Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with its ambiguous, imagistic lyrics about sex and spirituality, was once described by Jeff Buckley, perhaps the song’s most famous interpreter, as “the hallelujah of the orgasm.” So how did an a cappella version by Pentatonix get to No. 21 on the Billboard Holiday 100 in 2018 — after peaking on that chart at No. 2 in 2016?
It’s just the latest twist in the ongoing story of what may be the world’s least likely standard, which originally appeared on Cohen’s 1984 album, Various Positions. The song only became iconic two decades ago, after John Cale’s version was used on the Shrek soundtrack and Buckley’s version appeared in a video VH1 made in tribute to Sept. 11 rescue workers. Around that time, it also began to be used in religious services, its Old Testament imagery and chanted one-word chorus offering a solemnity that seemed to fit weddings, funerals and various occasions in between.
Written by Cohen — a Jewish Buddhist — the song was first associated with Christmas in 2010, when Britain’s Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle included it on her 2010 holiday album, The Gift, which hit No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and on the Official U.K. Albums Chart. In 2015, violinist-singer Lindsey Stirling released a version that reached No. 81 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 21 on the Holiday 100 the following year; that same year, German superstar Helene Fischer included the song on her hit album Weihnachten.
Since 2016, however, the most popular version of “Hallelujah” on streaming services by far has been Pentatonix’s, which has been streamed 346 million times in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. “When people hear it,” the group’s Scott Hoying told Billboard in 2018 about the song’s staying power, “they feel something.”
Alan Light is the author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.”