A Cold and Broken Hallelujah


On more occasions than I can count, I’ve used this space to question the intelligence and judgment of rock critics—and journalists more generally. There are enough times, though, when I have to remember that I’m perpetuating a gross stereotype. Indeed, there are dozens of brilliant critics out there, ones whose work makes me think (and listen) even when I disagree. This post is a public way of bursting the bubble I’ve created. (Hopefully some of them are willing to acknowledge that there is academic writing about music that isn’t, as Jason Toynbee wrote in the introduction to an essay collaboratively authored with Tim Quirk of Too Much Joy, “pompous and verbose, concerned with talking around subjects rather than focusing on them.”)

Through a tangled, nearly stream-of(-clicking)-consciousness process, late last night I found myself reading about, and then reading, a paper given by Michael Barthel at the latest Experience Music Project Pop Conference. While I’ve always been sypmathetic to what the folks at EMP are trying to do with the conference—namely, bringing together musicians, critics and scholars who share a love for popular music—in practice it seems the events have only reinforced the differences between (and within) those groupings. I use the word “seems” because I haven’t attended a meeting. Nonetheless, I wish I had been there to hear how Barthel delivered his paper.

In it, he engages in one of those activities that have long been the province of song collectors and folklorists: chronicling the life of a song by examining and comparing the versions of different artists who have performed/recorded it. The song in this case is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a track first featured on his album Various Positions (1984). Various Positions CD CoverI’d be giving away too much of the story Barthel tells if I explained my reaction to the Cohen version the first time I heard it (1997), but mine is perhaps similar to his since we both apparently came to the party late, so to speak. Given what one might call a lack of promise in the original, it is in some ways miraculous that this song has, at least since the late 1980s, become something of a standard in the sense that popular songs and showtunes from the early decades of the 20th century are.

Barthel’s is a smartly presented piece, one that makes no grandiose claims, but solidly supports the ones it does make. And the inclusion of sound and video clips, as well as charts and responses to the comments that followed the presentation, takes the paper beyond being a listing of events. In the end, questions about “generational touchstones” and canonicity perhaps are more salient than the subject matter that led the author to raise them, but they don’t take the reader away from the objects that sparked those questions. They become instead all the more present.

I guess I like the piece for precisely the reasons that make me like any writing, music or writing about music. Barthel’s essay functions as a productive catalyst—making one think, to be sure, but perhaps also inspiring more music and more writing about it…

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