March 6, 2008
Wow, check out this titanic feat of pop archaeology: Michael Barthel on the cultural journey of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Don’t miss this part, about a third of the way down the page:
What’s fascinating about all this is not simply the song’s ubiquity on TV dramas—it’s that it’s used in the exact same way every time. Songs can be used sincerely, ironically, as background shading, as subtle comment, as product placement. But “Hallelujah” always appears as people are being sad, quietly sitting and staring into space or ostentatiously crying, and always as a way of tying together the sadness of different characters in different places. In short, it’s always used as part of a “sad montage.”
Now, I could go into details about how exactly the “sad montage” is constituted, but it’s more efficient and probably more effective just to show you a montage of the montages. You’ll see what I mean.
The montage is pretty hilarious. And then, a bit more of Barthel’s analysis:
The way Hallelujah is being used here is the auditory equivalent of a silent film actress pressing the back of her hand to her forehead to express despair — emotional shorthand. It’s sometimes called a needledrop, and it’s an element of visual grammar that signals the mood of the scene loudly and unmistakably. In the Scrubs musical featurette, creator Bill Lawrence says, “How are we gonna make a show where a lot of the comedy comes from broad, silly jokes switch gears on a dime and suddenly be dramatic? What we found is we were able to make that transition quickly if we chose the right song.”
Seriously, you’ve got to check this out. There are graphs!