Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Hallelujah" part I

For the purposes of this analysis (to keep things simple) I will refer to the singer as W (woman)  and the singer's lover (who I believe is the intended audience) as M (man).  I'm going to do this in a few installments, because otherwise it's ridiculously long.

part II

part III

I really like the song "Hallelujah"by Leonard Cohen.  I first heard a cover by k.d. lang on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel, and, from the first time I listened to it, it just caught me.  I've mentioned how I like minor keys, and it's interesting that this isn't in a minor key but it feels like one.  Besides the melody, the lyrics are enigmatic, and I really haven't ever thought about them before now.  I've been hearing a lot of covers of it lately--it seems to have enjoyed a sort of resurgence, if there was a "surgence" to begin with--and I had a friend mention it, unprompted by me, while riding in the car one day.  I've heard it done by k.d.lang, Justin Timberlake, and Rufus Wainwright, to name a few.  It has some visceral appeal, some enchanting aspect that draws the listener in.  In my opinion, it deserves a critical look.

Before I start, I encourage you to listen to it first, maybe even a few times.  Just so that you feel the draw, so that you've heard it unencumbered by my thoughts on meaning.  @ YouTube (NB I like k.d. lang's version, but just search for it and you'll find a few different covers.)

"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"

"You" seems to be directed at M, perhaps an unfaithful lover. This verse is about music, a specific melody, but it never shows up again in the later lyrics.  What's the significance of David?  Obviously David is the Biblical king David, and I suppose he's baffled.  He is supposed to have composed many of the psalms in the Book of Psalms, and is sometimes referred to [in the JCBible] as "beloved of the songs of Israel."  Many of the songs are even directed to Yahweh, so W is asking something of her god.  But some of the psalms also describe events in David's life; Psalm 34 describes David's escape from King Abimelech. He "changed his behaviour" (acted insane) and Abimelech sent him away.  The psalm itself is directed first to JCGod and then to potential followers of JCGod.  So perhaps the "secret chord" that David played is not something he composed at all, but the course of his life and actions.  JCGod certainly was pleased with David.  So the next question: why is he "baffled?"  This could be referring to the human condition, and the whole not-being-omniscient thing that leads to mistakes and confusion.  So maybe "baffled" just refers to the fact that David was human, and this verse is trying to emphasize that even imperfect humans can reach a level of peace with the divine.

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

Is the "faith" in this verse Christian faith?  I think it probably is, just because of the prevalence of Christianity (and the tendency of really all religions to think of theirs as the faith); I of course choose to consider it in a more universal sense.  What's interesting here is that faith and proof are, well, mutually exclusive.  The whole idea of faith is that there is no proof, even that proof is impossible.  This is perhaps implying that the faith in this occasion is false, a mask or a meaningless totem to cling to.  Is this a condemnation of the M, that they are false and need proof in order to love?  In a sense, unable to love unconditionally?

So who is "she?"  "She" is apparently a violent entity.  That she's bathing the first time she's mentioned minds me of pagan goddesses like Artemis (among others).  In one myth Artemis is "accidentally" stumbled upon bathing in the forest by the young hunter Actaeon; she turns him into a stag and his own hounds fall upon him and kill him (differing versions exist).  (Another thing that implies Artemis: "the moonlight.")  The rest of the verse suggests that whoever "she" is, she cuts M down to size, humbling him.  It suggests hubris on the lover's part (the throne), and the ancient gods loved nothing more than punishing hubris.  The "hair" line probably somehow refers to many societies' belief that the hair holds strength or power (JCBible Samson, Mongol, Native American, Celtic, Mesoamerican culture) and that cutting it would strip the owner of that power.


smiling blue said...

...and I always thought "she" was Delilah, as in "Samson &......"

argent wolfwing said...

because of the hair part?

Meg said...

Several things here. It's gonna be a long comment.

1) I always pictured it as a man singing to a woman, except in the second verse where he's singing to David/Samson. Maybe that's because I've always listened to men singing it. And certain lines in later verses...

2) David is a baffled king. He started off great and wonderful. And then he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof and he kept looking and he found out who she was and he called her to the castle and he sent her husband of to war and instructed certain trusted others that her husband should not make it back alive. And so he was free to love Bathsheba. And so he lost God's favor. It's really quite tragic. He spent the rest of his life regretting it and wrote (or at least had attributed to him) several very pretty psalms on the subject of repentance and forgiveness. So I think it's after these events that the singer refers to him as baffled.

3) This song, in particular the second verse, jumbles a couple Biblical stories together something awful. Mainly it's David and Samson. David first saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof. She, or at least his lust for her, was the cause of his downfall. Samson, who was promised supernatural strength so long as he left his hair uncut (but was otherwise really quite vulgar and not a great guy) fell in love with Delilah, a Philistine woman of rather ill repute, I believe, and she cut his hair, causing his downfall. So the second verse encompasses both of these stories and kind of melds them into one.

4) I don't think that the "faith" in the second verse means an organized religion, but David's (or David/Samson's) personal faith in God. And technically they were both Jewish. Christianity didn't exist yet.

5) Faith and proof aren't mutually exclusive. This is a concept that I have firmly in my head, but have difficulty explaining in words. So just hurry up and learn how to read minds and you'll get it.

I'll save the rest of my thoughts on this song for the later posts...

Meg said...

I had another thought. In the second verse, on the last line, "from your lips she drew the Hallelujah." It almost sounds like she's stealing it.

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