(This entry crossposted with Blackbeardblog.)

It’s certain that Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” will be the Christmas #1. But which version? PR Media Blog reports on a Facebook campaign to put Jeff Buckley’s version at #1 instead of the version by X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke.

The blog post sets up the battle as old v new media, but also as the manipulative hand of S.Cowell vs “the people”. A quick Twitter search for “Hallelujah” seems to back this up. “Stop X-Factor getting to number 1, buy Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah”. “Buckley’s is still my favourite version of Hallelujah and this fact will not do me any favours.” “attention pundits: Stop mis-interpreting “Hallelujah”. It is not about redemption. Nor is it a song of Hope.”

Though other notes are being struck: “Oh I loved the hallelujah song”. “did not follow X-Factor but has just listened to Hallelujah and choked up a bit.” The reactions – whichever version they favour – suggest that the pop critic Mike Barthel was right when, in his excellent 2007 paper on the song, he described its appeal as lying in its intimacy – it’s a song that, however mainstream it becomes, always feels like a personal discovery to its fans.

So no wonder the anti-Cowell brigade, busily organising themselves on Facebook, feel personally slighted by his promotion of the song in this new version – complete with redemptive key change (O horror!). But as Barthel precisely explores, the canonisation of the Buckley version was itself the culmination of a process of discovery and development of the song. The John Cale version that Buckley’s is based on was used in Shrek and Scrubs; Buckley’s own cover surfaced in The OC and a host of other teen dramas – it became a shorthand for sorrow. Barthel also argues that Buckley’s cover represented a “flattening” of the song’s meaning, emphasising its misery and desolation at the expense of its other dimensions. So perhaps the key change is something of a return to the source! Either way it suggests the idea of a “definitive” – rather than a “previously most famous” – version of this particular song is a bit of a chimera.

The anti-Cowell, pro-Buckley posse undoubtedly feel a sincere connection to “Hallelujah”, but the sheer intensity of its recent usage makes it very likely that the people wanting to stop Cowell’s “desecration” of the song themselves found out about it via ‘old’ media – the cinema, the TV, a BBC iPlayer advert maybe… Of course it doesn’t matter a jot how a fan discovered a song – unless you’re constructing a narrative setting the authentic fans against the newbies, of course. The PR Media Blog story rests on the idea that the social networkers are ‘the people’, and the viewers buying Alex Burke’s new version are somehow not – as if joining a Facebook group was somehow far more effortful than taking part in a phone vote. But joining one feels more individual, which is the great advantage social media organisation has – “donating your status to Obama” or “Rickrolling Jeff Buckley to the top of the charts” are both means of conspicuous participation.

Like the ‘old v new media’ story itself, the clash of the “Hallelujah”s is a clash of early majority vs late majority. The uptake of the song had reached a plateau until Jason Castro’s rendition on American Idol helped open up a big potential new audience for it, but it was already mainstream. It’s the qualities that make it hitworthy – its effectiveness in creating a link between listener and song – that also create the outrage among many of its existing fans. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Buckley fans get their way – there’s a recent micro-tradition of tweaking authority’s beard when it comes to the Xmas No.1 race: Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” and Nizlopi’s “JCB Song” were both promoted as representing a kind of authenticity amongst the tinsel and tat – Buckley could build a similar momentum.