Friday, February 14, 2014

How Will I Know/Hallelujah

Two songs for this year's Valentine's Day, because why not? (OK, so I couldn't think of a third to make a list.)

The first is Whitney Houston's How Will I Know, which is a sweet pop confection, transformed into something of rare and permanent value thanks to her unearthly vocals.


I was reminded of the video after seeing one of my students, a 13-year-old with a penchant for oversized DIY bows on her head - the 80s' are certainly back from the dead. It's such a perfect song for teenagers experiencing their first romances, although the teens of today might be a little confused by the line about being too shy to call someone up on the phone. ("Why can't she just text him, 'cher?") I love the anticipatory, buoyant energy and optimism - it's all so innocent, a time before Bobby Brown, crack pipes and reality TV.

If How Will I Know marks the beginning of one's romantic life, then Hallelujah comes at the end. (It's been on my list of funeral songs since I was a gothic 16.) The Christian imagery is deeply personal, and the lyrics transcend bitterness to become simple truth. I don't believe in God, but I believe Leonard Cohen when he tells me that "love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah".


There must be about a hundred thousand covers of Hallelujah floating around the Internet, and everyone's got a favourite. (Nobody really likes the original - Cohen was a poet, not a singer, no disrespect.) Forget the American Idol or X Factor contestants, the pop princesses warbling out a B-side to pad out their albums - the top three versions of Hallelujah are, in my opinion, Jeff Buckley's, KD Lang's and Steven Page's. While Page actually did sing it at a state politician's funeral, and Lang sang it in front of Cohen himself, I still prefer Buckley's version from his album Grace to all others.

In the hands of a lesser performer, the song can sound deadly monotonous, and a little too knowing. But Buckley's take on it is fluid, almost liquid in its complete surrender to Hallelujah's beauty and religious overtones. Listen to it in a dark room. Take note of his guitar playing. Maybe this is what communion with the Holy Spirit feels like.

Certainly, Buckley's untimely death lends pathos to his recording of Hallelujah. If you listen to the studio version - also available on YouTube - it begins with Buckley's seemingly unconscious breath, a sudden drawing in of air that feels so unbearably intimate. He drowned 16 years ago, but here he is tonight, his sighing in your ears and his voice reaching deep into your gut. Hallelujah is about more than love. It's life itself, and - death.

Happy Valentine's Day.

1 comment:

Geraldine Ang said...

The 80s was such a fun time. Crazy fashion and hair. Anything goes.
I know this much is true.

R.I.P Whitney