Songs don’t exactly make me cry. I have to accept the invitation, and many times I say no. But when I say yes, I usually feel better afterward. I’ve never understood the mystery in music, how patterns of sound affect the brain and evoke emotion, with or without words. Certain songs combine music and lyrics in a way that tweaks particular neurons in my addled brain. It could be something as individual as an iris or a fingerprint.
“Dust in the Wind” by Kansas gets to me, much to my husband’s amusement. Crying to a song like that hardly requires a refined sensibility – the haunting melody, the refrain reminding us that “all we are is dust in the wind.” I recall a scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where the two time-traveling stoners impress Socrates and his disciples by pantomiming the message of “Dust in the Wind.” Even Bill and Ted know the song is deep. Thinking about those dudes dries my tears.
“Someday Soon,” composed by Ian Tyson and sung by Judy Collins, sometimes has my neurons tweaking. The narrator of this pop ballad is a girl in love with a rodeo rider. She sings joyously of her intention to run off with him “someday soon.” Even though her father warns that “he will leave [her] crying,” she pledges to “follow him right down the toughest road [she knows].” It becomes obvious her parents are right, the guy is bad news and she’ll probably end up stuck in a trailer in some shithole town, pregnant and abandoned. Really, there’s no reason to shed a single tear for this naive girl. For her parents, maybe. They have to watch as she screws up her life. But the compelling melody and the purity of Collins’ soprano trump my intellect. They insist passion inevitably ends in heartbreak and love is worth the cost, no matter what. A simple and obvious sentiment. Only the music gives it power over me.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” might be the song with the most power over my tears. I just don’t want to say no to Cohen’s gravelly voice. Neither obvious nor simple, this love song has inspired dozens of explications in online forums. They range from highly insightful to downright ludicrous, but the best ones confirm that Cohen’s lyrics are poetry. Some listeners point to the song’s Biblical allusions and give the lyrics a strongly religious interpretation. Others glom onto on its references to sex.
For me, the song honors the sacredness and profanity of love and the power of art to transcend heartbreak. “Hallelujah” unites the opposites and demonstrates that power. Cohen sings of two hallelujahs: the holy (whole) one that purely praises God and the “broken” one drawn from the lips of those in the throes of passion, at moments of orgasm and heartbreak: “Love is not a victory march. / It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
The hallelujah’s power comes from the union of the word and music. In the first stanza, Cohen tells of “a secret chord / that pleased the Lord” created by the Biblical king David and describes it as a musician would: “the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift.” He addresses someone directly, remarking that she “never really cared for music.” So why is he singing to her? Later stanzas reveal that she is or has been his lover. She has taken his heart, perhaps broken it, without ever appreciating what he is. So he now he’s letting her know. For him, the passion, suffering, and ultimate loneliness of love have the same outcome:
Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
When a poet’s heart is broken, he – or she – writes a poem. Or in this case, a song that invites my tears.
These songs are about the suffering and loss every human being experiences, the devastating kind worthy of tears. But all of us endure mundane aches and pains and frustrations that are considered unworthy of tears. We’re not supposed to cry over fender benders. We’re not supposed to cry over losing a game, no matter how much winning matters. I rarely cry about such things. Instead I carry around my pool of unshed tears and wait for an invitation from the right song.
“Hallelujah” Lyrics from Song Lyrics .