Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Just whose hallelujah is it anyway?

Leonard Cohen, Alexandra Burke, Jeff Buckley, John Cale

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Rooftop bathing. S&M. Gunfights. A haircut. What is going on in this year's likely Christmas Number One - and possible Number Two?

Two versions of Hallelujah are headed for the top of the Christmas charts. But there is a version of Hallelujah for everyone.

For the pre-pubescent fan of animated ogres, there's the one in Shrek that plays as the titular monster feels ugly. For the teen soap devotee, there's the sensitive acoustic montage music for profound moments in shows like The OC.

John Cale (stately)
Bon Jovi (soft rock)
Bono (spoken word)
Imogen Heap (a capella)
Fall Out Boy (emo)

For the baby boomer ex-beatnik, its writer Leonard Cohen offers two renditions with almost completely different lyrics.

And now, for everyone - indeed, for Christmas - there's the X Factor victory single.

But exactly how Christmassy is this song, with lines like "your faith was strong but you needed proof", where the singer is "not somebody who's seen the light"?

Well, while there's not a lot of "behold the Baby Jesus" and not a donkey in sight, there's certainly a lot of Bible in there - it's just that it's some of the raunchier and more violent episodes from the Christmas-free Old Testament.

Evil spirit

We kick off in the Book of Samuel with David who is, as well as a nifty fighter, a mean harpist. His "secret chord" that "pleased the Lord" is enough to release an evil spirit from Saul, the man he is shortly to succeed as king.

David is said to have scoped out Bathsheba having a bath on the roof

That done, David spies the beautiful Bathsheba "bathing on the roof" and gets her pregnant. Little good comes of this - Bathsheba's husband Uriah is one of David's soldiers and winds up dead.

Then before you know it, we skip to the Book of Judges and David has become Samson. When we hear the line "she broke your throne and she cut your hair", we all know what happened next - although Hallelujah doesn't depict the part where Samson, his eyes gouged, pulls down a temple killing himself and around 3,000 guests for good measure.

In X Factor winner Alexandra Burke's version, we only have one more verse to go.


In it, she tells us that "all I've ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you" and closes by announcing, as if any doubt were now needed, that the chorus is "a cold and a broken Hallelujah". Ho, ho, ho.

Singalong chorus

There's something odd here. The key shifts up. The strings crescendo. The gospel singers - who, incongruously, entered the stage of the X Factor final on the word "maybe" of "maybe there's a god above" - raise the volume even higher.

Far from cold and broken, the final chorus is more like Handel's original Hallelujah Chorus mashed up with Cher's I Found Someone.

Devotees of Hallelujah - and there are many - might wonder why Burke's people didn't choose some of the 80 other available verses.

Cohen's own ends on a far more upbeat note, lyrically, with a vow to "stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah". At the very least, this fits a festive feel better than the S&M of "she tied you to a kitchen chair".

I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song'
Leonard Cohen

If 80 verses seem excessive, that's because Leonard Cohen belongs to the old school of proper, serious, tortured songwriters.

His versions - one Biblical and another secular - take us through a huge range of emotional places, with the different hallelujahs expressing despair, sexual ecstasy and religious devotion.

As the Bishop of Croydon put it in a recent Radio 2 documentary, "what it comes from is being open and transparent before God and the world and saying 'this is how it is, mate'".

It's not immediately clear which of these we get in Alexandra Burke's single. Lyrically, it's about being crushed by irresistible passion. But the video makes it about the "journey" of winning a TV talent show, meaning all that's Christmassy about it is the pretty tune and the singalong chorus.

Angry fans

Fans of Leonard Cohen (and of the late Jeff Buckley, whose 1994 version is treated as sacrosanct) are predictably outraged at the big-arms, eyebrow-raised bombast, with the now traditional online campaigns and rival singles vying for the Christmas Number One.

But maybe they need not worry so much. For one thing, viewings of the other Hallelujahs on the global jukebox YouTube are rising every day, with comments underneath such as "Glad the song won X Factor - even with a rubbish version - otherwise I wouldn't have discovered this".

And for another, Cohen was last in the news when a court ruled that his manager had stolen £5.4m which he was unlikely to recover. So there may be another kind of joyous cry this Christmas - the kind that means "a beautiful woman has sung my song and restored my financial solvency". Hallelujah.

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

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