Originally recorded by industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails for their 1994 album, “Hurt” became a country favorite when Johnny Cash took the song in a different direction for his 2002 album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. It was given the Country Music Association award for “Single of the Year” in 2003.
“Hurt” was written by Nine Inch Nails’ lead vocalist Trent Reznor. “It’s a track I wrote in my bedroom at a black moment,” he said. The song is a brutal depiction of self-loathing and emotional numbness that begins with “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.”
The Song Is A Look Back At Johnny Cash’s Turbulent Career
Trent Reznor considered it to be the most personal song he has ever written, so when asked if Jonny Cash could take on the song, he first said he was “flattered,” but worried that “the idea sounded a bit gimmicky.”
Nonetheless, Reznor agreed, and Johnny Cash went ahead with his recording. The country singer also made some changes to the lyrics and removed a profanity. For instance, he substituted “crown of thorns” for the original “crown of shit.”
Reznor was still not convinced by Johnny Cash covering the song though and felt confused when he first heard the recording. “It didn’t sound bad, it just sounded something wrong, it sounded alien,” Reznor said when describing his reaction later.
In another interview, he admitted that Cash’s version felt weird to him. “It felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. I certainly wasn’t cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend f**k somebody else.”
The Music Video That Changed Trent Reznor’s Mind
Trent Reznor’s opinion only changed when he finally saw the video that movie director Mark Romanek had produced for the song. It showed Johnny Cash performing the song in the “House of Cash” museum in Nashville. The building had served as the country superstar’s home for thirty years but was now in a state of advanced dereliction.
The Nine Inch Nails frontman played the video, and when it ended, he was in pieces: “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”
“It really made me think about how powerful music is. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure,” he said.
Johnny Cash was 71-years-old when Romanek shot the video for Hurt. By this point, the country legend was already battling serious health problems, and signs of old-age and frailty were evident. Romanek wanted to capture the essence of the late country singer’s youth and his senior years.
“It had been closed for a long time; the place was in such a state of dereliction. That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health, as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs,” Romanek said.
The video, as well as the song in general, is a look back at his turbulent career, in which he reached the highest of highs when he became one of America’s most sought-after artists, and his fall from grace due to a broken first marriage and his own battles with drug addiction.
The music video won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video. It was also nominated for six awards at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards and won Best Cinematography. It made Johnny Cash the oldest artist to be ever nominated for an MTV Video Music Award.
Watch the award-winning music video below.
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