Once upon a time, I agreed to play a house show. Some weeks later, I was caught off guard to see ads billing it as an exclusive venue with high ticket prices. In the future, I’ll ask more questions when I get a strong guarantee.
At the show, the booker said that it had been tradition to close with a sing-along of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I said that I would be very uncomfortable doing that. He politely dropped it, so we didn’t sing it.
This all felt a little gross, but I had trouble understanding why. So, I journaled a bunch, reached out to friends, had a frank chat with the booker, and then journaled some more. All this reminded my why I play shows in the first place and why I chose not to use “Hallelujah” as a sing-along.
This is what I learned in the form of a listicle. (omg! you won’t believe number three!)
one reason i play shows: for fun (or something like it)
Playing shows can be fun, but they’re a strange kind of weighty, exhausting fun.
Shows are places we can gather to celebrate songs and the people who love them. And making something out of nothing is a damn miracle, especially because it’s always easier to not make anything at all. And even after something is made, it’s easier to not care about something than it is to care about something.
So, playing a show is a basic celebration of both performer and audience choosing to care about something instead of nothing.
Shows are places where we can say things to strangers that don’t come up in everyday conversations. And you can kick up a bunch of dust without causing a fuss. Or cause a fuss, kick up dust, and own the fucking room for about a half hour.
And shows can be a source of community with a little dash of risk and potential rejection - that can be more rejuvenating than your favorite facial scrub.
Shows are how some people make meaning - asking questions, making proclamations, and raising attention for the problems they want to solve together.
When you put three bands on a stage together who ask different questions from different perspectives using different sounds and different instruments, you create a space where no one has a monopoly on meaning. And then we all get to be properly challenged/unsettled/delighted.
At their best, shows can give you a little bit of hope on the bad days when your job feels like it scrapes out your insides, plops the goop down on a scale, and direct deposits that to your bank account. And they still give you energy on the good days when it feels like your goop is endless and worth its weight in gold.
But that’s all a bit much. It’s easier to just call it fun.
one reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: with great power comes great responsibility
“Hallelujah” is a song written by Leonard Cohen and released in 1984 on the record Various Positions. You’ve heard it, but maybe not the original version.
“Hallelujah” is a case study in what a song is, how it moves through people and time, and how it changes clothes, popping up in unexpected places with different things to say each time you run into it.
“Hallelujah” is a powerful song, but that power wasn’t immediately apparent. It didn’t make it on the original Leonard Cohen album that it was written for. He apparently wrote 80 verses to get to the original version of the song. It was quiet and hid for a long time before John Cale covered it in 1991 for a Leonard Cohen tribute album.
Cale reached out to him for lyrics, and Cohen faxed him all of them, even the ones that never made it into the original recording. From that, Cale built the version that most people cover today. Then, it took until 1994 for Jeff Buckley to cover it on Grace. And it didn’t become a big hit until after Buckley died in 1997.
It’s almost a fluke that we ever heard it in the first place, but this is a song that is so quietly powerful that it continued to move and shift patiently over decades, from Cohen to Cale, from Cale into Buckley, from Buckley to hundreds of others.
Now that we all have “Hallelujah,” we have to decide how and when we use it.
another reason i play shows: to build and share a space with heroes
Local heroes. Traveling heroes.
Quiet heroes. Friendly heroes.
Surprisingly unpleasant heroes who quickly stop being heroes. Strangers who become heroes when you see how well they treat people.
The heroes behind your favorite songs who ask your favorite questions and do things that you could never do. Heroes with superpowers who push you to ask more from yourself.
I feel indebted to a growing list of these people, and shows are a way to celebrate them, their songs, and the many ways they make the world a more interesting place to be. If an out-of-towner reaches out to play a show and I believe their songs will challenge/unsettle/delight a room of people, then it’s on me to help muster up a show to make that happen.
And then, if the show goes well, the list of heroes grows.
another reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: songs can be used in good faith or in bad faith, and it’s hard to tell the difference
Over time, the song “Hallelujah” has become a tool. It’s like one of those screwdrivers with a bunch of different tips. Across many contexts and in many situations, this song can be emotionally resonant. And if you’re not trying to do anything more specific than elicit a vague Big Emotion, than this will get the job done.
It’s Cohen’s view that many different hallelujahs exist. Some are melancholy. Some are fragile. Some are uplifting. Some are joyous. Some are sober. Some are sincere. Some are orgasmic. Some are purifying. Some are about the disappointment of desperately wanting to be something more than human. Some are just disappointing.
If you’re in a rush, you could just describe it as “authentic.” But that misses the point.
The Edukators is a favorite movie of mine from high school. It’s also kind of a bad movie, and “Hallelujah” plays over the final scene. It’s heavy-handed, but I still tear up as Buckley’s cover plays through the ending.
The song has become a means to an emotional end. It often deployed as a direct appeal to “emotion” - not a specific emotion, just “emotions.” At its worst, it feels like a last-ditch effort at unspecific catharsis when everything else has failed.
It can become a song of manipulation. Some songs have the power to access certain feelings. And when people eventually discovered that power, “Hallelujah” showed up in talent shows, television dramas, and Shrek. And each time the song was used to emotionally heighten a scene, it lost a bit of its magic.
It can also still make for a wonderful performance (and it wasn’t bad in Shrek), but I’m wary of why and how people choose to perform it.
the last reason i play shows: money
You can’t pay rent with two free drinks, unless they’re really really good drinks and your landlord is a super weirdo. My landlord’s just a normal weirdo because he only takes cash or physical checks.
You need money to pay rent for the place that you live and write songs in. And you need money to buy food that will keep you alive and healthy. And maybe you can even put aside money for when unexpected bad things happen. Maybe even health insurance? What a world!
Then maybe when you’ve met most of your baseline needs, you can spend the time and energy it takes to make something out of nothing. And maybe you’ll even buy an instrument.
I don’t make my living from music - I’m happy as a clam to work a day job that can support me and this peculiar hobby/passion/obsession/self-care tactic. That being said, if I can pay for a day in the studio by playing a gig and dodging a “Hallelujah” sing-along, I’ll consider it.
the last reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: the surest way to ruin a song is to try to make your voice heard over the voice of the song (but sometimes even that won't work)
Even in the wrong setting, “Hallelujah” is powerful enough to mean something.
And even if a singer sings it with the calculated passion of a high schooler trying to get laid at a party where someone forgot to lock up the acoustic guitar, it can still be strangely beautiful.
But using it too much starts to feel desperate. Hallelujah is a song of desperation, but that’s different than using it desperately.
It’s a song that people have pointed to as “real” or “genuine” while those words increasingly cease to mean either. It’s a song that some people sing to woo the people they’d like to fall in love with the idea of.
But it’s also still a song that asks serious questions about love. And sometimes, somehow, I can still hear someone cover that song and love every second of it.
But there’s a big difference between someone covering that song and someone covering up that song.
I can see how someone might lean on a “Hallelujah” sing-along for some kind of reliable catharsis at the end of a show. Maybe some people would even feel moved, like I was in high school at the end of The Edukators. But to me, turning “Hallelujah” into a sing-along prioritizes a cheap, unrisky attempt at “emotions” over anything you can really sink your teeth into.
But I’m probably taking this too seriously. Maybe songs are just songs and people sing them together sometimes. It’s not like this is some Fyre Festival shit. I was paid for my set. And my desire to abstain from an “Hallelujah” sing-along was respected. But it all still feels gross.
Sometimes people try to make their own voice heard over the song they’re singing. That doesn’t give me faith in the singer, but maybe the song can still do some good. I’ll keep rooting for songs.