F2K10 is a countdown of the 20 worst songs of 2010. Track our progress here.
Leonard Cohen’s ode to sex and music theory “Hallelujah” reached a certain saturation point this year–there was a moment when it seemed like there would be one overwrought cover of the track appearing on TV per month, thanks to Justin Timberlake singing it (for Haiti!) and k.d. lang singing it (for sport!) and so on. And no one pushed harder for the song’s resurgence than British T-shirt obsessive Simon Cowell, who’s had a serious thing for the track ever since doe-eyed balladeer Jason Castro pulled it out for American Idol a few years back. (Although Cowell claims to be bananas for the Jeff Buckley version that accompanied so many dorm-room deflowerings during the ’90s.) In 2008, X Factor winner Alexandra Burke covered it for her coronation single; in May, Cowell’s Chosen One on American Idol, Lee DeWyze, was handed a bombastic version of the song as a way of cementing his season-ending victory; and in November, his Chosen One from Britain’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle, included it on her second album–right alongside her cover of “Perfect Day.”
The singular quality of a lousy “Hallelujah” cover is the way that it treats the verses– bad covers of the song either approach them as a penance that has to be suffered in order to reach the transcendent chorus, or as completely incomprehensible blather. Boyle’s version does both (and excises a few verses in the process); her overly enunciated, hollow singing of each word that doesn’t mean “praise God” makes you wonder if she was actually given phonetic instruction in the studio. (Especially the line about kitchen-chair bondage, which, yipes.)
This shouldn’t surprise, though, given the syrup-drowning that is the chorus here. The moment when a choir comes as Boyle sings the song’s titular praise refrain is absolutely wince-inducing, not only because of how chilling overwrought it is, but also because this is precisely when the motivation for this particular pairing of singer and song is laid bare.
Because the only rational reason for Susan Boyle to sing this particular Leonard Cohen song has to be the fact that it’s easy to tie in to her persona–if, that is, you just focus on the part that she dolls up with choirs and strings and churchlike Meaningfulness. After all, Boyle, during her Britain’s Got Talent run that seems so long ago (it’s only been 18 months since she first warbled her way into the dark, pixellated heart of YouTube), was dubbed “The Hairy Angel” by the British press. I can almost see the Christmas-special setup now: “Look, the angel is singing ‘Hallelujah,’ Mum!” And there’s Boyle, bathed in light, beaming down beatifically.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 6, 2010