Rep. George Santos covered ‘Hallelujah.’ I listened so you don’t have to
When I saw the email teaser from The Forward -- “George Santos Covered ‘Hallelujah’” — I thought, this is too good to be true. But unlike practically everything else that’s come out of Rep. George Santos’ mouth, this actually is true. Eight years ago, using the karaoke app, Smule, the Rufus Wainwright piano track, and the username of “georgedevolder,” Santos produced a version of the iconic Leonard Cohen song that was distinctly his … by which I mean vocally jagged, lyrically aberrant and just plain appalling.
I and most people reading this have undoubtedly been guilty of torturing a good song. (My rendition of “Born to Run” ensures that anyone within earshot will.) But there are certain songs I don’t attempt, not even in the shower — not just because they’re difficult to sing, but because I feel a certain reverence for them.
“Hallelujah,” with its brooding stanzas — some carnal, some spiritual, all evocative — is one of them. So I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I heard Santos inject an anguished crackle into his voice as he launched into the chorus. He was, to quote American Idol’s Randy Jackson, “a bit pitchy.” And when he tried to glide into a Mariah Carey-style melisma, it sounded like a voice bouncing and skidding down a long flight of stairs. I was embarrassed for him — a complete waste of emotion given that this man seems to be incapable of being embarrassed for himself.
On the contrary, what struck me about this recording is that he shared it publicly. He must have thought he sounded good. But more interesting to me: he must have thought he sounded sincere.
Faux sincerity is his brand, but I expect that in politics. I don’t minimize the fact that he got himself elected on the strength of lies about himself, juvenile MAGA tweets and apparently misappropriated funds. But this laundry list hardly makes him unique in his party, or even his House chamber, just more audacious than most of his peers.
What really aroused my ire was his desecration of this song. Cohen worked on “Hallelujah” for years, writing over 80 verses for it. Some are explicitly religious, recounting the Old Testament stories of King David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah. Others are more clearly set in a secular present. But all chronicle both the allure and the demise of a trusting relationship, whether between the singer and his lover or the songwriter and his God.
Interestingly, Santos chose to sing only the stanzas about sex, and, in another instance of inadvertent hilarity, mangled the lyrics to one of them. Instead of “And remember when I moved in you, / the holy dove she was moving too, / and every breath we drew was Hallelujah,” Santos changed the first line to: “And I remember when I moved you in.” With reckless efficiency, he managed to transform an insight about the ecstatic nature of sexual intimacy into a frat boy account of moving some dude’s furniture into a new apartment, presumably along with his pet bird. All that was missing was a lament about the lack of pepperoni on the thank-you pizza.
But this isn’t just about an exceptionally bad cover of a classic song. There’s precedent for that. The techno/dance remix of Tracy Chapman’s poignant and painfully real “Fast Car” is an abomination, and William Shatner’s rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a travesty for the ages.
No, my (only-slightly amused) horror at the Santos rendition is deeper and more personal. In part, it springs from my respect for Leonard Cohen, who spent more than five years writing “Hallelujah,” continually adding and revising lyrics, relentlessly digging to unearth its essence. In part, it’s because there’s something especially galling about someone who fabricated a story of his grandparents fleeing the Holocaust singing a song so deeply rooted in the Torah.
But it also arises from the circumstances surrounding the first and only time I sang “Hallelujah” in public. It was soon after my mother’s death, in unison with other mourners at a memorial service for her. She had grown up in the same Montreal neighborhood as Leonard Cohen and always loved his music. It moved her, she said, in the same way that a Rothko painting did, with its luminous layers of mystery.
So when I sang the lines of the final stanza — “I'll stand right here before the Lord of song / with nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” — during a moment of intense grief, that act felt as communal to me as chanting the mourners’ Kaddish, and as urgent.
My pain was real. The song was true.