Is “Hallelujah” a Musical Meme?

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Unless you’ve been hiding behind a typewriter for the last decade, you know that there is a rich history of various Internet memes that can rapidly ensnare pop-culture. They range from mocking the mind-boggling public decisions of Kanye West to Keyboard Cat to an endless series satirizing 300. Justin Timberlake’s performance on the Hope for Haiti Now telethon should cement a new musical meme: The Hallelujah.

Originally penned by Canadian crooner Leonard Cohen, 1984’s “Hallelujah” has gone through innumerable iterations and been exhaustively covered, with three different versions topping the iTunes chart in the last three years alone. Here we give you a few notable versions of the song: the definitive, the beautiful, and the Bon Jovi. Which ones are your favorite?

1. Jeff Buckley

Buckley’s sexual, simmering version of “Hallelujah” has become the definitive version of the song, but his was actually a faithful recreation of the John Cale cover. Buckley covered the song for his 1994 album Grace, but his often wordless, moaning, falsetto-drenched performance has remained both critically renowned and commercially popular. He trills and vibratos every word to their drawn-out emotional apex. The videos of Buckley, shirt rendered down to the navel, hair sticking to forehead, show a “Hallelujah” where every word and exhale take you to a cosmic elsewhere.

2. Rufus Wainwright

Wainwright has performed “Hallelujah” live several times, adding a flowery piano line to the otherwise plaintive waltz. He puts an emphasis on the propulsive crescendoes that take over the final few verses, his voice strong and full of yearning but lacking Buckley’s purity or Cohen’s grizzled, emotional gravel. On few occasions, Wainwright has been joined on stage by sister Martha, who contributes a husky theatricality and harmonies.

3. Justin Timberlake with Matt Morris

This gospel-tinged cover has already reinvigorated “Hallelujah” with massive popularity. (As of right now, it’s the number one song on iTunes and the first video to come up when you search YouTube for Justin Timberlake). It might have seemed self-serving for Timberlake to feature his unknown label artist Matt Morris, but his soulful vocals provided a good contrast for Timberlake’s wispy, inspired interpretation. The piano-flecked, achingly silent duet warrants the popularity.

4. Beirut

Zach Condon of Beirut somehow transforms “Hallelujah” into an upbeat ukulele jaunt. The operatic dimensions in his voice contrast nicely with the island, primitive feel of the ukulele. The performance is a bit devoid of emotional attachment, considering Condon forgets the lyrics at two separate points. However, his voice soars, and he wisely lets empty spaces in the song marinate in your mind, the audience filling in extra vocals (one beauty of “Hallelujah” is a deeply involved, otherwise hushed crowd singing the chorus). You’ll be surprised how quickly this version grows on you.

5. Bon Jovi

It’s tough to listen to Bon Jovi cover Leonard Cohen, not because the song is bad but because you keep expecting it to transition into “Livin’ On a Prayer.” Despite the incongruity, Leonard Cohen has said that the performance from Live at Madison Square Garden is his favorite version, and the added stadium sensibilities don’t drain the song’s power. Jon Bon Jovi actually takes the song to a surprisingly emotional throaty peak while holding on the mic stand for dear life, and sobbing violin adds some dimension. “Hallelujah” isn’t so lyrically disparate from “You Give Love A Bad Name” anyways, though there are substantially less power chords.