2016 has been a rough year. That’s a safe assessment, this week of all weeks. But since January, we’ve said goodbye to David Bowie, Prince, Natalie Cole and now Leonard Cohen.
Thursday (Nov. 10), just a few weeks after the release of his latest album, “You Want It Darker,” the singer, songwriter, poet, author and ordained Buddhist Monk (yes, that’s true) passed away at the age of 82. To say he lived a full life would be an understatement. His work has left profound marks on music, poetry and the ways we talk about love, sex and loss.
But while his discography is full of gems and classics, there’s something about his 1984 track “Hallelujah” that seems to strike the same deep chord throughout decades of popular culture.
The song — featured on the album “Various Positions” — didn’t achieve much success until John Cale covered the track in 1991. Jeff Buckley’s tragic, ecstatic version three years later was the final breakthrough: Perhaps due to his own tragedies, or the haunting, raw vocals, but the clear passion and ache behind Buckley’s rendition put Cohen’s song on the map for a wider world.
In Mr. Cohen’s honor, we’ve collected seven instances in which his art — in this case, the song “Hallelujah” — elevated small-screen programming to a place it rarely finds.
UPDATE: Kate McKinnon’s heartfelt, unbearably raw performance on the Nov. 13 episode of “SNL” just moved to the top of our list.
Thank you, Kate and “SNL,” for every implication and layered comfort to be found in this.
Jason Castro: “American Idol,” Season 7
Whether Jeff Buckley’s version or John Cale’s, the iconic song has long been a mainstay for musical competitions, alongside Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and just a few others. While the singers have had a few remarkable successes with the song over the years, Jason Castro’s “American Idol” rendition remains the high mark.
Imogen Heap: “The O.C.,” Season 3 finale
Heap’s version, recorded specifically for the painful Season 3 finale of “The O.C.,” was itself a callback to an extremely emotional first-season episode (which featured the Buckley version), and to her own “Hide & Seek” — the two most memorable songs from Marissa’s story on the show. Layering Heap’s atmospheric vocals and spare accompaniment atop the darkness of this shocking scene was a perfectly fitting tribute for an inscrutable, ephemeral character whose one stable characteristic was that she deserved much more than she ever got.
John Cale: “Scrubs,” Season 1, Episode 4
There is definitely a pattern to the use of “Hallelujah” in most scripted television series: Its combination of divine passion and profane desire, of painful memory and hopeful faith, provide a very specific backdrop for moments of true emotional transformation. For “Scrubs,” it gives us a nonverbal window into J.D.’s shock after bonding with a patient, who dies. It’s a hard reality hospital workers deal with on a daily basis and amid the semi-comedic flavor of the series, this episode stood out as a stark reminder of how serious the job truly is.
Alexandra Burke: “The X Factor,” Series 5
During her second run on The U.K.’s hit singing competition series “The X-Factor,” competitor Alexandra Burke left her mark with this rendition of the classic track. Adding in some backing vocals and a whole different vocal skill-set than Cohen, Buckley or Wainwright could deliver, Burke proved her strength as a singer and ultimately won Series 5 of the program.
Jeff Buckley: “The West Wing,” Season 3 finale
Mark Harmon’s Secret Service Agent, Simon Donovan, had a mere four episode arc in Season 3 of “The West Wing.” Yet his importance in the last episodes of the season can still be discussed by die-hard fans of the Aaron Sorkin show to this day. After he was assigned to protect C.J. Cregg, the two became romantically involved. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as he was gunned down in the season’s finale. Hey, at least “NCIS” still has Leroy Gibbs though… Right?
Jordan Smith: “The Voice,” Season 9
Jordan Smith took Season 9 of “The Voice” by storm, pretty much leaving every other competitor in the dust. His talents were unmatched and whenever he took the stage, it felt like he couldn’t top any previous songs he had performed. And every time we thought that, we were wrong. “Hallelujah” may be a track that has been covered too many times to count, but Smith’s rendition of the song helped to give it some fresh energy and helped lift him up even further in the competition… Which he ended up winning in 2015.
Cohen’s catalog is as deep as it is long. His confessional style has become the dominant mode of songwriting today, though few musicians are quite able to match his love for the written word, or even approach the synthesizing balance he could strike between earthly passion and spiritual devotion: There’s a blaze of light in every word.