“My Empire of Dirt”: Tracking the Evolution of “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails to Johnny Cash

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cw: themes of self-harm are explored in the song described in this article

What song makes you cry? Like, tears streaming, bawling on the floor kind of cry. For me, it’s Johnny Cash’s melancholic ballad “Hurt.” Cash’s sincere voice is filled with wistful emotion; his echoing vibrato makes it seem as if he is on the brink of tears. His vocals are accompanied by a simple-yet-powerful guitar riff building into a heart-wrenching crescendo with the addition of the piano. Whenever I need to cry (like really, really need to cry), I listen to “Hurt.” Something about the richness of Cash’s voice stripped bare, the slow rise and fall of the melody, and the simple build of the instrumentals resonates with me in just the right way to get the tears flowing. 

However, surprising as it might seem given the authenticity of Cash’s performance of “Hurt,” the song is not originally his. In fact, it was written and first sung by Nine Inch Nails’ lead singer Trent Reznor. Since I had first been exposed to Cash’s version of the song, Reznor’s took me by surprise. It begins with around thirty seconds of what sounds like wind before Reznor’s voice unsettlingly whispers the familiar first lines of the song: “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel …” The song is slow and sinister, even creepy. The anonymous sound of wind persists throughout the song, accompanied by a high pitched (almost undetectable) ring that crescendos into the chorus. These ambient elements create an uncomfortable, somewhat distressing air of emotion that is further emphasized by Reznor’s creepy and uneven voice being panned off to the side, almost as if his vocals were an afterthought in the song. His singing echoes eerily as he enjambs the lines of the song, and he is often off-key. 

“Hurt” is Reznor’s final track on his album “Downward Spiral,” which is an experimental collection tracking his fall into a chaotic lifestyle due to his sudden rise to fame and subsequent fall through sex, drugs, and self-loathing. In an interview with Hrishikesh Hirway of “Song Exploder,” Reznor describes “Hurt” as an afterthought of a song — a song meant to be a reflection on the downward spiral encapsulated by the other tracks in the album. In this context, Reznor’s version of “Hurt” makes sense: the lyrics can be understood as creepy and perverse, paralleling the uneasy nature of the track itself. 

What took me most by surprise in Reznor’s “Hurt” was the fact that his version of the song evoked very strong emotions within me, yet also ones that were strangely different from those evoked in Cash’s “Hurt.” Two ways in which to best contextualize and understand the differences between these two versions of “Hurt” are through Reznor’s and Cash’s respective use of instrumentality as well as their music videos. 

Reznor’s “Hurt” is reliant on the chaos created by the mix of voice, instruments, and sounds, which highlights the confusion of negative emotions portrayed in the song: sadness, anger, pain, anguish. Reznor’s song encapsulates mixed negative emotionality including (but not limited to) elements of sadness and therefore draws out perversions present in the lyrics in such a way that Cash does not. More specifically, the motif of self-destruction and self-harm becomes particularly apparent in Reznor’s version of “Hurt.” 

On the other hand, Cash’s “Hurt” is a tear-jerker because it evokes sadness void of other negative emotions like anger or malevolence. The sadness in Cash’s song feels like pure, melancholic heartbreak, but not necessarily in a romantic sense. The song relies heavily on Cash’s ability as a singer to convey its emotionality. In fact, the song’s instrumentals are particularly clean in that the instruments are played in a consistent manner, and they enter and exit in repeated patterns throughout the song; there is no background noise or distracting riffs to detract from the listener’s attention from Cash’s rich voice. In Cash’s version, lines such as “the needle tears a hole” or “I wear this crown of thorns” seem like expressions of utter misery rather than literal self-harm as they can be interpreted in Raznor’s version. 

Another way in which these two artists color “Hurt” differently is through their music videos. Nine Inch Nails’ music video of “Hurt” opens with the haunting black and white scene of the death and decay of a fox. The video continues in black and white, showcasing different disturbing images of injured animals and people as Reznor performs “Hurt” to a live audience. One notably recurring image in this video is that of a poised snake ready to strike directly into the camera, highlighting the duality of self-harm as you are both the harmer and the harmed. 

In contrast, Cash’s “Hurt” music video is a melancholic ode to his past successes as an artist. Johnny Cash was a renowned American singer-songwriter, with countless hits besides “Hurt,” including bops like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.” Cash recorded “Hurt” at the end of his life as a reflection on the empire he built as a musician. His video is riddled with classic Americana imagery — shots of the American flag, a flying dove, scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion — which highlights Cash’s innate intertwinement with American culture. Cash playing the piano, strumming the guitar, and singing are interwoven with shots of his awards, luxuries, pictures of the past, and various other memorabilia from his decorated career. These images highlight Cash’s sad reflection on his legacy and career, his missteps in it, and a general sadness of its closing. In fact, Cash sadly died a few months after recording “Hurt.”  

Now, all of this comparison is not to say that either Reznor or Cash’s version of “Hurt” is better than the other. In fact, it is quite the contrary: both songs are epic in their own right, reflecting the emotion of their artist and, in turn, evoking that emotion in the listener. The evolution of the song “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails to Johnny Cash is a prime example of the duality of lyricism and music itself: the fact that the same lyrics can evoke two different tones of emotion is a testament to both artists’ musicality. Reznor articulated this point well in his “Song Exploder” interview when he said that “music is a mystery to unravel on which to project emotion” and that the meaning of lyrics matters much less than the meaning that one projects onto them.

Further resources if you’re interested:

Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”

Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” 

Song Exploder is a Netflix series → Vol 2, Ep 3 features Trent Raznor talking about the making of “Hurt” 

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