Who Did It Better? “Hurt”

Cover songs are usually a much sought after, uplifting moment at a concert. The audience connects as they sing together lyrics made popular over time. However, occasionally a cover comes around that turns the song inward. It makes you reflect on your life, or in rare cases your demise. Timing is everything and Cash’s take on Reznor’s “Hurt” in the twilight of his life changed the song’s meaning forever. Check out our local panel of musicians, promoters, producers, and everything in between and discover their opinions on “who did it better?”

Hurt” is a song by American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails from their second studio album, The Downward Spiral (1994), written by Trent Reznor. It was released on April 17, 1995, as a promotional single from the album. The song received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996 but lost to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”

In 2002, Johnny Cash covered “Hurt” to commercial and critical acclaim; it was one of Cash’s final hits released before his death, and the related music video is considered one of the greatest of all time. Reznor praised Cash’s interpretation of the song for its “sincerity and meaning”, going so far as to say “that song isn’t mine anymore.”

Katy Ashe, Last Daze

When I was in fifth grade, I was handed The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails in the girls’ bathroom by my friend Wendi. She got in trouble for listening to what her very religious mother classified as “the Devil’s music”. Seeing as how my mother was hard of hearing, she figured I would be able to enjoy all the gloriously explicit lyrics as they were intended; loud and proud.  To this day, as a 36 year old mother, musician. and teacher, it is still my favorite album OF ALL TIME. So, let’s talk about Trent Reznor’s opus, song number 14, “Hurt”. 

Infused with despair, the contextual drug-addicted songwriter dug deep into his empty soul to write the lyrics of an entire generation.  This song hit us all right in the feels, as self-loathing, accepting beings who have come to terms with our own imperfections as humans. Musically, the song is beautiful, yet dissonant, to express the fact that “broken is beautiful, too.”

Fast forward twenty years (or so) and country legend Johnny Cash reveals the most heartbreakingly sincere version of the song, accompanied by a video that made me cry from start to finish. Cash made the song his own, and Reznor knew he would, while simultaneously propelling the song into an immortal, legendary piece of art. Cash made the lyrics accessible by changing “crown of shit” to “crown of thorns” (a change likely acceptable to my friend Wendi’s mother) and simplified the chords so every singer-songwriter in the world could easily cover the song as well. (I still perform it with the original dissonant chords Trent wrote.) 

How can we compare the two? While it was Trent’s genius that manifested the song, it was the closing door of death that made Cash’s version so haunting and heartbreaking. Trent birthed the baby, but Cash made the world accept it as one of the greatest songs of all time.  So, to me, they both win.

Lori Friday, Troy Music Academy & Super 400

The teenage me would have preferred the original NIN version. I wouldn’t have related to the Johnny Cash rendition. Now many years older, I hear the remake and it’s difficult to handle because I find it to be so sincere and authentically raw. The acute angst of youth contrasted with the deeper and sweeter pains of a journey through life. It was a brilliant move for Johnny Cash to record this song. It made him a suddenly relevant artist decades after the height of his fame. I remember it being received with surprise by the general public, a tender display of vulnerability from the fabled Man in Black. 

Sean Allen, Palace Theatre

As a high school kid in the mid to late ’90s, Nine Inch Nails were a band I knew well, and as the closing track on The Downward Spiral, it was like a final gasping breath to close out an album that felt particularly dark and violent. From Trent Reznor, the song came across like a dissonant scream for help from someone drowning in their own misery. In the hands of Johnny Cash, it took on an entirely different feel.

To hear Cash sing it – with a very simple arrangement and essentially the same lyrics – it felt more like a man looking back on his life, sifting through the joys and pains of his memories as he nears the end of the final chapter of his life. Truly fitting considering both he and his wife June would pass less than one year after the release of the song. His music video for the song is a great example of how the visual medium can add so much to music when done correctly. To see Johnny Cash as a frail old man and June Carter Cash looking over him with a look of love and sadness in her eyes, juxtaposed with the footage of the young, powerful Cash in his prime…. You just can’t help but feel the power in the song.

To try and pick a favorite of the two would be difficult because they both bring such different emotions to their approach, but Cash’s version really allows the singer to shine and captures a sadness that may feel more universal and leaves a more lasting impression overall.

Herb Carter, 18 Strings of Trouble

This one was my favorite. Trent made it easy too. He said in 2003 when he saw Johnny’s video”I cried! It felt like I lost my girlfriend. That’s not even my song anymore.” They were both great versions of a very heavy, very well written song. The Johnny Cash version though, filmed in February, I believe, featured June, who would pass away in May and Johnny followed her in September. Filmed at The Johnny Cash Museum in all its disrepair. Gives me goosebumps every time.

David Bourgeois, Drummer & Music Producer

As a drumming alumni of regional industrial leaning acts Clay People and Treaty, I’ve got no shortage of love for NIN.  This song is another example of exactly why NIN broke through in the genre while so many did not.

However beyond the way a particular piece of music sounds, I think a true measure of any art is how it makes you feel.  Johnny Cash didn’t really do a remake here.  He instead invested himself in creating a pointed, emotional, genre-bending memory maker.  I like to imagine Trent Reznor calling Johnny and saying thank you for making my song more than I ever could have imagined.In this case… we are Cash only!

Ryan Murray, Public Relations Coordinator, City of Albany

When you are posed the question of which song is better your instincts normally go to “yeah of course the originally is always better.” As a kid growing up in the 90s Nine Inch Nails was a staple on my radio. I tapped all their songs onto cassettes until I convinced my parents to buy me the album.  Hurt was one of those songs in heavy rotation.

When I heard the Johnny Cash version of “Hurt” I really didn’t know who Johnny Cash was.  My father had to show me some of his records. After hearing the song I went back and got all his albums. When I went away for college there was a Johnny Cash class being offered so I immediately signed up to take that.  “Hurt” was a great song but Johnny made it even better with his cover.  He seemed to embody the lyrics. He had lived this song. When you learn his story this captures some of what Johnny has been through. Rick Rubin slowing down the tempo of the song draws out the pain in Johnny’s voice.  It’s not often you listen to  a song you already knew and the cover is better.  It’s not often a song can bring you to tears. Johnny’s version does both.  

The Verdict

While I remain a huge fan of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, the experts have spoken. This one goes to the Man in Black.

Are you involved in the local music scene and want to contribute your thoughts to this series? Please send an email to [email protected] and let me know.

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