Perfect Sound Forever

The Birth of kd lang's "Hallelujah" out of the 'Spirit of Music'

Performing Desire and 'Recording Consciousness' on Facebook and YouTube
by Babette Babich
(October 2011)

The Hallelujah Effect on the Internet

The initial focus of this essay, apart from important preliminary references to Leonard Cohen is on kd lang, not as composer (although she is one) but musical performer and not as guitarist (although she is one) but as a singer and although her live performances have to make all the difference, very specifically, for the sake of any analysis, specifically as her singing is available in video format on YouTube. Of course there are many readings of kd lang and popular music, and of course most of them focus on the way she dresses, others look at her sexuality,1 and here, just for a bit, I consider her musicality.

Radio Physiognomy, Facebook Contexts, YouTube Poker

I first heard Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" -- rather improbably, given the sheer number of recording artists who have interpreted his song -- as 'sung' by Cohen himself, not in person of course, but and this will be the point and the heart of what follows especially as it bears on musical practice, on the radio. And with referring to radio, as we shall see, I am already referring to Adorno's notion of radio physiognomics as indeed to the sociology of music practice as well as philosophical aesthetics, just because hearing anything on the radio is always a matter of acoustics and often the reproduction of a reproduction, listening to a recording. Thus radio transmits music as we "consume" music today in the age of mechanical, electronic, virtual reproduction, so many species of digital dissemination.

Given the sheer coverage of the song, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" manifestly captivates singers but it's fair to say that I couldn't have guessed that from that first acquaintance and not being too much of a fan of Cohen or much pop music in general (apart that is from listening to the radio), I could, as we say, take it or leave it.

That was until what I call 'dueling video-posts' on Facebook.

Now the thing about Facebook is the chance to pretend to be in contact with people with whom one is (no longer) in actual contact (friends from one's youth, colleagues from various past acquaintances, and in what is perhaps the largest category of Facebook 'friends', that would also be people one has never met but whom one supposes one ought to have met or whom one would like to meet or just because -- this would be the California or 'whatever' kind of friend -- as well as family members and such). Facebook achieves this, as its name suggests, by including pictures of the same, along with the aforementioned videoposts, most of which are borrowed from YouTube, and because this is a virtual rather than a real 'book,' also by a "wall" like nothing so much as a public bathroom wall: one is often alone when writing on said wall, on one's own wall or those of others, and one writes precisely with the expectation that others simply passing through or vaguely loitering -- aha! finally a meaning for that phrase -- will chance to read it, and, like such scribblings, Facebook posts often have a kind of high or distant humor: provocative or conceived just to get a rise out of people. It is not for nothing that Facebook has an odd category of the "poke" which I have never used but propose to understand as of a piece with this character of provocative instigation. And this matters for the video post.

Facebook denizens craft their posts to ensure a response and even if they do not admit this it is clear that they are frustrated if this is not successful.2 For my own part, I post mostly informative, i.e., didactic posts -- and 'friends,' so I believe, counter or filter these by simply tuning them out. Thus the experience of Facebook tends to be more rather than less autistic and, in a wired age, this autism may be its most subversive quality. Nevertheless and within the safe space of friendly faces and sympathetic voices and modulated in accord with what Derrida once called a higher tone, that is language elevated to a public level and therefore raised to a lighter, more gracious, and occasionally ironic tone, there are also inspiring occasions.

Thus when Claire Katz, my friend and philosophical colleague at Texas A&M, posted the Shrek "Hallelujah," expressing enthusiasm for the same, I was moved to a bit of what I call YouTube poker, an exchange very common on Facebook. Thus, I saw her Rufus Wainwright post and raised it by a kd lang.

Not any kd version either but her live 2005 Juno version, which I found among many other singers and several other versions. And Andrew Benjamin (it mattered to me that this came from Australia) returned with an absolute hands-down yay-saying. Now, and this is also a peculiar advantage of Facebook, it is significant that Andrew is a practical aesthetics person: architectural theory, philosophy and so on, are his thing. Thus, sheerly theoretically, Andrew's comment brought me to think on what had moved me to join the poker game in the first place and indeed to what that seemingly idle gesture had brought me. Not this many sound as if I am cooler than your average professor or Nietzsche scholar, as if I -- like Andrew -- know my kd lang but, looking for Leonard Cohen, which is to say (and this is what I mean about didacticism) looking for the "original" (conventionally understood), I had found this version instead and instantly and spontaneously added a link.

In fact: I fell off the floor3 in response to the song I heard which was indeed the song, the YouTube post, I saw. The piano, almost enough for the absolutist (musically speaking) in me had taken me from the start, but kd lang's poise was also a living embodiment of the song as well. Indeed: everything was dynamic poise, possession, lived expression. Now the camera person who filmed the live Juno 2005 performance had a lot, perhaps everything to do with it -- this is the point of video, this is movie-magic. Thus although I usually emphasize the difference it makes to be physically, really, really present, in performance, in person, in real space, just and in order to speak about music at all and to begin with, 4 there can be no doubt that most of us today experience music in the hard wired way, often with earbuds: recorded, often digital music. 5

But the digital character of today's music (and I encourage the reader to search out the reference footnoted above as there is a world to unpack in this digital character) turns out to be one thing. The whole package of the YouTube experience, like the closed world of Facebook, is another. Here, it is the full production, theatrical light-set of the Juno performance that turns out to be important, if and initially, subliminally so. For kd lang's performance is set against the crucial backdrop of a light show: a shifting and subtle series of slides, blue light cut-outs in religious frames, stained glass, including a blue rose window, crosses and high gothic rectangles of light. And as she sings, and imperceptibly, the framed illuminations change with the music: piano, contrabass, single guitar thus comprising what one might call an orchestra band, all cellos and strings, including a conductor, the setting clearly delineated from verse to verse, chorus to chorus, shifting from religious forms to a blue starry-night expanse at the climax.

Nor does it turn out to be any kind of accident that lang speaks of the 'cinematic' quality of Cohen's "Hallelujah" as making the song, for her -- she is always careful to qualify this -- an easy one. Then too, there is the age-old question of content and musical style important for Nietzsche who always wondered about the fate of music where the words themselves demanded to be understood (this would be in the context of European opera) while at the same time emphasizing when it came to antiquity that the ancient Greeks went to the theatre to hear beautiful speech, the beauty of the spoken word, where as he recalls for us, there would be no difference between speech and song.

It is for this reason that I found myself led to pose the question of kd lang's performance practice seeking thereby a better understanding of what Nietzsche called "the spirit of music." That spirit is very literally, very exactly sounded in the case of the Greek's own voicing of their own language, especially poetically, because as Nietzsche had discovered, one could not perform the tragedies without singing them, not ever, and not because he argued for missing musical scores, and not because of the lyre or cithera accompaniment but because, and again, to speak was to sing. 6

On kd lang and the Idea of Masculine Beauty or Male Desire and Music

With kd lang, what struck me was the lyrics themselves -- and note that because Leonard Cohen doesn't sing, it is not exactly as if it is difficult to understand the words: his is not that kind of music. Because lang can sing, indeed and because whatever about her abilities as an actor, 7 because she knows how to "act with her voice," to borrow Michael Chanan's words from another context, 8 the words sung in lang's singing of Cohen's "Hallelujah" began, and for the first time, to make all the difference. In my own case, when I heard Cohen sing his "Hallelujah," I found myself seeing through his poem, its artifice (or call it artfulness), for me the words were short on their own religious content or context not at all advanced by a calculatedly vulgar, overtly and self-consciously masculine (did it matter that Cohen's Toronto compositions could only be written in the wake of the enormous success of Serge Gainsbourg's "je vais et je viens" in his breathless, as sung with Jane Birkin, "Je t'aime, moi non plus"), that is: self-indulgence qua eroticism.

This did not mean that I could not acknowledge that this would for many be the theological heart of the song itself. It would seem that there is nothing like mentioning the holy dove where the church itself has banned talk of the ghost in favor of the spirit, and doing so in the same context that inspired Gainsborough.

kd lang's version offers an entire world, cinematic as she says, but one that as she walks into that world, opens the meaning of the song, the verses, each word. Now the problem here is that I am not a lesbian and it is not that I have always wanted to be a lesbian. I am one of those rare (they really are rare) women who actually likes men erotically, that is not personally, that is: not as men are in the world, the male dasein, in their ways as men and in terms of their character as men, as this way of being is often not so very nice at all, especially when it comes to the way they treat the women in their lives, from their mothers to the women they love, but and much, much rather and very exactly, a liking that has to do with their bodies, with the male body, as such.

Thus I like men the way, fairly, as I would suppose and there are obvious limitations to this claim, in the way that a homosexual man might say that he likes men, that is: aesthetically speaking, and it is for the sake of the latter that for most of my life, I have put up with the men I have loved. I mourn the loss of the first boy I ever loved all because of his lost beauty. He died young, everything inconsummate, pure potential, unsullied and unsulliable perfection: all John Keats' destiny and undying power for my soul. Conversely, personally, I am not an admirer of female beauty -- as both men and women and kd lang love female beauty -- but and much rather male beauty: face, body, every erotic aspect. But and in fact or real life, for me beauty alone still falls short when it comes to love affairs and I remember wishing that one particularly beautiful lover would simply not speak, so unbearably boring was he. This was never said it but it surely sped the end of the relationship.

Relating to men in this fashion, i.e., as an admirer of male beauty and if one is interested, as I was always interested, in erotic encounters, is difficult -- I would say: impossible. I echo Lacan, speaking as a woman desiring men and with respect to men, there is no sexual relation there, none at all, no possibility, not a chance. Which is hardly to say, and it would be false and silly to say that it is difficult to find an opportunity to sleep with men. There are always ways to do that, easy ones. 9 My point here is merely a reflection on the real-world fact that men are not about being desired for their beauty as such, and if it comes to light that they are so desired, it disarms but even more often unmans them, literally so. And there is nothing erotic in that.

It is an exact corollary that men are also disturbed (and this is a subtle issue that needs its own analysis) by women who do not desire them and who make their lack of desire clear. The reason that being desired/not being desired has this contradictory efficacy is that men themselves are themselves the subjects. Tout court.

As a result and as the ruling gender (and which gender did you think had hegemony in this world?), men happen to be, when it comes to erotic encounters, exceedingly advanced at having those encounters only and precisely on the very specific terms they themselves set. Hence there is an erotic object in every heterosexual erotic encounter and the guys themselves are not that object. Of course I am not saying that women do not and in general enjoy the beauty of their lovers' bodies, in all possible ways, and I am also sure that this varies from person to person, but women are inevitably limited in bringing this out in any but the most oblique ways.

And as I write this I realize that men reading this and women reading this will protest that this does not apply to them: I simply beg to differ.

If it is women who are the objects of desire (n.b.: for heterosexual men but not less for women, and by this I mean both homosexual and heterosexual women), such that -- I note that the case of lesbian desire is affectively because from the point of view of the subject more complex, which is why men and women find it so fascinating -- the desire of the heterosexual woman is, as Nietzsche put it, rather more flatly than Hegel, to be desired -- rather than to desire (tho' Nietzsche used the language of will or command). By contrast, with such a thing as the desire to be desired, men are subjects all the way down. They want to be affirmed, supported, admired, acknowledged but not objectified. As Robert de Niro's Travis Bickle put it perfectly a long time ago in the 1976 film, Taxi Driver: "Are you looking at me?" It is not that men do not desire to be desired, it is that they take their appeal as self-evident and precisely as an appeal that is not for the other. Thus they need not and do not 'desire' to be desired.

Men, in a word, are not there for women.10 Hence even the word 'beauty' as applied to men already bothers them and just because it objectifies them.11 Even the so-called metrosexual trend works only because it bounces off, glances off, men dressing not for women but for men. And heterosexual men do that too, GQ, corporate style, the sky's the limit, but only for one another. Perhaps the reader has heard of Seville Row? Hong Kong tailoring?

You don't really care for music, do ya?

Indeed and during the heyday of the sexual revolution which also for good measure included women's 'liberation' (if we may speak of that failed undertaking in that way), 12 when it was popularly protested that women ought not perhaps be regarded as sex objects, men were fond of countering with the assertion that they would love to be sex objects. And they claimed this not because it was true but because they were keen on what they called 'free love' or sex without strings (and s&m, until kd lang's singing of Cohen's "Hallelujah" was not part of what Cohen's reference to the real anxiety, the unmanning threat consequent to being tied to a kitchen chair as in the circumstance that that was for Samson himself).

In fact, that is, in practice or real life, men do not 'like' women who come on to them (ladies at the bar, please take note). And women know this and this is why they dress, and act, and walk the way they do. But even suborned as objects to the subject who gets to desire in the first place, women do not get close to loving men for their beauty (unless arranged in such a way that men do not notice, just take care not to give yourself away). At best, one might adjust a tie, choose a shirt, mend a shaving scar, etc. But woman, as such, remains the sexual, the erotic object for both heterosexual men as for both heterosexual and lesbian women, though one can take a shot a changing that if one wishes to stage some kind of performance-inspired drama, not a full on erotic encounter. Not really.

Although it is the erotic encounter that matters here, it is music that is in question in Cohen's song: "You don't really care for music, do ya?" Set up by the inside talk of "a secret chord, that David had and it pleased the Lord," it was, I have said, lang's rendering of Cohen's exposed illustration of the verse: "it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift," that caught me, utterly, and I needed to see her do it for it to have the effect that it did. Not only acoustic, but visual, not only visual, but dramatic and add to that the resonance with life, the body, god, and time, the intellect, and sex: a minor riff on the 19th century ideal of the Gesammtkunstwerk.

Is kd lang's version different from other versions? How so? How does she do what she does? Indeed, how does she manage to do it again and again -- though professional singers do this all the time: c'est son métier, quand meme, but this is also why they lip synch their songs from time to time, singing back up, as it were, with themselves.

I have already noted that part of kd lang's appeal apparently derives for her following from what some call her cross-dressing. 13 For my part, I find her clothes unremarkable14 and I have never understood why only a man might be permitted to wear a comfortable jacket, covering most of his body with decent tailoring (ah bespoke!), and be thought to look well-dressed but women were seemingly required to uncover theirs. This exactly double standard holds when it comes to song and dance shows, think Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and only Gene Kelly or more recently Patrick Swayze (and both had good, muscular reasons to do so) take a care to opt for form fitting dance clothes -- I will not mention Dean Martin or kd lang's Tony Bennett because they, of course, exemplify the point.

The form-fitting clothes rule is hard on middle-aged women singers and these days and for some time now, Madonna has struggled to match the bodies of her more youthful competitors and then too there is the always debated issue of damaging one's voice by starving oneself. But kd lang's own sexuality made the difference here, perhaps it made all the difference. If the venue (or their label) permitted other singers who have 'covered' Cohen's song to take the risk of offending so-called family values (though one wonders how families' innocent of sex became families in the first place, just to echo Nietzsche's complaint about Wagner's Parsifal), 15 these same other (male) singers did not fail to repeat Cohen's weaker Gainsborough lyrics (though Gainsborough himself could not have been more heterosexually overt if he tried) where Cohen writes a very crucial verse -- this it is the one male singers cannot wait to get to, perhaps because men tend to blame their partners for what changes in love between them, perhaps because it is the most explicit:

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Lang cuts this utterly but what is astonishing is that and at the same time, she keeps every bit of erotic tension on hand and from the start, with Cohen's reference to David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11), "You saw her bathing on the roof / her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya," which some male singers, like Buckley, to continue the above subject's point of view, opt to sing as "her beauty in the moonlight."

Lang keeps the conjunction clear and her phrasing separates it: this is the whole of eros, already in place. Overcome, overwhelmed: we are talking about the way eros works on us, from without, ready or not, it comes upon us, and this is desire. 16 By keeping this on the level of desire we are also able, this is the mystery that is also already present from the start, to find that we are talking about God, and lang does this without Cohen's "But now you never show it to me, do you?/And remember when I moved in you /The holy dove was moving too."

Thus and in the middle of another YouTube post including a number of other songs, kd lang, preternaturally conscious (this makes her both a very good and a very bad subject for television interviews) says "Welcome to church," a double joke at a concert in a church, to introduce a rendition of "Hallelujah."

As a songwriter, Cohen's own words work as poetry and it matters in this that Cohen gives us rhymes to hear. The incipit -- "I heard there was a secret chord, and the second line that David sang and it pleased the Lord" -- takes us in. The rhyme between "heard/chord/Lord" secured with an echoing assonance between "heard there." These are the mystery cults -- the rites, the esoteric circles of both religion and music -- "and it pleased the Lord." This chord, this secret accords with those same rites: this chord pleases, which should very well entail that this chord would -- ah, if one only knew it, ah, but it is a secret -- work for us too: if only we might learn it. We are taken in, we are captivated and it would seem that this is precisely what the songwriter wishes of us, as he promotes himself, not hesitating "to advertise his technique," here borrowing the words from musicologist friend of mine, Ernest McClain, who emphasizes that the proclamation is direct enough. 17

Indeed, McClain's musicological analysis, just informal, just in personal correspondence, confirms what Cohen says when he tells us (this telling us so would be the postmodern move) that he is telling us what he is doing: "it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift" -- and it is exactly here that I am undone: for this is also the way lang sings it. Now one might be inclined to say that, sure, everyone sings it this way, Cohen 'sings' it this way, Wainwright and Buckley and any number of singers sing it this way, four Norwegian tenors sing it this way, in a round, trading verses. Yes and again no. Everyone does not sing it this way because lang sings the song itself and her gestures are crucial. She builds and moves into the song. Thus, in the YouTube video of the live performance that I am talking about here (a performance which qua YouTube video is not live, which is why we can analyze it), it is as if she were directing herself, directing the song itself, directing her own verse, her own chorus. Thus she plays with open fingers "the fourth, the fifth," and with a downturned hand smoothly traces "the minor fall," recovering with an upturned hand, "the major lift," and, powerfully, "a baffled king composing Halleluja."

Because, and then, there is the walking. Beginning by standing by the piano, in contemplative reflection, poised in time, that is the time of the singer's musical silence, the time of the piano introduction, kd lang begins by singing and walks into and through the song, and it seems as if the song takes her through the whole of time and space. Musical time, musical space.

"Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof" -- and here it helps to be either Leonard Cohen singing of David and Bathsheba or kd lang singing exactly the same lines, with the same sympathy: "You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya." Again, as lang sings it, every word, every sentiment comes clear.

The dissonance that follows, mixing David and Samson and every manchild: "Well she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, and cut your hair." The whole of trauma is here, this is what shatters a lifetime, it is this -- pent up and waiting -- that brings down a temple.

It will be Lang's gestures, it will be her eyes, the turn of her head to speak of the moonlight and its rapture, winding the cord of her microphone to illustrate being tied to the kitchen chair but also looking straight at the audience as she does so, that make it plain that this is a sexual come on, she, of course it was she who did this: "broke your throne," and cutting with her fingers to illustrate, "and cut your hair." Here after all this, is nothing more than the space of the musical phrase and the listener knows, this gets under your skin, that the one addressed is you yourself, a different you, some other you, son of man: "and from your lips, she drew" and here there are disputes between the need to add an article, Wainwright and most men name it determinate -- 'the' Hallelujah.

What is it, what would be, to, as Nietzsche says, praise the demon who speaks thus? What kind of belief do you have to have, what kind of abased, abashedly awful love do you have to have, to still say, as Abraham, Job, David -- "Your faith was strong, but you needed proof" -- Hallelujah? Any one who has felt at all, and what is the reference here? It is to you and to the appeal of the senses, sensuality. "Her beauty in the moonlight."

On the matter of affirmation, Nietzsche reflects that if there is just one thing to which you would say 'Yes,' then you also and inevitably affirm every other thing, because everything is inextricably intertwined, interknotted. Tied, broken, cut -- "and from your lips she drew, what? a groan? of ecstasy? suffering? Hallelujah."

The four "hallelujahs" that follow are small miracles of understatement and perfectly articulated power, one after another.

If the composer's confidence is that he can tell us what he is doing with his chord, the composer/singer brings it home, and brings us back to the present as s/he does so, referring to the song itself, sung as the singer sings it: " Baby, I've been here before/I've seen this room and I've walked the floor," eroticized, consummately so in the Juno performance where kd cocks her head and puts her had on her hip, the classic instantiation of eros, I need you, I don't need you: "I used to live alone before I knew ya" Doing this, exerting distance, one is brought to the extraordinary pathos of Cohen's song: "But I've seen your flag on the marble arch," and this is kd, this pathos she takes home, this point of desolation, abasement, sorrow, wounding reproof: "our love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah." This is all we are given, all we have, this is all there is. This is a deity whose only redemption, whose only blessing for us, whose only grace is emptiness, indigence, frailty.

This is also what Nietzsche named the "becoming human of dissonance," this is what I once named elsewhere in a reflection on eros, love "coolly and mightily wrong," 18 not the redemption of love, not the saving love, the kind that works out in the end, the love that ends well, finding glory and secured joy, but a shattered love, wrong from the start, all the way down, "a cold and broken hallelujah."

Cascade, crescendo, hallelujahs in chorus, ascending again and again.

"Maybe there's a god above." Maybe indeed. But this god is already close enough to the Jewish and close enough to the Christian that Cohen like Nietzsche turns to reflect on what it might mean to be a god at all, and to be implicated in love. 19

Here, and this is the Liberty Valance moment as kd plays it perfectly. all mimesis, given away: "All I've ever learned from love," she confesses, is "how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya." Shaking her head, we know that this is no achievement, that this shows nothing but the abjection, the inadequacy of love: what we are moved to do, and what we ultimately do, anyway. And this is brought all the way to the top, to what it is to love god, to praise god, pleasing/displeasing and the vast distance between what that is and what we commonly take it to be. "It's not a cry you hear at night, it's not someone who's seen the light: it's a cold and broken hallelujah." And it is what lang does with the hallelujahs to follow, punctuated and powerfully sung, and in contrast with the visceral as she crouches into the pain of these hallelujahs, finally unutterably, impossibly sustained, eyes closed, an extraordinary peace out from the center of being, her being, to open and raise her eyes and our thoughts.

See Part II of the kd lang article

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER