Dean Reid of Cheatahs can’t stand the over-sincerity of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”
Cheatahs' Dean Reid, second from right

Dean Reid of Cheatahs can’t stand the over-sincerity of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”

The dangers of ubiquity

In HateSongwe ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.

The hater: Dean Reid plays bass in Cheatahs, representing the American contingent of the multinational London-based band, whose other members hail from England, Germany, and Canada. Cheatahs picked up some buzz Stateside last year with the EP compilation Extended Plays, and the excellent new Cheatahs should boost that considerably. The 12-song album recalls the heyday of guitar-heavy indie rock, with prominent strains of Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine (and some other familiar sounds) showing up throughout. The band just kicked off a short American tour last week.

The hated: Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”

The A.V. Club: What about this song irks you?

Dean Reid: Specifically the [Jeff] Buckley version. I don’t mind original at all. Actually, the fact that Leonard Cohen’s voice isn’t like the prettiest voice actually makes it a lot more bearable for me. I think there’s wariness to the original that’s replaced by over-earnestness in the cover. Also, you hear the song so much now. It’s covered by a million people, like buskers in the street, guys in coffee shops, and they’re always covering the cover. They’re covering the Buckley version as opposed to the original. The first few times that I heard it back when I was a teenager, I thought it was a clever cover. I kind of appreciated it. I think with time, and how the song has kind of become elevated to this “holy song” status that now, it actually bothers me a lot more than it used to. It’s kind of sacrilegious not to go weak in the knees for the Buckley version of “Hallelujah.”

AVC: The original and Buckley’s take are so different. For one thing, Buckley’s version is almost seven minutes long and the original is only like four and a half minutes.

DR: It is way different, yeah.

AVC: And Cohen’s has these cheesy synthesizers at the beginning.

DR: Yeah, as does a lot of Leonard Cohen from the ’80s. It has a lot of keyboards and jazzy production and stuff.

AVC: Do you feel like the Buckley version was too affected in its attempt to be simple? Like he was trying too hard?

DR: I don’t know. I actually think Buckley is pretty innocent. He was just doing what he does—he just was playing the song. His version is quite a lot like the John Cale version. John Cale, he almost rewrote the song and simplified it. His is just piano and voice, I think.

So I guess Buckley took what John Cale did and rolled with it. No, I think it’s more the over-sincerity of it that rubs me the wrong way. There’s this religious quality to Buckley’s version where you’re supposed to be held rapt and almost moved to tears, like you’re meant to be having this moment of catharsis when you hear it. It’s just one of those songs where every time it comes on in a car or something or a house, everyone around you is like, “Oh my God, this song is amazing.” I’m like, “Really? It kind of makes me want to puke.” [Laughs.] It’s a similar ballpark to “Everybody Hurts,” which I think was somebody else’s HateSong on The A.V. Club.

It’s one of those songs where it either affects you exactly the way they intended it to, or you don’t buy into it. If you don’t buy into it, you have a suspicion that the artist was almost cynically, intentionally engineering the way that you’re meant to be moved by it. It just feels slightly contrived. Whether that’s true or not, whether Buckley’s being honest, I don’t know. I certainly don’t hate Jeff Buckley as artist or anything. I certainly don’t hate pretty songs; there’s a million pretty ballads that I love, like even a lot of ’80s ballads and ’70s ballads and stuff a lot of people consider corny. Yeah, they’re corny, but they don’t bother me that much, because there’s a naïveté to them. They’re like, “Hey, we’re just trying to write a nice song here. We’re not trying to be high art.” But I sense that there’s this knowingness in a lot of ’90s alt-rock and indie of, like, “Our cheesiness is superior to that kind of cheese. If we do pretty music it’s okay, because we’re smarter guys” or something. Every time I hear the Buckley version, I feel like it’s a deliberate attempt to be moving—as opposed to just admitting that you like corny songs and admitting that you’re a corny guy. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like trying to have your cake and eat it too. I think the Buckley [version] is the ’90s equivalent to an ’80s ballad in a way—but pretending not to be.

AVC: Do you like the original?

DR: Yeah, I do. The lyrics are obviously amazing. It’s really clever. There’s kind of cheesy production in Leonard Cohen’s version that makes me not want to listen to it a million times or anything. Yeah, I respect the song from an authorship point of view, completely. There’s just something in Buckley’s version that doesn’t ring entirely true to me—and the fact that it does for so many people makes the experience worse for me [Laughs.] when it comes on.

AVC: That gets grating if it doesn’t do it for you.

DR: Yeah, and I’m not always contrarian about these things. You’re meant to worship “Imagine”; you’re meant to worship “Let It Be” and songs like that, and I do. For other people, I’m sure like they can’t stand “Let It Be” and “Imagine” for the exact same reasons that I can’t stand “Hallelujah.” I guess everyone’s threshold is a little different for what they consider genuinely pretty and what they consider kind of forced, that kind of forced cheese. [Laughs.]

AVC: What’s interesting about this song is that a big turning point in its history was its inclusion in Shrek in 2001.

DR: Another reason I hate Shrek. Jeff Buckley deserves credit for taking a relatively obscure song and helping it reach ubiquity, I guess. But I’m kind of a casualty of that ubiquity. More people in the world love the song now because of him and I guess because of Shrek, but it had the byproduct of making me hate it. [Laughs.]

Buckley’s guilty to a degree, but not anywhere near as much as millions of people who are just today covering “Hallelujah” and doing his version. It’s just so contrived. It’s what’s not good about the singer-songwriter mentality of just, “Oh I’m going to pick this up, and you’re gonna be moved as if you haven’t heard this song a billion times before.”

If you rewind the clock to when Buckley’s version first came out, and you first hear it, I didn’t hate it viscerally then, like you would hate a Limp Bizkit song or something. Obviously there are far worse songs in the world than his version of “Hallelujah.” In my mind, it’s been tainted now. I can’t separate from all the ubiquitousness of it, of what it’s come to mean for so many people and so many singers. It’s kind of ruined for me, to the point now where if it comes on the radio and I’m stuck in a car with somebody else that wants to listen to it, I feel like I’m trapped for like six minutes. I can’t just ignore it, either. It’s like, “Shit, I’m stuck.”

AVC: There’s also Bono’s version of it that came out in the ’90s, but it’s trip-hop.

DR: Oh, my God. That sounds terrible.

AVC: He has since apologized for it, because it was so terrible.

DR: Bono doing a trip-pop “Hallelujah” sounds like pretty much the worst thing ever.

AVC: What could possibly be worse than that? It’s hard to say.

DR: I think the only people it’d be worse for is people that love “Hallelujah.” That would be truly awful for them. For me it’s like, ha ha, that’s what you get, Jeff Buckley. This is what you birthed, Buckley. I hope you’re happy.