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In Defense of Sandler’s “Hallelujah”

The comic wasn’t butchering Leonard Cohen’s classic. He was rescuing it.

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Because I’ve spent the last two years writing a book about Leonard Cohen, yesterday night, when Adam Sandler took the stage at Madison Square Garden for the Sandy Relief concert and began his humorous rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” my inbox was jammed with emails, all asking a single question: are you watching this?

I was. And it was rock n’ roll.

To most Cohen aficionados, Sandler’s performance was, at best, an act of mindless vulgarity, or, if you wanted to take a less charitable view, sacrilege. I understand why the critics, including many of my dearest friends, feel that way. To hear Cohen’s elevated words about the yearnings of the spirit and the flesh reduced to jokes about Mark Sanchez fumbling into someone’s butt is enough to send even the kindest soul into paroxysms of rage. But the condemners, I believe, are missing the point: Sandler wasn’t covering Cohen’s song as much as he was covering the cascade of covers of “Hallelujah,” virtually all of which had robbed the song of its might in much more vulgar ways.

I could be unkind to Jeff Buckley, and argue that this wonderful and sensitive singer missed the point by tipping the balance in favor of the flesh and making his version all about “the hallelujah of the orgasm;” for a lovely and lively account of Buckley and Cohen and the song’s rise to eminence, read Alan Light’s new and wonderful The Holy or the Broken. But think of all the times you’ve heard “Hallelujah” performed on televised singing competitions, or seen it pop up in animated movies, or abused in third-rate superhero film sex scenes. Unlike Sandler’s clearly self-aware romp, these repeated violations of Cohen’s work of genius are committed in earnest and in good faith, which make them unspeakably offensive. It’s one thing to jump on stage with the intention of slaughtering a sacred cow; it’s quite another to think you’re petting it tenderly and somehow discover a bloody knife in your hand.

With so many well-meaning and thoroughly misguided covers, it’s no wonder that Cohen himself called for a moratorium on “Hallelujah” covers. But one hopes that the poet, unfairly not usually recognized for his superb and subtle sense of humor, would’ve dug Sandler’s punk version. More than the mummified Stones, the bloated Billy Joel, or the slithering Roger Waters, Sandler was one of very few real, live rock stars on display last night, doing that thing that rock stars do: he kicked and mocked and questioned and took great, sophomoric, hormonal joy at picking up our cherished object and tossing it on the floor to see it shatter. And he did it, I believe, for all the right reasons—oddly, once you got through the silly jokes and the foul language, Sandler’s version was not without soul, alive with that peculiar and inimitable New York spirit that takes pleasure in defiance and irreverence, that is sweet and feisty and unmistakably Jewish. What else can one say to that but hallelujah?

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marjorie says:

i didn’t object to him taking a sacred-cow song and making it funny! i thought his lyrics were pretty great: “the puke on your stoops every sunday morn/original times square losing all its porn” and “the mayor’s ban on 32-ounce-mountain-dew-ya” — fab! what i objected to was him MISSING SO MANY NOTES and going so flat. this is a really hard song to sing, which is part of why it is so brilliant. the way it steps up (the minor chord, the major fifth!) and the range it requires! it’s not punk-rock to try to hit notes and miss. (you have to not try. or sing really easy songs. like i wanna be sedated…or the hanukah song.) i cringe at someone singing a beautiful song badly, not singing a beautiful song edgily or goofy-wittily.

He actually has a lovely voice, too bad he doesn’t know how to use it.

a foster says:

I really wish someone would just stop this guy.

Don_Martin1 says:

What a man! Springsteen, eat your heart out.

Yeah, it was goofy, but it was really funny.

As for the use of the song in Watchmen, if you consider the satirical nature of the scene (the comic-book nerd dresses up as a hero and gets with the gorgeous superheroine) and look at the song in that context, it makes a lot of sense.

I didn’t think it was very funny, but that had nothing to do with it being a parody of Cohen’s song, which I am thoroughly sick of. I think it’s an overblown, pretentious, overrated song in the first place (and I would say the same for Mr. Cohen himself), and its endless repetition over the past few years whenever some singer on a TV show wants to come across as being “deep” hasn’t helped.

muroff says:

Good grief people, lighten up, it’s JUST entertainment.

It was a fair (at best) attempt at making light of the situation within the context of the great cause of raising money for relief efforts. That’s it.

Oh please…L. Cohen would have laughed his tush off. If a Jew doesn’t laugh…he cries. Laughing is better. Going to see the “master” next week in NY and then Brooklyn. Thank goodness they are still standing.

tendilla says:

Giiiiive Meeeee a Breeeeeeeeeeak!!!! Adam is always “a little dopey”…but usually FUNNY….”SANDY SCREW YA”…INDEED!!! What better sentiment is there???

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Ray’s Original closed?

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Mr. Sandler did NOT “cover” Mr. Cohen’s song, nor did he cover “the cascade of covers of Hallelujah,” He did not do a “punk version” of Mr. Cohen’s song.

He did not parody the song, either.

He wrote new lyrics to the song to express something. Something important.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

If you want to be unkind to someone, be unkind to Paul Schaefer, who did everything he could to ruin Sandler’s performance.


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In Defense of Sandler’s “Hallelujah”

The comic wasn’t butchering Leonard Cohen’s classic. He was rescuing it.

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