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ASU professor measures impact of Leonard Cohen

November 16, 2016

Leonard Cohen was never supposed to be a huge star. He was a failed poet and novelist before he tried his hand at songrwiting. He didn’t have the best voice, and for years he couldn’t sing or play the guitar.

But when he died last week at the age of 82, the critics, the entertainment world and fans mourned his loss.

The Canadian folk singer-songwriter never produced a Top 40 single or album on his own, or was considered a mainstream success. His fame came mostly through other musical artists who covered his songs, including Judy Collins, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang.

His most significant work, 1984’s “Hallelujah,” was a fluke and originally rejected by his music label. It was eventually issued on a small indie label and landed with a thud. It took almost a decade for the song to find its audience, but when it did, the tune exploded. To date, “Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 300 artists in various languages and featured in film (“Shrek”) and television soundtracks (“The West Wing”) as well as televised talent contests, helping him to ride a wave of rediscovery. (It also was performed this past weekend by Kate McKinnon on "Saturday Night Live.")

Cohen’s status as the ultimate cult artist made him a symbol of resilience and productivity, which is how he earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

ASU Now spoke with Peter Lehman, a professor in film and media studies in the English department and the director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, to discuss Cohen’s odd but deeply impactful career and what he hopes his legacy will not become.

Question: How would you describe Leonard Cohen’s music and recording career?

Answer: Leonard Cohen is frequently thought of as a cult figure in part because he was never primarily a Top 40 singles artist. Many people knew his recording of “Bird on a Wire,” but most of his other songs became known in cover versions. The public often only knows who sings songs, not who wrote them. Secondly, he was frequently referred to as a “poet.” Although intended as a compliment, I think this is always a mistake in popular music, a disservice to musicians and poets. Cohen, of course had been both a poet and novelist prior to becoming a musician, and this may have even further muddied the water.

Q: Cohen tried his hand at almost everything — poetry, novels, music — but his impact on film and television seems like his biggest legacy.

A: The extensive use of Cohen's music in film and television throughout his career has played a major role in giving him high visibility, often with exactly the right audiences. And, as so often happens with movies, this exposure, even more than hit singles at the time of release, brings the music to the attention of new generations of young people who become fans. In 1971, Robert Altman used four Cohen songs in his critically acclaimed and commercially successful revisionist Western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Altman became an almost heroic figure to a generation of film critics and students for his independent, innovative filmmaking, and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” retains its classic status to this day for critics, film fans, and film students, continuing to bring attention to Cohen.

In recent years, Cohen's music has been featured in innovative, challenging television series: “Nevermind” was used over the credits of Season 2 of “True Detective” (2014), and “You Want It Darker” was used to startling effect in an episode of Season 3 of “Peaky Blinders” (2016) prior to its CD release. These shows are edgy and push musical boundaries.

Q: Did you ever see him perform in concert, and if so, what was that experience like?

A: I saw Cohen live on his rightly famous World Tour in Phoenix on April 5, 2009, at the Dodge Theatre (now Comerica Theatre). It was one of the greatest concerts of my life, in a league with Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was 74 years old but at the peak of his powers and with the energy of someone half that age. It was a musically nuanced and sophisticated performance. 

I mention in my book, “Roy Orbison: The Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity,” that Cohen was a big admirer. On his 1998 tour, during rehearsals Cohen told the musicians, “Make it like Roy Orbison would do it,” and the musicians joked about “Orbisizing” the songs. Cohen even had a photo of Roy Orbison pasted into their chart folders. Cohen was in the audience at the filming of the now-famous “Roy Orbison: Black & White Night” concert in 1987 and Jennifer Warnes, a close collaborator at the time, sang as one of the female backup singers. Obviously, Roy Orbison wrote and sang songs much, much different than Cohen, who knew and cared deeply about a wide range of music.

Q: Cohen’s best-known song, “Hallelujah” is more than 30 years old and still has magic attached to it. Why does the song continue to matter?

A: The best way I can answer this question is by giving you an anecdote. I’ve seen k.d. lang in concert several times. The first two times the one song that brought down the house and where she received a standing ovation was her cover version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” At one point she replaced that with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and that became the song that brought down the house down and garnered a standing ovation. I’ve experienced the extraordinary power of that song when other artists have covered it.

It has an amazing power and beauty and has an intangible quality. When someone sings it, they can make it their own. For me, the magic of the song is how it inspires other artists to do their very best work, and it is unquestionably a phenomenon.

Q: How should Cohen be remembered or not remembered?

A: There has been a movement to elevate rock and country music stars into poets by their estates, the academic and literary world and even the Nobel Prize Committee. What is happening here has a parallel with what happened in English and language departments when film initially entered the curriculum in the late '60s and '70s. There was an effort to legitimize the study of film by overemphasizing its connection to the written word via adaptations of classic novels and by elevating screenplays with “literary” quality that could be read. With music, the emphasis has been on poetry, not novels or plays. Academics are trained in and used to analyzing words. It has been an ongoing process to learn how to analyze the complex sights and sounds of film construction without reducing style to a form of window dressing. Scholars of rock and roll and country music have not yet caught up with film studies in that regard. Johnny Cash is a significant American musician. Despite a recent “New York Times” article dubbing him the "poet in black" and his estate claiming him as a significant American literary figure, his new book of poetry will undoubtedly be minor at best in comparison. 

I have tremendous respect for literature and poetry, I read literature every day of my life … but when it comes to these art forms such as movies and popular music, we put too much emphasis on words when we extract them from their context and, with songs, expect the lyrics to bear the weight of the meaning as it were. Leonard Cohen was an outstanding lyricist, but by calling him a “poet,” it distorts his skill as a singer/songwriter/concert performer. He will be deeply missed as a musician.

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Independents may bridge partisan divisions, say experts at ASU event

Independent voters may be bridge in partisan politics, say experts at ASU event.
November 16, 2016

Morrison Institute conference addresses how voters are turning away from 2 main parties

Independent voters, who resist being identified with either of the main political parties, could be a way for a deeply divided electorate to move forward, according to several experts at the annual “State Of Our State” conference on Wednesday in Phoenix.

“Independent voters can provide a bridge to close the partisan gap,” said Thom Reilly, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, which sponsored the conference.

Reilly said the institute has new research, not yet complete, showing that Republican respondents were more likely to discuss politics with friends who were independents than with Democrats. Independents make up about a third of registered voters in Arizona and were the largest single bloc of voters until registered Republicans recently overtook them.

“But for years independent voters have been ‘the other’ and treated as invisible by think tanks and in studies and polls,” Reilly said.

The conference featured a panel discussion that addressed the importance of voters who are not aligned with either major political party.

Independents were the deciding factor in electing Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8, just as they were the deciding factor in electing President Barack Obama in 2008, according to Jackie Salit, president of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party and its online affiliate,

“It’s important to understand that independents, now 43 percent of the national electorate, represent a force of motion that is crying out for a new kind politics in this country,” she said.

Some panelists said that the two-party system disenfranchises people who don’t want to choose either Democrat or Republican.

Chuck Couglin, president of AZ High Ground campaign-consulting firm based in Phoenix, said that partisan primaries are a Soviet-style system.

“Why can’t I have a ballot with everyone on it? Let me as a candidate access that ballot. It’s disenfranchising for any independent to run,” he said, criticizing the fact that taxpayers pay for elections, which support the entrenched two-party system.

Daniel Ortega, a civil rights leader and attorney, said that Latino voters are especially left out.

“More than 60 percent of Latino millennials are independent, and 43 percent of Latinos in this state are independent. The party structure does not work for the Latino community,” he said.

“Per capita, our voting percentage is down even though we have more registered voters because they can’t vote in the primary.”

And the two-party primary system has led to deep ideological divisions that hinder collaboration according to Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix and an activist for non-partisan elections.

“In this election, many Americans felt like they were choosing between the lesser of two evils and they weren’t voting for someone but against someone and that’s part of the partisan primary voting system,” he said.

“You’re talking about 5 or 6 percent of people who are making the decisions in the primary and they are demanding candidates be ideologically pure. So the candidates are divisive and split the country up.

“So it’s going to be more difficult for elected people to cross the aisle and work with both sides. It will be a winner-take-all system.”

Not everyone believes that independent voters are left out. Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said that engaged independents should be able to find out how to get information and cast ballots. “It shouldn’t be handed to them.”

Doug Chapin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Program for Excellence in Election Administration, said that the population changes affiliations back and forth over time.

“But there is a strengthening number of committed independents who really do follow politics, do have a worldview and the one thing they agree on is that they’re not Democrats and they’re not Republican.”

(From left) Former Sen. Jon Kyl, former Congressman Ed Pastor and moderator Grady Gammage Jr. discuss the future of politics after the presidential election at the "State Of Our State" conference Wednesday in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Two longtime politicians from Arizona said they see little chance of bipartisan collaboration immediately ahead after the brutal election.

Former Sen. Jon KylKyl is a Distinguished Fellow in Public Service in ASU’s College of Public Programs and a Distinguished Scholar in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He is the namesake of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy., a Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1995 and then the Senate until 2013, said that pressure from the highly fractured parties will make compromise difficult.

“We’ve allowed politicians to get to the point where a candidate can take the populist, demagogue position to get elected and then they find themselves in a governing situation that’s very difficult,” he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Ed PastorPastor earned a bachelor’s and law degrees from ASU. He is the namesake of the Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, within ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions., a Democrat, said that politicians must develop personal relationships with each other. Pastor was elected to Congress in 1991 and served as the first Mexican-American congressman to represent Arizona, retiring in 2015.

“In 1994, when the Republicans won, I wondered what would happen, but I had developed relationships and we were able to bridge some of the problems,” he said.

Grady Gammage Jr., a senior research fellow in the Morrison Institute, moderated the discussion between Kyl and Pastor and said that talking with people from the other political side is what will preserve democracy.

“I have felt for months that it was incredibly difficult to talk to people about politics, and for me that was incredibly painful,” he said.

“I think society is advanced through intelligent argument.”

Jonathan Koppell, dean of ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, praised the Morrison Institute’s mission of providing a space for conversations from differing points of view.

“There have been times that people have said that politics doesn’t matter and that it’s entertainment,” he said.

“It’s our job to underscore how much it does matter.”

Top photo: Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl discusses political gridlock with former U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy's State of Our State Conference on Wednesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News