By Jim Schutze
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Buckley's version is celebrated in certain circles, though by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowns in a tributary of the Mississippi River in 1997 and, Light writes: "After Buckley's death, 'Hallelujah' took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insiders' secret for those who already knew about him, and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond actual words and music."
The popularity of the song quickly snowballs. It's spotlighted in Shrek, it becomes the go-to anthem during 9/11, every singer-songwriter on the planet — from household names to coffeehouse nobodies — begins covering it live. Even Jon Bon Jovi gets in on the act. Eventually, the song becomes a staple on American Idol and X Factor. Susan Boyle covers it, Justin Timberlake performs it. And here we are.
Light ponders the question of whether we've hit "Hallelujah" fatigue, whether the song has lost its potency through ubiquity. "It seemed like it slowed down for a minute, but then it was fascinating to see Adam Sandler spoof it on the 12/12/12 show [to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims]. As I wrote in the book, it's been taken seriously for so long, it's kind of begging for someone to pop the balloon. And then there's Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, 'Well, maybe that'll slow it down for a while,' and then two days later was the shootings in Connecticut and that's the song everybody turned to again.
"It was a testament to the fact that the song's reached that place and it's not vulnerable to something like [a spoof], that it's bigger than that and it can take the hit of the joke and still work the way that it's continued to work. When Paul Simon talks about it, that song was 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and he saw 'Hallelujah' come along and become the next song that does that. So now, until something else rises up and takes it away, it's still holding that spot."
Why? At the conclusion of The Holy or the Broken, Light offers his own eloquent explanation: "A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy."
Nothing is better in this world than that song; truly beautiful. The JB version is the best; it is haunting.
The John Cale version is good but the first version I heard was by Jeff Buckley and it remains my favorite. Give them a listen.