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In Defense of Sandler’s “Hallelujah”

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

Liel Leibovitz
December 13, 2012

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?

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.