Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Of Lou Reed, Susan Boyle and the dreaded "Hallelujah" effect

I was as moderately tickled as anyone when the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon kicked off last summer. It was a nice moment of underdog catharsis that I figured would flare up and burn out quickly like any good viral video. I didn’t expect Susan Boyle would still be registering on my consciousness in November of 2010, and I certainly didn’t expect that my main man Lou Reed would be pulled into her vortex.

And yet, here we are. Lou recently took some heat for allegedly refusing to let Boyle sing his lovely junkie ode “Perfect Day” at some benefit or awards show or what-have-you, a slight that apparently reduced England’s latest rose to tears. Now, of course, it all turns out to have been some big misunderstanding, and Lou is inexplicably eager to make sure that nobody thinks he’s maybe sort of a bit of a jerk (a textbook case of too little, 40 years too late).

We all know that Lou doesn’t do anything half-assed (The Raven notwithstanding), so a mere apology simply wouldn’t do. No, Lou stepped up to the plate and offered to direct the music video for Boyle’s “Perfect Day” cover. It’s a very Lou Reed type of favor, in that he gets a chance to look like a good guy even as he advances his decade-long agenda of being taken seriously as a genuine artiste. The video is okay in my estimation – Lou shoots some nice, moody landscapes and Boyle’s Enya-esque vocals are decent if not stunning. It’s a handsomely mounted, crowd-pleasing production, and therein lies my concern.

I remember back in the day having arguments with my music nerd buddies about the superlative rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – Cohen’s, John Cale’s or Jeff Buckley’s. (I stand by Cale, though Buckley seems to be the consensus pick.) Ah, but those were different times. Somewhere down the line, Rufus Wainwright’s edition of “Hallelujah” was licensed for use on the Shrek soundtrack, thereby catching the attention of a generation of bland young songbirds. Since then it’s become nigh unavoidable, spilling from the glossy lips of unimaginative vocalists on prime time TV shows, in karaoke clubs and at acoustic open mic nights. Cohen’s masterwork of sexual frustration and Biblical allegories has been stripped of its power and reduced to a higher-minded “You Light Up My Life” for the new millennium. I used to adore “Hallelujah,” but it’s gotten to the point that I cringe as soon as I hear a breathy intonation of “I heard there was a secret chord.”

The “Hallelujah” effect is what I fear for “Perfect Day.” Aside from maybe “Sweet Jane,” it’s already probably Lou Reed's most frequently covered song. That makes sense – “Perfect Day” works well in unexpected contexts. Its use as the backing track to a heroin overdose in Trainspotting was transcendent. Duran Duran scored a solid hit with their 1995 cover. Reed prodigy Antony’s rendition is beyond haunting.

But few songs can withstand a “Hallelujah” style vault into ubiquity, and these two share some unsettling traits. They’re both very pretty songs about some ugly subjects. They’re both literate enough to lend some unearned gravitas to nearly any singer. And they’re both written by guys who can be easily name-checked for instant street cred.

I got a little nervous when “Perfect Day” was featured prominently in a very tasteful ad during the recent Winter Olympics. It already holds a surprisingly high profile in the UK thanks to a fairly dreadful, “We Are the World” style 1997 charity recording featuring Lou and a cast of all-stars. Now this Susan Boyle business makes me worried that it’ll be popping up whenever an aging pop starlet wants to prove something with more “serious” material, or worse yet, when American Idol or Glee feel like working a little edge into the mix. Hell, the Norwegians are already all over it:

I know it’s silly to be so protective of someone else’s song. After all, can anyone ever really own a work of art? But heck, I freely admit to my snobbery. I understand that “Perfect Day” belongs to the world, and that’s what scares me. I mean, have you seen some of the stuff the world is into these days?