Music Features

Why I Won't Buy A Jeff Buckley Single This Christmas

The battle is on. Those outside the UK will have no perception of the depth of feeling surrounding the Christmas number one slot, a coveted, somewhat iconic chart position that misrepresents the British music scene completely, yet simultaneously speaks volumes about the population at large.

At least, that's how it always was. A new charting system including downloads of any track (not just singles currently on release) is in place, and a new generation of single-buying adolescents has arisen now, one that has never known anything but a Simon Cowell-organised Christmas. With 2008 as good as in the bag for the X Factor winner Alexandra Burke, that makes five of the last seven years a talent show winner (the odd ones out being Band Aid, and the distinctly unfestive abberation of Gary Jules' Mad World).

And so, through the Power Of The Internet a campaign has risen to utilise the UK charting system to thrust the late Jeff Buckley into the spotlight at Christmas, his infamous, plaintive cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah set to compete with Burke's diva-like soul rendition. The song is seen as sacrosanct - it is an outrage that something so dense, so intricate, something already performed so definitively, should be rendered into a mainstream, manufactured pop song.

Potentially, I'm driving a nail into my own coffin as a music critic, but I disagree. Who has a right to say that one performance is really better than another? Hallelujah has entered into popular musicography as a track that has been reused and reinterpreted many, many times. Versions exist by John Cale, Bob Dylan, kd lang, Sheryl Crow, to name but a few, but the most-recognised is Buckley's beautifully sparse, haunting rendition, one that has become the definitive version of the song, far more so than the original, in the same way as Jimi Hendrix's version of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower. And yet there's always room for one more: like language, music is an evolving medium, and just as there's no reason why words can't alter in their meaning, or like ones own vocabulary is always developing at strange tangents, why shouldn't a song? There's no outcry when Shakespeare or Chaucer are rendered into modern English, or when their setting is shifted from fair Verona to Verona Beach, CA, rather it's a well-recognised directorial device to shift setting and language around to create a tone.

It's the same in music. The old has always been re-used, whether it's the great American songbook or London's Tin Pan Alley, whether it's the Beatles setting out their rock'n'roll credentials or the early hip hop pioneers plundering the funk and soul catalogues for samples, whether it's Buckley covering Cohen's own song, or Alexandra Burke covering Jeff Buckley's version. Each rendition has its own point, its raison d'être, it has that thing about it which makes it individual. Burke's version is more similar in musical style to the gospel overtones and ecclesiastical bombast of Cohen's original, but adds Burke's own style (of the Mary J Blige, Beyoncé school), which is the key. It's hardly a faithful rendition of anyone else's version (compare Rufus Wainwright's attempt), and in some ways the overall style is somewhat pandering to the mass market in its glossy production and festive video.

But why does that incur the ire of the swathes of armchair critics? Has the song attained untouchable status? Is the memory of Jeff Buckley desecrated? Are they defending the honour of Laughing Len himself, like he even cares? Post messy managerial divorce, Cohen is discovering a new lease of life making a fortune off headline performances in huge venues, recouping the money he lost in the past. The Buddhist Jew is hardly going to be offended by somebody else taking his complex lyrics and twisting them around. In fact, he's probably fairly cheery that his song is floating, in two versions, around the upper reaches of the charts.

In my view, that's the view everyone should take. So what if you disapprove of the X Factor, or of Cowell's smug cynicism, just be thankful that in the increasingly irrelevant pop charts there's an example of a genuinely great song; whatever gave you the right to cordon off a song, to make it off limits to the world out there? What does it achieve to incongruously petition the music-loving public, and then promote a song that everybody who's ever heard it knows is excellent? Who made you a moral crusader? The ardent music fan has to walk an increasingly thin line between discernment and outright elitism these days, and those decrying Alexandra Burke's perfectly serviceable rendition on the basis that it's not Jeff Buckley need to examine themselves very closely.