Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is set to be the Christmas No 1 thanks to Simon Cowell. So how did it become a universal anthem for our age

THOSE of a precious disposition should look away now. The song that the winner of this year's X Factor will release as a single – which effectively means the song chosen by Simon Cowell for this year's Christmas No 1 slot – has been named. It's Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

There are fans of the gloomy 74-year-old singer, not generally noted for their levity, for whom this will be the final cruelty. But, if we choose not to imagine what kind of dance moves the boy band JLS might pull to lines about holy doves and baffled kings should they prevail in the final on 13 December, we can note that this is the high-water mark of Hallelujah's popularity. Somehow, this serious, spiritual song has become the anthem of our age.

The odds-on favourite to win ITV's talent show is Diana Vickers, 17, a child's ragdoll in human form from Blackburn, Lancashire, who sang Hallelujah in a furry little voice for her audition piece, which must have put the song in Cowell's mind. This has caused some of Vickers's rivals to suggest that its choice favours her, but no matter. Whoever wins will get the full weight of Cowell's PR artillery behind them and almost certainly give Cohen his first No 1. It would make an unusual and lucrative climax to a year that has seen the Canadian singer – who is said to have been financially ruined by a former manager – welcomed back into the live fold.

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It is not simply X Factor acolytes who will be pondering lines about tying your lover to the kitchen chair this Christmas. Katherine Jenkins, the pop classical singer, does a version on her latest album, Sacred Arias, giving the mums' market something to chew on too. The under-tens already have their own version, as the song was featured in the movie Shrek, sung by Rufus Wainwright, and this joins covers by Damien Rice, Jon Bon Jovi, kd lang, John Cale and Jeff Buckley. Somehow, the song that Cohen wrote in 1984 "on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor" has cornered every sector of the music market.

When Cohen, having taken a year to write it (oo-yah rhymes are hard to find), put out his low, drawling version on his 1985 album Various Positions, it caught the notice of his fans but few others.

It was Buckley's elegiac cover on his 1994 album, Grace, which brought its elegant melody to wider attention, and when Buckley tragically drowned in 1997 its poignancy only strengthened. The song is used on Hollywood soundtracks as an instant signifier of emotion, notable on Marissa's death in teen drama The OC. But did anyone really listen to the lyrics?

The opening lines, "Well I heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord", draw on the Old Testament story of King David. We understand that the divine music he discovered is the very song we are listening to, as Cohen describes the song's chord progression ("Well it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…"). But the woman he is addressing doesn't care for music, apparently she is more interested in some game of sexual humiliation, evidently inspired by Samson and Delilah "She tied you/To a kitchen chair/She broke your throne, and she cut your hair".

As he goes on to evoke a doomed affair, Cohen plays the divine against the erotic, implying that sex usually wins and it's perhaps only in music that resolution can be found between the two.

Is this what drew Vickers to the song? Perhaps. But what Cohen's masterpiece certainly does speak to is a hunger for authenticity, which strikes a chord in these dark times, even with viewers of Saturday night TV.

When Vickers first performed it, Cowell, deaf to the fact that she has trouble pronouncing even the most basic of consonants, reserved his highest praise. "You've made the song your own," he said.

No. No-one has quite managed that.

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