Though we'd made our refusal plain
You think you got away with it, now do ya?
You used this song to spread Trump's blight
You violated copyright
So now it seems we just might have to sue ya
Have to sue ya
Have to sue ya
Have to sue ya
Have to sue-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ya.
[Apologies to the estate of Leonard Cohen]
The Trumpublican misinfomercial, more commonly known as the 2020 Republican National Convention, has come and gone, thank goodness. The list of lies spewed, shouted, or screamed during that gaudy four-day spectacle, as well as the violations of various laws and norms, have been well covered. These are pretty big issues, to be sure. But since I am a nearly lifelong fan of the late singer/songwriter/poet/novelist Leonard Cohen, and have mentioned him numerous times on this Whirled over the years, I'm going to focus on what is, in the larger scheme of things, one of the more trivial violations. That would be the RNC's misuse -- not once, but twice -- of Cohen's most famous and most-covered song, "Hallelujah" (originally released on his 1984 album, Various Positions).
Leonard Cohen died one day before the most disastrous presidential election in modern US history, though the world didn't hear about his death until a couple of days after the election. Cohen has had a very devoted following for decades, a following that arguably has only increased and intensified since his death. So it's not surprising that fans were furious over the co-opting of "Hallelujah" by the RNC.
Yet, as anyone who is actually familiar with the lyrics knows, there is also unintentional humor in this song choice. For despite the repeated use of the word "Hallelujah," this song is not triumphant or celebratory, except perhaps in an ironic sense. Nor is it a religious or holy song, at least not in the traditional "Christian" self-righteous sense embraced by so many republicans and fake-embraced by Caligula himself -- though it does reflect Cohen's longstanding themes of the symbiotic relationship between eroticism and holiness. The point is that "Hallelujah" is in essence a breakup song. It is all about disillusionment, cynicism, bitterness, and ultimately resignation in the wake of a failed love affair.
I have little doubt that Cohen himself would not have approved of this exploitation of his song by the RNC. When I first wrote about this on Facebook on August 28, 2020, I mentioned that I would be interested to see if there are any responses from his estate and/or from Cohen's children, Adam and Lorca. I also expressed curiosity as to whether the Trump campaign paid applicable licensing fees for the public performances of this song (or any other copyrighted songs they've used, for that matter). After all, music copyright holders are pretty fussy about these matters. You have to pay a licensing fee for public performance of a copyrighted song, and even for quoting song lyrics in a book.
Some of my questions were subsequently answered. Representatives from the RNC had indeed approached the Cohen estate to obtain permission for a live performance of "Hallelujah." Their request was denied. But they went ahead anyway, with a recorded cover by Tori Kelly on the third night of the show, and, following Trump's 70-minute, lie-filled rant on the final night, a live performance by opera singer Christopher Macchio. The Cohen estate was not pleased.
Michelle L. Rice, the legal representative for the Cohen Estate, said the family was “surprised and dismayed that the RNC would proceed knowing that the Cohen Estate had specifically declined the RNC’s use request, and their rather brazen attempt to politicize and exploit in such an egregious manner ‘Hallelujah’, one of the most important songs in the Cohen song catalogue.” As such, the Cohen Estate is “exploring legal actions.”Leonard Cohen is far from the only artist whose work has been co-opted by the Trump campaign without the permission of the artists and/or other copyright holders. From Vulture.com, here's a rundown of that growing list. (And as a bonus, also from Vulture.com, here's a list of performers who reportedly turned down an invitation to perform publicly at Trump's 2017 inauguration.)
Rice added that “had the RNC requested another song, ‘You Want it Darker’, for which Leonard won a posthumous Grammy in 2017, we might have considered approval of that song.”
I've never been one to advocate litigation to resolve every conflict or disagreement that comes along, but in this case, I hope Cohen's estate aggressively pursues legal action. After all, the Trump campaign has been suing and threatening to sue a number of media outlets and individuals for years in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to control the narrative about Trump -- even going so far as to sue a tiny TV station in Wisconsin for a political ad. Litigation seems to be their life's blood. So... fair's fair.
Related on this Whirled:
- November 13, 2016: And even though it all went wrong...
I wasn't the only one to view Leonard Cohen's death as darkly symbolic of the looming era of Trumpism.
- November 10, 2016: You want it darker
I wrote this one shortly after I found out about Cohen's passing.
- November 9, 2016: Mourning in Amerika, and what to do next
Written the day after the election. Even then we knew it would be bad, but our expectations have been surpassed many times over in the years since then.