Nine Inch Nails
Writer(s): Trent Reznor (see lyrics here)
Released: April 17, 1995
First Charted: April 22, 1995
Peak: 54a US, 8 MR (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): -- US, -- UK, -- world (includes US + UK)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 41.1 video, 65.15 streaming
Awards for Nine Inch Nails Version:
Click on award for more details.
Released: March 2003
First Charted: November 1, 2003
Peak: 56 CW, 33 MR, 39 UK, 66 AU (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): 2.75 US, 0.6 UK, 3.5 world (includes US + UK)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 147.0 video, 436.21 streaming
Awards for Cash Version:
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
In 1995, Nine Inch Nails released the song “Hurt” from their second album, The Downward Spiral. The top 10 modern rock hit references self-harm and heroin addiction, but the overall meaning of the song has been disputed. Some have said it is a suicide note written by the protagonist and others see it as a more uplifting song about finding a reason to live in spite of depression and pain. WK It has also been characterized as “about realizing consequences and regret.” SF Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has said it is the most personal song he’s ever written. SF Little did he know it would become the quintessential eulogy for one of country music’s greatest legends.
Reznor was friends with Rick Rubin who, in the last decade, had served as “the svengali of [Johnny] Cash’s reinvention.” NME Rubin suggested the song to Cash, knowing its vulnerability and expression of pain would match his failing voice. The song didn’t catch Cash’s ear initially, but he eventually called it “the best anti-drug song I ever heard.” SF
“The stark, desolate sorrow of the original was translated into harrowing, minimal balladry by the Man In Black.” NME By whittling the song down “to little more than an acoustic guitar and the trembling voice of a dying man,” RS Cash was effectively “writing his own grim eulogy.” PD “His authoritative baritone has all but disappeared, and even his legendary dark humor has deserted him, replaced by painful honesty about life, death, and regret…It’s the crowning achievement of one of the great musical lives of our era; it’s the necessary reminder of age and mortality in the middle of youth and promise.” DS
“It’s hard to imagine anyone but Johnny Cash making it sound like a standard.” PD His take on the song captures “the fear and regret we rarely like to acknowledge until faced with our own mortality.” PD Kudos to “Rubin for recognizing that Cash’s genius would transform a ‘90s goth-rock dirge into a classic on par with his ‘50s murder ballads.” AM
Reznor was originally angry about the cover, saying it felt invasive, SF but after seeing the video he said, “That song isn’t mine anymore…It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote…about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.” WK
The video was directed by Mark Romanek, who had previously collaborated with Nine Inch Nails WK and shot videos for U2, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. SF The video mixed archival footage of Cash with current shots of “one of America’s most iconic figures suddenly looking so vulnerable, so human, so utterly spent.” PD By showcasing “the stark and seemingly cruel reality of the present,” WK the video served as an obituary for Cash, who died seven months later on September 12, four months after his wife, June Carter Cash, who is also featured in the video. Cash’s management wasn’t sure it should be released because it was so intimate, but his daughter Rosanne convinced him. SF
It won Grammy and Country Music Assocation Awards for Video of the Year. In July 2011, New Musical Express magazine named it the best video of all time, as did Country Music Television (CMT) in 2004. WK The Country Music Association also awarded it Single of the Year in 2003. In a 2007 BBC poll, Cash’s take on the song was voted the best-ever cover of another artist’s song. SF
First posted 11/18/2019; last updated 11/3/2021.