On a crisp fall afternoon at the Kelly Writers House, Penn students and faculty joined in the Locust Walk–facing seminar room to meet renowned music journalist Alan Light. Light sat across from Anthony DeCurtis, a fellow music writer and 20–year–long faculty member of Penn’s English Department. The two men spoke for an hour, sipping on watered–down iced coffee. Light discussed his fascination with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the digitization of music consumption, and his experiences in the ever–changing world of music journalism.
In 2012, Light published The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’ The book serves as a timeline of “Hallelujah” from its initial position as a failure to eventually one of the world’s most famous songs. Unlike John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Hallelujah” was immediately misunderstood upon its release. “When Leonard Cohen recorded and released this song in 1964,” said Light, “not only did nobody notice this song … but [Cohen’s] record label actually rejected the album and passed on putting out a project that would have introduced ‘Hallelujah’ to the world.” Not even Jeff Buckley’s heart–wrenching cover of the song touched audiences at first.
In 2001, 37 years after its original release, “Hallelujah” was finally recognized. After 9/11, Buckley’s version played in the background of a video memorializing first responders, marking the beginning of the song’s hold on American pop culture. In that same year, Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” was included on the Shrek soundtrack. This exposure moved across media, then snowballing into what Light describes as an “emotionally resonant” song for all who listen.
Light had the idea to write The Holy or the Broken while sitting in Yom Kippur services in 2011. “The choir came out and sang ‘Hallelujah,’ with thousands of people there, and this crackle went through the room,” Light said. “Everybody knows the song. People are crying and you feel this immediate reaction.” At that moment, Light recognized “Hallelujah” as a true cultural artifact.
Hallelujah, according to Light, is a word that crosses traditions and faiths. Despite its inherent religious association, everybody can identify with the joyful feeling of celebration. There is also no singular way to understand “Hallelujah.” Light believes that, unlike most worldwide hits, listeners can extract different meanings from the song, molding the words and verses to personalize their experiences with the song.
One can interpret Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” as a song for persevering through adversity, whether it be romantic, spiritual, or simply the trials and tribulations of living. However, in a then–25–year–old Buckley’s version of the song, “Hallelujah” reflects a more youthful approach to the words. The song becomes more romantic and melancholic, a moment to discover the feeling of heartbreak. However, despite who is singing, there is one common takeaway: we can “shake [our] fists at the world, or [we] can say ‘Hallelujah,’” Light says.
After Light shared the inspiration and meaning behind his book, he invited us into the expansive day–to–day of a music critic. Light’s 2016 biography of Nina Simone What Happened, Miss Simone? was the result of a lucky connection. The producers of the Academy Award–winning 2015 documentary of the same name approached Light with the late jazz vocalist’s collection of journals. The collection contained too much information to fit in the 101–minute film, and so Light created and published an extended version in book form.
Light claimed writing Simone’s biography wasn’t very different from journalistic writing. Throughout his career, he’s written for several notable publications including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Esquire. Light compares biography writing to profile writing, as they both “[put] together the story through the words of all the people and participants in the story [of the subject].”
The evolution of music consumption has been impactful on Light’s 30–year–long career. He spent a few years as the host of Debatable, a music talk show on SiriusXM—just one example of Light’s journalistic experience spanning across media.
He believes that the digitization of music has made music accessible to everybody, echoing jazz writer Albert Murray’s belief that the primary objective of music criticism is to do the same. “The main objective of criticism is not to say, ‘thumbs up thumbs down, or red light green light,’” said Light. “The main thing is to make it more accessible to give [listeners] a way to think about what this thing is.” He adds that access is no longer an issue in music as “we all live and swim in music, 24 hours a day.”
At the end of the discussion, a student asked Light “what music he’s been listening to recently.” Light hated this question, because the music he listens to is the music he’s assigned to listen to for work. After speaking about the greats of contemporary music history, Light expressed his distaste towards 2022 releases so far. He claimed that, in terms of music, this year is no 2020. However, Light shared that he was anxiously anticipating the release of Taylor Swift’s Midnights, a guilty pleasure to even the most notable of critics.