.”