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“Hallelujah” Is Not A Christmas Song

There are many reasons one might be annoyed at Pentatonix, the ruling a cappella group of our time. The singing quintet is hokey and saccharine in the way only a cappella groups can be. They were birthed by reality TV. They temporarily operated with four members despite being called Pentatonix. If you dislike Christmas music, the group’s fixation on holiday fare undoubtedly rubs you the wrong way. But to me, a Christmas music fan, the worst thing about Pentatonix is not their obsession with the genre so much as their cockamamie stewardship of it.

Not only are Pentatonix their generation’s defining a cappella group, they’re also this decade’s definitive purveyor of Christmas music. In the past six years they’ve released three full-length Christmas albums — 2014’s That’s Christmas To Me, 2016’s A Pentatonix Christmas, and 2018’s Christmas Is Here — plus this year’s The Best Of Pentatonix Christmas, which mixes selections from all three LPs with a handful of new tracks. There is nary a yuletide playlist or TV special without these people; they’ve become an unmissable staple at those radio stations that switch to holiday music only between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That’s fine. Pentatonix are great at singing Christmas songs. The genre lends itself to the extreme earnestness and gorgeous harmonies of a cappella, qualities Pentatonix exude in abundance. My beef with the band is not that they have branded themselves as Christmas specialists and can’t seem to stop releasing holiday albums. It’s that those albums consistently contain songs that are not Christmas music, and that due to Pentatonix’s prominent position within the genre, those songs are now constantly interrupting my experience of Christmas music, taking me out of my merrymaking zone — none more so than their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Christmas music serves a specific purpose: celebrating Christmas. As a nostalgic schmuck with a lot of emotional investment in my own annual traditions, seasonal music’s function for me is almost utilitarian; it is the grease that gets my yuletide wheels spinning. I thus have a higher tolerance for hokey nonsense where Christmas is concerned. The sentimentality is a feature, not a bug. It’s an ethos directly opposed to what Cohen achieved with “Hallelujah,” a song more in line with my usual taste for more artful material. In most of its many iterations, “Hallelujah” qualifies as great music. It’s just not great Christmas music. It’s not Christmas music at all.

Holiday fare is more versatile than many give it credit for, covering a wide range of styles and subject matter, but in order to be Christmas music, it has to be about Christmas in some way, or at least adjacent to Christmas. That can mean hymns about the birth of Jesus, ballads about being apart from loved ones at the holidays, novelty songs about Santa Claus, goofs about grandma getting run over by a reindeer, and so on. It can mean songs like “Auld Lang Syne” that are typically associated with New Year’s Eve a week later. (Surely you recall the final scene of It’s A Wonderful Life?) It can even mean songs about cold weather like “Let It Snow” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which have somehow become holiday fare by osmosis.

This is a zone Pentatonix know well. They’ve covered Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” and Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter” and the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather,” all of which could, I guess, be slotted into that sub-canon of Christmas songs that are actually just winter songs. But they’ve also done “When You Believe,” a Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet from the soundtrack to 1998’s The Prince Of Egypt, which is set several thousand years ahead of the Christmas story, historically speaking. Flimsier still is their choice of the Frozen anthem “Let It Go,” forever linked with a character who has magical ice powers but only about snow in a superficial capacity. Most preposterously, on a televised Christmas special Pentatonix once performed John Lennon’s humanist power ballad “Imagine,” a song that contains zero references to secular Christmas iconography and literally begins, “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try.”

Some of Pentatonix’s Christmas bullshit I can begrudgingly abide. Despite the content of my rant thus far, my definition of Christmas music is not narrow. I have room for distinctively Christian songs like “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and for kid stuff like “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and for classic holiday pop songs like “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” I appreciate that sometimes existing songs can successfully be adapted into Christmas songs, like when the Trans-Siberian Orchestra turned “Canon In D” into “Christmas Canon,” and I love when artists like Sufjan Stevens poke and prod at the boundaries of what Christmas music can be.

What I do not appreciate is having “Hallelujah” constantly interrupt my Christmas experience. Yet every time I listen to the Essential Christmas playlist on Apple Music, this is exactly what happens: I’m cruising along enjoying the likes of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Baby” and “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” and along comes this endlessly covered Leonard Cohen ballad about sexual ecstasy, crushing heartbreak, and existential doubt to make me spit out my hot chocolate. The song has also made its way onto Spotify’s Christmas Pop playlist alongside lots of originals and traditionals that are, you know, about Christmas.

“Hallelujah” means many things to many people, and it shares a certain reverent awe with certain carols and nativity ballads, but it constitutionally has nothing to do with Christmas. It exists on a different plane. It is the music equivalent of cinema as defined by Martin Scorsese, whereas Christmas music is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both have their value, but to lump them together is to misunderstand each one’s reason for existing. If we’re going to sing “Hallelujah” at Christmas, why not also sing “God’s Plan” or “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” or — actually I can’t think of a worse fit than “Imagine,” which this group already did.

Pentatonix aren’t the first to try to force “Hallelujah” into this milieu. A few years before them, the Christian rock band Cloverton created a Christmas version of “Hallelujah” with insipid lyrics such as, “I heard about this baby boy/ Who’s come to Earth to bring us joy.” It sucked, and it undermined the spirit of the original song, but it was at least a Christmas song, which Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is not. The fact that Cloverton felt they had to change the lyrics in order to make it a Christmas song itself proves that “Hallelujah” as originally conceived is not a Christmas song. Whatever context it belongs in, Christmas ain’t it.

Nor is “Hallelujah” the only non-Christmas tune being crammed into an incongruous cultural space. Take it from a parent who has lately turned to Christmas music for a change of pace from various Frozen soundtracks: Frozen soundtracks are not Christmas music. Except the soundtrack for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which is in fact a Christmas special and is therefore full of original Christmas songs. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” on the other hand — a hyper-specific lament about going crazy from loneliness in a Norwegian castle after your sister shuts you out and your parents die — has no business on Apple’s Children’s Christmas playlist.

In one sense, I can’t blame Pentatonix or the world’s playlist curators for attempting to infuse the Christmas canon with some fresh tunes. Arguably no new Christmas songs have become standards since Carey’s newly anointed #1 hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which dropped 25 years ago. For a full quarter-century, songwriters have been attempting, and failing, to kick out new Christmas classics. They descend upon us every year, but like mild snowfall that comes and goes without accumulating, none of them stick.

The solution to this ostensible problem (if the lack of new Christmas standards really is a problem) may be to write better holiday originals. It may be to artfully tweak existing hits to retcon them into Christmas songs by adding jingle bells or whatever, or to sync them into pivotal scenes in hit Christmas movies, like “All You Need Is Love” in Love, Actually. There are lots of possible solutions, but let me tell you what is not one of them: pretending Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a goddamned Christmas song.