[Guest blogger Scott wrote this as a response to my post about Young@Heart's cover of Coldplay's "Fix You." I am glad we have more stuff about music on here now.]
Trent Reznor's "Hurt"
Johnny Cash's "Hurt"
A few years back, Nine Inch Nails’ Industrial-aggro-ballad "Hurt" became an unlikely swan song for Johnny Cash. Without changing a single word, Cash managed to take what many had seen as a whiny, self-pitying tune written by Trent Reznor at the height of his popularity and transform it into something far more poignant.
Sometimes, a performer is able to completely change the meaning of a song simply by being who they are. Cash changes very little in the arrangement of the song other than removing the percussion. Most of what he brings to the table is his voice; instead of Reznor’s nasal whine we get Cashes distinctive baritone, a little worse for wear due to his declining health, which brings a level of authority to the lyrics that Reznor just isn’t capable. As the Who once said “It’s the singer not the song, that makes the music move along.”
Reznor’s lyrics are completely transformed in his hands and take on whole new meanings that Reznor couldn’t have even imagined when he wrote them.
“The Needle tears a hole, that old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away but I remember everything.”
When a Gen X musician sings about a “needle” in the mid 90s, he is obviously singing about heroin addiction. When Cash sings it, it could be about his own battles with addiction, but it also conjures images of a sick, old man in a hospital having to undergo IV after IV. Also, when Reznor sings “I remember everything” he’s talking about a couple of decades; Cash is singing about a lifetime.
“Everyone I know goes away in the end.”
Keeping with the theme of addiction, the Nine Inch Nails version is obviously Reznor feeling sorry for himself. Everyone “goes away” because he, and more specifically his addiction, pushes them away. For Cash, they go away because he’s old and all of his old buddies are dying (Waylon Jennings passed about a year or so before his recording of the song). Again, Reznor’s problem is preventable; he can stop if he really wants. Cash’s problem is, however, inevitable; as you get older people you know will die.
The chorus provides another excellent example, when Reznor Sings “You can have it all, my empire of dirt,” he is singing of an ‘empire’ that is, at best, a few years old and, since that empire was built by a man best known for writing a song with the chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”, there are many who would, indeed, classify it as one made of “dirt.” However, when Cash sings the same line, he is coming from the perspective of a legendary musician with a legacy a half-century old. For him to call his empire ‘dirt’ is a much more powerful statement of a man who has a greater perspective on what truly matters in life.
The final line of the song displays exactly what makes the Cash version superior:
“If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself. I would find a way.”
When Reznor sings this line, he is still a young man; if he truly wanted to ‘start again’, he could. This is why the song comes off as whiny; it’s a hopeless song written by someone who still has hope but is too blind to see it. When Cash sings the line, it is too late for him to ‘start again’; he’s old and he’s dying. He can’t start again. In Reznor’s hands, the song is a suicide note; in Johnny’s, it’s a last will and testament.