Hurt is undeniably one of Nine Inch Nails’ or NIN’s greatest tracks and the cover version recorded by Johnny Cash near the end of his life was nothing short of haunting. It’s rare that a song so personal to the artist who wrote it becomes a standard for someone else, but this was one of the few times that happened. In this article, we’ll look at both versions of Hurt and the history of each before diving into the meaning of the track.
The Original Success of “Hurt”
Hurt started off life as a NIN song that was a feature of the band’s second album The Downward Spiral. Released as a promotional single for the album in 1995, it would go on to become one of their signature tracks and a wild success. Hurt would rise to number eight on the US Alternative Airplay and the Canadian Rock/Alternative chart. It would even go on to earn a Grammy Nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996 while the album earned a Grammy Nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance.
Frontman Trent Reznor wrote the track while putting together the song list that would become The Downward Spiral. Like much of the rest of the album, it’s a snapshot of his mindset at the time and dives into some heavy topics like self-harm and self-loathing. It would become a personal favorite of his, a song that he put his entire soul into, and has been the final track played by NIN at every concert since its release.
The Johnny Cash Version of “Hurt”
The Johnny Cash cover version of the song almost didn’t happen. Reznor thought of the track as his and only his and was incredibly skeptical when he was asked about Cash doing a recording of the song. Even a first listen to Cash’s version didn’t sway him. In Reznor’s own words:
“It sounded… weird to me. That song in particular was straight from my soul, and it felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Cash singing it. It was a good version, and I certainly wasn’t cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else.”
A few weeks later, when the accompanying music video showed up for him to preview, he quickly changed his mind. Reznor actually stated that the track wasn’t his anymore and Cash’s version retained all of the purity, sincerity, and emotion that he poured into the song when he wrote it.
Cash’s version of the track was incredible, and I dare say more successful than the original NIN version. When the song was recorded and the music video was filmed, Cash was 71 years old and was dealing with serious health problems. While his voice remains as recognizable as ever, it takes on a different tone in this song. He would die only seven months after the video wrapped filming.
The video for it would instantly be recognized as one of the greatest of all time by NME and would win copious amounts of awards. Everywhere, from the country music world to the mainstream charts bowed down to the futility and frailty on display in the Cash version of the track.
The Meaning and Themes of “Hurt”
Hurt tackles a lot of heavy themes, including self-harm, self-loathing, death, the futility of human accomplishments, and the reality of life itself. If any of these things are something you don’t want to read about, you probably shouldn’t continue, but you also should have known what you were clicking on for this article—at least if you’ve heard this song before.
With that out of the way, we can dive into the meaning and themes of this track.
There’s a lot of debate between groups of fans and critics about the real meaning of Hurt. From a content perspective, it deals with self-harm and heroin addiction, though the further messages in it are what gets debated.
Some believe it serves as a suicide note from the protagonist of the song, the result of his bouts of depression and drug use. Others see it as being a track describing the difficult process of finding a reason to live and overcoming those things, detaching it from the greater story of The Downward Spiral as a whole.
The opening line of the song is as obvious as it can be stating that the protagonist hurt themselves in order to see if they could still feel anything at all. This deals with the numbness that comes along with depression and harming oneself is sometimes the one thing that pierces through that and allows a person feeling so numb to feel anything at all.
From the first line, the track slowly ramps up, becoming more forceful and desperate with each successive line. It reaches a boiling point in the chorus, seeing the protagonist examining themselves and their life in great detail, discussing how everyone always goes away eventually.
The NIN version was accompanied by a video showcasing the worst of the world. From a rotting animal corpse to war atrocities, it paints a bleak picture of the world, and it becomes understandable why the protagonist is looking for a way to escape.
Cash’s version retains the lyrical content of the song but uses much different imagery in the music video for the track. His was shot in his long-time home, but everything was in a state of decay. It included a lot of flashbacks from his earlier life, time spent with family, and old performances.
It also put on display his frailty and seemed to be coming from a man who knew he was nearing the end of his time. He was contemplating his life and wondering what all of it had amounted to, which was what the real meaning and theme of the song meant to portray.
Overall, Hurt is about regret and the consequences of your actions. We all die, so it’s important to live your life in a wise way. Being stuck with labels, addictions, and negative things that define us can leave huge stains on our legacies.
It’s also important to prioritize the right things. Worshiping at the altar of the wrong things can lead to feeling like you’ve wasted all of your time. Combining this with a sense of impending doom—death—creates some of the most potent forms of regret and grief.
Both versions of Hurt are incredibly powerful. It perfectly captures the feelings of regret and depression in vivid imagery, serving as an amazing reminder that it’s important to not only find the right reasons to live but to live for the right reasons.
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As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.