In which I invite the vitriol of the entire human race by denouncing Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’.

I have a confession to make: I don’t like Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’.

It’s not bad, certainly, and the video makes it worthwhile, but then again, it’s not like I need to defend it. Pretty much the entire population of the world loves it. The first five results on Youtube have over 50 million views, it’s arguably Johnny Cash’s most famous song to our generation, and at any one time some guy out there will be talking about how it makes him “cry manly tears”, as if tears have sex-specific qualities. No, instead I’m going to defend the original, released in ’94 by Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails) as the final song on his most popular and influential album The Downward Spiral.

I haven’t conducted any studies into this, but I’m fairly certain that of those who have heard both versions, all prefer the cover. On every upload of the original, anywhere on the internet, the top comment will always be “Johnny Cash’s cover is better” or some variation thereof.   Only metalhead losers prefer the original, right?  Trent Reznor’s opinion of it, in which he claimed it wasn’t his song any more, is often used as evidence of the cover’s objective superiority, but what most people miss is that it was only upon watching the video that he formed this opinion. Until then, he said hearing someone else perform his most personal song felt “invasive”, and that when asked by Rick Rubin for permission to record Johnny Cash singing it, he feared it would sound “a bit gimmicky”. 

Perhaps I’m biased. My older brother was a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails, and I got into The Downward Spiral when I was around 13. Hurt was probably my favourite on the album, and four years of loving the original recording would naturally put me on the defensive. But I honestly believe it’s not fair that Johnny Cash’s version receives so much applause and Trent Reznor’s so little. I think it’s praised too blindly because when he died and the (heavily fictional) biopic of his life Walk the Line became a hit, Johnny Cash morphed from ‘half-novelty, half-cool country musician’ to ‘godlike mainstream icon’. You can’t criticise Johnny Cash. He’s a legend. Well, as a stone-cold Johnny Cash fan, I’m happy to criticise him – he recorded a lot of really awful stuff, to the extent that his discography is about 10% gold and 90% total dreck.

Independent of its video, I don’t think ‘Hurt’ is a great cover. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

It made sense in its original context. See, The Downward Spiral was something of a concept album. It’s a violent assault on your ears, industrial noise and atonal screeching, expressing anger, hopelessness, depression and despair. Listen to the first minute or so of track 3, ‘March of the Pigs’, and you’ll see what I mean.

Then, at the end of it all, there’s Hurt. A half-whispered, unexpectedly melodic confession at the end of so much fury. “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.” The words of a man who has raged, lashed out at everything, and is left with nothing. All he has left is the physical pain he can inflict upon himself, because relentless mental anguish has left him numb to anything else. “What have I become… everyone I know goes away in the end.” A man who truly hates himself, and is in no doubt that everyone he cared about and disappointed hates what he’s become as much as he does.

It doesn’t really fit with an old man facing up to death, does it? A man who lived a long time, achieved much, and by his own account, had a woman he loved more than anything? It meant something when Trent Reznor sang it. It was his song. He wrote it, and expressed himself through it. Johnny Cash did a cover with a (genuinely beautiful) video that retroactively implied it was his epitaph. But around 50 songs were recorded during those sessions. ‘Hurt’ was just one of many covers, with no specific meaning. Are the others also his epitaphs? Like his risible cover of Danny Boy, from the same album? What about Like the 309, the last song he ever wrote, released on one of two posthumous albums assembled from the discarded recordings? It’s got the line “it should be a while before I see Dr. Death, so it would sure be nice if I could get my breath… put me in my box on the 309.”  That’s a song about dying by a man who’s dying, right?  What about his cover of In My Life, for goodness sake? If there was ever a cover that could fit as someone’s last song, surely that’s it.

I think the reason the excessive praise bestowed upon Johnny Cash’s cover bothers me so much is because it seems like popular opinion would rather loosely interpret words the man didn’t write as evidence of the song’s power than give credit to Nine Inch Nails. Because Trent Reznor makes loud, ugly music, and not easily-consumed acoustic meanderings. There’s an underlying implication that Trent Reznor’s pain, as an angry and desperate 28 year old industrial/metal/electronic musician, isn’t as valid as Johnny Cash’s performance of a cover as an old ‘icon’ with an acoustic guitar.

And I think that’s a damn shame.

3 Comments on “In which I invite the vitriol of the entire human race by denouncing Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’.”

  1. jw0073 says:

    Cash ruined that song. I hate his version.

  2. Barry the Baptist says:

    F***in’ bravo…! I doubt I could have said it better myself.

    I like Cash’s version but hardly think it deserves the acclaim it has.

    The popular reception of Cash’s cover begs the question, assuming that he was singing about some painful aspect of his existence; conversely, I have yet to see anything that indicates the lyrics meant anything deep to Cash.

    Reznor’s version, however, was about a painful experience, a desperate helplessness that many can not seem to relate to. I assume that that is why so many prefer Cash’s version: it’s implied (through the music video) that it is about death and dying, something that is a part of everyone’s existence while Reznor’s is about emotional difficulties that many people are not aware other individuals struggle with.

    Additionally, people can see Cash’s struggles written across his body and face in the accompanying music video while one would have to actually listen to Reznor’s lyrics, music, and album to comprehend what troubles him. The easily digestible visual medium trumps the thoughtful aural one.

    In short, pop country for the win.

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