Behind the song: “Democracy” by Leonard Cohen



Writing Leonard Cohen songs could seem effortless, line after line with an inevitability that felt like the words had been handed down to him by a wise and cunning muse that only he could access. In fact, some of his finest works took years of toil and struggle, adding and pruning, until they took their final form. “Democracy”, one of Cohen’s missives on the state of the world of The future (1992), was one of those songs.

In various interviews, Cohen is cited as having written 50 or more lines for the song over a span of several years. This is confirmed by the fact that, as he said American songwriterit’s Paul Zollo for the book Songwriters on songwriting, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place in 1989, which gave the impetus to “Democracy”, which only ended three years later.

Cohen’s initial reaction was sort of cautious, as he explained to Zollo. “And I was like that dark guy who always shows up at a party to ruin the orgy or something.” And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be like this. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think that a lot of suffering will be the consequence of the fall of this wall. But then I asked myself, “Where is democracy really going? And it was the USA… So while everyone was cheering, I thought it wasn’t going to be like this, euphoric, the honeymoon. So it is these world events that gave rise to the song. And also the love of America. Because I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It is a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experience of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experience takes place. This is really where races clash, where classes, where genders, where even sexual orientations clash. It is the real laboratory of democracy.

His words on “Democracy” not being a tongue-in-cheek song are crucial here. This is not a “Born In The USA” situation, where patriotic music is used to deliver a scathing message about our country. When Cohen slips into the rock touches of the heart of “Democracy,” he does so to emphasize the song’s sly and clear-headed optimism. When he sings “Democracy Comes to America”. in the chorus, it is more the fingers crossed than the tongue in the cheek.

Cohen presents democracy as an elusive force, just like the answer that was blowing in the wind for Bob Dylan all those years before. It comes through a hole in the air, he sings in the first line. It comes from the feeling / that it’s not exactly real / Or it’s real but it’s not exactly there. He keeps finding this concept in unexpected places: drunken visionaries, car manufacturers, family dinners.

He also suggests that democracy must come, because people are desperate enough for it to exist if it fails to do so on its own: This is where the family is broken / And this is where the loner says / That the heart must open / In a fundamental way. This is not a rosy assessment of our nation, the cradle of the best and the worst, as he calls it. Opposition to democracy, he suggests, exists in the lowest qualities of the country, as he implores the mighty state ship navigate Beyond the reefs of greed / Through the gusts of need.

As he liked to do, Cohen fits into the larger worldview in the final verse, a guy watching all of these happen on his TV. His last words evoke a sort of insane loyalty against all evidence that might steer him elsewhere: But I’m stubborn like those garbage bags that time can’t rot / I’m junk but I still hold this wild little bunch / Democracy is coming to America.

Cohen’s trail still rings true thirty years later because the ideals he seeks are still in the ether all around us, inches and miles away. The song suggests that “Democracy” might take forever to get here, but it’s a promise worth waiting for nonetheless.

Photo by Paul Zollo.


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