I cannot help but notice the following. When Nine Inch Nails front man, Trent Reznor, wrote ‘Hurt’, it was clearly about his feelings of pain, depression, and suicide. At least that’s the meaning I feel that I get when listening to the NiN’s version of the song. Over time, I’ve heard many covers of this song, some have done Reznor’s work justice, while other’s have not. Clearly though, the one cover that always stands out is Johnny Cash’s version. It’s been widely disputed that the emotions being expressed in the song are either Reznor’s himself or the protagonist of the album that the song was written for. While there is an emotional attachment to his song, it’s not a full on emotional attachment. Now, when you listen to Cash’s version, you see images (in your head as well as on the screen (if you are watching the video)) of Cash in his youth and currently, an immediate and very deep emotional bond is created like a fish hook catching all of your most critical and sensitive heartstrings. No longer is Johnny strumming his acoustical guitar, but the guitar of your heart, strung with the strings of your heart. Every sound, every note that’s played, resonates with you (the listener) on a very deep, personal level. No longer is the song about illicit drug use (as implied by NiN’s version), but when Cash plays, you feel how this is *his* personal struggle with diabetes drugs, how he feels every time he swallows more pills, or injects himself with insulin, yet again. How, despite all that, he can still feel his body failing and there is nothing he can do about it but accept it.
I think it’s really important to note that when he uses the line “empire of dirt”, it’s a clear reference (to me at least), that he is talking about how his life is nothing but a pile of dirt, despite all his achievements, everything he amounted too still isn’t worth much in the greater scheme of things. I also believe that his change of “crown of shit” to “crown of thorns”, while a clear reference to his deep personal beliefs is also acceptance of his fate. He knows that no matter how many pills he swallows, or how many times he injects himself with a needle, he’s not going to live for ever, eventually he will die, and he accepts that.
It’s amazing though, the long and short of this is that the change of one word, played and sung in a different key and different images changes the whole tone of the song. It certainly makes you stop and think.