Recently, sweet Karen Schindler, sent me a link to a video of Jon Bonjovi singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and that reminded me that I’d heard the song covered by others. I would be surprised if you haven’t heard some version of the song. As I found out, it’s been covered over forty times. I’m not familiar with all those versions, but I’ve heard enough to know that some who sing it, judging by their emotionless rendering, apparently don’t really listen to the words. Yet, of course, lyrics are open to interpretation.
Cohen is quoted as saying he’s written “about eighty verses” of the song. He recorded only four of those for his album Various Positions in 1984, and then three different verses, plus one from the first set, on a live album in 1994. In other live performances, he may add another verse or switch the order—he interprets his own song. If you compare, you’ll notice that others who perform the song also pick and choose from these seven verses, often changing a word or two to fit their own interpretation.
Hallelujah is a “catchy” song. But it’s not a happy love song. Nor is it a religious song, despite the chorus with it’s repetition of the title word, a word with religious overtones. In my opinion, however, it is a spiritual song. It speaks to the human condition. It expresses the pain and bitterness of life and love, but underneath it lies understanding, acceptance, victory. Hallelujah, I’m alive! Hallelujah, I’ve survived.
For me, the singer who most does justice to the song, is k.d. lang, whose performance of it brings tears to my eyes. Cohen himself, seeing her performance of the song, said: “Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection.” You can watch her performance at the 2005 Juno Awards by clicking at the end of this post. And if you’d like to read all seven verses of Cohen’s song, click here for the 1984 version and here for the 1994 version.
When thinking about these differing interpretations of one song, I can’t help applying that to my writing. In critique groups, I’ve experienced someone reading into my work something more than what I intended or failing to get the meaning I did intend—both instances frustrate and disappoint. But the game will really change once my work is published. I’ll still have control of copyright, but I can’t control how people interpret what I write. If strangers misinterpret my meaning, I can’t do much about that. If someone slams my novel at places like Amazon or Goodreads, I won’t like it, but they are entitled to their opinion.
I guess the best we can hope for is that the majority of readers out there will be “k. d. langs” who really get our writing.
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