Cover Song Analysis – Hurt

Music is and always has been a medium of sorts for connecting people together, no matter race, religion, or age. In his article, “Hijacked Hits and Antic Authenticity: Cover Songs, Race, and Post War Marketing,” Coyle talks about how it was Elvis’s openness in embracing the past R&B singers that allowed his cover songs to flourish. He wasn’t “hijacking” a song he was paying homage to the past and created what is today considered a modern cover song. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s hijacking a song from a popular R&B singer was common practice among the industry and since hijacking was just the same exact song sung by someone else, if a white person sung the song it gained far more attention thanks to radio play by white disk-jockey’s. Thanks to eventual desegregation and growing anti-racism awareness we no longer have these problems today and hijacking a song is nonexistent because of the modern cover (although we do have very strict copyright laws as a result of this). In 2002 a frail and dying Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails “Hurt.” A song that was created 8 years earlier in 1994 by lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor. Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” takes a song created by a young emotional man and transcends a generational gap by making it his own by giving new meaning to the song. Cash reminds us of how songs can so easily be transformed and shaped to create something with new meaning.

Trent Reznor’s Hurt:


Johnny Cash’s Hurt:

In 1994, a young and extremely emotional young man named Trent Reznor was in his room feeling very isolated from the world and life in general. From this seclusion and loneliness came “Hurt.” The song begins with static white noise for about 22 seconds until a soft acoustic guitar comes in followed by a soft voice singing, which consists of the verse. When the bridge arrives a synth piano sound is heard playing chords in the background along with the guitar strumming until the chorus arrives. You hear drums with a slightly echoed loud voice singing and the guitar strumming along with the piano now with a classical sound to it. Afterwards it goes straight back into static white noise with the guitar and soft singing. The second bridge is the same as well until the second chorus arrives and the guitars now enter with a loud twangy electric sound and the drums pretty loud in the background along with a loud classical piano. Finally it ends with the bridge having the drums in the background and 3 heavy guitar strums, the last of which holds out for over a minute.

The tone of the song is very dark and the mood in addition is very depressing. For example, when listening to this song through headphones the static is very prominent and as a result the sound feels creepy in the beginning, which then soon is enforced by the soft vocals and acoustic guitar. The lyrics begin with “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” So right off the bat we have disturbing and depressing lyrics accompanied by a creepy guitar riff and static. Trent Reznor describes his experience writing the song in an interview with uncut magazine:

“I wouldn’t admit that to myself but when I wrote it I felt like I was sitting in a pile of rubble and there was a hint of regret and remorse. Hurt was the first inclination for me that I could use a hand here. The Downward Spiral
album was a record all about beating everybody up – and then Hurt was like a coda saying may be I shouldn’t have done that. But to make the song sound impenetrable because I thought it was a little too vulnerable, I tried to layer it in noise.”

We see that Trent gives an explanation for the noise but personally I feel the vulnerability would’ve added more to the song. The chords in the background bring an uplifting feel to the depressing intro and soon the drums come in for the chorus and the vocals become loud and you can tell he’s singing with a lot of feeling. Straight afterwards we go right back into the creepy sounding verse with more sad lyrics. This song is one that is sung from the point of view of an extremely emotional and lonely young man who lost his way in life. Only a few years later do people hear the Johnny Cash version and begin to truly appreciate the song.

In 2002 at the age of 71 and on his last few months of life Johnny Cash recorded the cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” and was shown the spotlight one last time. We all know Johnny Cash made his career as a country singer and he had a problem with alcohol, drugs, and the law. He even recorded a live album in a prison once even though he himself never served a prison sentence (though he had been arrested on numerous accounts). Because of this struggled past of his he had a lot of regrets at the end of his life, as is evident when watching the music video for his cover of “Hurt” where we see a montage of pictures from Cash’s past. When watching the music video the songs meaning seems to apply so much more to Cash than to Reznor that you think Reznor actually wrote it for Cash.

The song opens with a dominant acoustic guitar riff with two guitars creating a harmony with one another and thankfully getting rid of the static in the original. Soon Cash starts with his vocals saying the exact same lyrics as the original version but he’s not saying them softly he’s saying them as if he’s telling his life story to someone. The piano soon comes in as well adding a lower harmony to the music. Next the chorus comes in with Cash’s lyrics going strong and the piano and guitar strumming sort of softly and getting louder and louder until they cease completely and we’re left with the opening guitar riff and piano once again. We repeat this until the last chorus when all of the music is built up and up louder and louder and you hear Cash singing and putting his soul in those words.

We gain a completely different perspective from Johnny Cash’s version of the song. We have a frail old man practically on his deathbed and he’s singing these lyrics almost as his last will and testament to his life. The tone is one that is sad one but one that has a lot of feeling and meaning behind it. Reznor’s performance of the song feels like it’s missing a real emotional connection so the songs message gets lost in his version. Both Reznor and Cash sing about regret in life in this song but one is talking about regret at the age of 30 while the other is talking about regret at the age of 70. The message in the song is much more prominent from Cash than Reznor and I feel it is because of that, that Cash’s version surged in popularity when it was released. Reznor states that:

“This song is about realizing consequence and regret. It sends a powerful message that we should all proceed through life wisely, because there is nothing worse than being stuck with a label, a pain, a sickness, or a death, that we know beforehand will leave us only wishing things had been different and that we could change the choices we made.”

I mentioned Coyle early on because I found his thoughts on Elvis Presley and the modern cover to be really interesting. Presley took songs that were ten years old or and older and transformed them into something new as Cash did with “Hurt.” What Cash created was a productive remake and is deemed so because the song was created for artistic purposes and not for monetary gain. Cash had originally created the song without actual consent from Reznor however. Famous music producer Rick Rubin asked Reznor if Cash could cover the song and Reznor said he would be flattered but never gave any actual consent. A couple of weeks later a CD arrives at Reznor’s door and Cash’s cover of “Hurt” is on it and Reznor felt annoyed and angered. He described it as if his girlfriend had been taken away but after seeing the music video it brought him to tears and he said he changed his mind completely and now loved Cash’s version. Cash shows us how songs can be viewed and examined from different perspectives and one version can mean something completely different than the other.


 Works Cited

“Hurt.” By Nine Inch Nails Songfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <>.

“Interview: Trent Reznor.” – N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <>.












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