When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Johnny Cash takes on Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Judging from the YouTube comments sections of the videos below, the debate over whose version of “Hurt” reigns supreme—Johnny Cash’s cover or Trent Reznor’s original—remains at fever pitch seven years after the former’s take was released. The tension is certainly plausible: Before Rick Rubin recommended the song to the Man In Black, most country fans had never laid ears on the song, despite how deep it’d resonated with rock fans for nearly a decade prior to 2003. Indeed, until then, even some rock purists assumed Reznor was a talentless weirdo, a myth perpetuated by his purchase of the infamous home in L.A. where the Manson family murders took place in 1969. “Le Pig” aside, many others simply relegated Reznor to the status of that other Manson, Marilyn, assuming his music was gimmicky and feckless. Cash’s “Hurt” altered this perception dramatically, reinvigorating an interest in Reznor that stands today while legitimizing his work for many who’d once falsely measured his worth.
The cover did more than shift perceptions of Reznor, of course. Released just five months prior to Cash’s death, the Mark Romanek-directed video, in particular, served as a sort of epitaph to a musical giant, powerfully aligning the elderly, meditative Cash with the youthful, rebellious one. The spartan audio is penetrating on its own, but the video marked a high point in music video-making rarely achieved in the last decade. The experience is not unlike stepping inside Cash’s mind as he wrestles with the finite nature of his being, pondering a life lived to the fullest, though cognizant of the weight that inevitably bears on all humans as they look back for the last time. No matter your religious preference (or lack thereof), the imagery of Christ in the film and the altered lyrics are worth noting, as Cash was devout in his belief in the power of redemption, especially at the end of his life. But, true to form, the song isn’t a blithe gospel incantation; it’s Cash at his most transparent, reliant on his hope above while honest about the contradictions of temporal existence.
“Hurt,” to me, inhabits that holy space of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song that most everyone can find themselves in. Though Reznor’s opus is plainly more personal than communal, it’s depth transcends bias, marking the zeitgeist of Cash’s end-of-life narrative and the surge of musical decentralization, thanks to the iPod. It’s also a conversation between two legends on the nature of art, which has the power to take on a life of its own, uniting dissimilar people in ways simple dialogue often fails to achieve.