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Nine Inch Nails Compare and Contrast Paper

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Critical Thinking Worksheet

Teresa Horton

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April 8, 2012

Dr. Laura Wilson

Which Version Of “Hurt” Would You Prefer?

Nine Inch Nails versus Johnny Cash

The song “Hurt” written by Trent Reznor and originally performed by his band Nine Inch Nails is a melancholy, haunting song. Nine Inch Nails’ version was recorded in 1994 and rerecorded and released by Johnny Cash in 2002. Each of the performers has a style, which some people would argue is at opposite ends of the spectrum of popular music; one is what is referred to as “Industrial Rock”, the other is country. Indeed, the musical genres are diverse; however, the song “Hurt” transcends the boundaries between old and new, hard and soft, and especially the differences and similarities between these men.

Nine Inch Nails is known for their industrial rock sound which combines synthesizers and percussion to produce sounds that remind you of a steel yard in Pennsylvania. This is probably a testament to the fact that the bands’ lead singer, Trent Reznor was born and raised near those steel yards (“The Nine Inch Nails Wiki,” 2012). Johnny Cash’s version speaks to those familiar with growing up during a rough time or not having much; people considered the down-trodden. Growing up in a religious family in Arkansas seems ingrained in the way Cash performs the song. Johnny lived a hard life on a cotton farm (“Johnny Cash,” 2012).

Reznor and Cash both graduated from high school. Cash set his sights on the United States Air Force while Reznor decided to go to college to study production. Cash was seeing the world in 1950; he was assigned to Germany, specializing in Morse code used to spy on the Soviets. It was Johnny Cash who would be the first radio operator to pick up the news of Joseph Stalin’s death (“Johnny Cash,” 2012). On the other hand, Reznor dropped out of college to pursue a career in music thus changing the course of his professional life as a singer while continuing to exercise his knowledge of production. Reznor is not only a performer; he regularly produces records for other artists (“The Nine Inch Nails Wiki,” 2012).

The story goes that Cash’s record producer, called and asked Reznor for permission to “cover the song ‘Hurt’.” Sharples states, “It was as if Trent Reznor unconsciously wrote it for Mr. Cash” (2011). Trent Reznor was flattered that someone with Johnny’s musical talent and long-standing status in the music world would even be interested in interpreting his song. When Trent first heard the final copy of Johnny’s version, Trent stated, “. . . it felt like somebody kissed your girlfriend” (“The Nine Inch Nails Wiki,” 2012). According to Sharples, it would be some four months later that Trent and his music team would see Johnny’s video for the song. It was then that “Reznor was flattered, honored, and moved to tears by the results” (2011). Reznor says. "By the end I was really on the verge of tears. There was, like, this moist clearing of our throats and then, 'Uh, OK, let's get some coffee.'' (Sharples, 2011).

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Trent became angry at the lack of response of the government. He had interest in New Orleans because his studio was a place he perfected his sound and made music that earned “Platinum” status in sales. Reznor played a benefit telethon concert to aid the American Red Cross and sang the song “Hurt” with the lyrical changes made by Johnny Cash (The Nine Inch Nails Wiki, 2012).

The song is “my most personal song” according to Trent Reznor (Sharples). Some people argue that the song may be a sort of suicide letter; while others believe the song is actually about a man finding his reason to live. The dichotomy between possibly living and dying could be the reason Trent considered the song his “most personal.” There is a line in the song: I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel (“Hurt Lyrics, 2012). Reznor appears to be referring to feeling numb, emotionless; with the only feeling left to feel is pain. Could it be possible that “hurting” himself is in preparation for his suicide? Is he testing himself? The final verse of the song brings a hope that is not present up to that point in the piece: If I could start again/a million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way (“Hurt Lyrics, 2012). The final verse of the song sounds like a man who wants to live, start new, and find a way to make it.

The original song written by Reznor was kept the same in Cash’s version with the exception of a single change; the original verse reads: I wear this crown of shit/Upon my liar’s chair (“Hurt Lyrics, 2012). Johnny changed the expletive to “thorns”. Cash may have changed the expletive to remain true to his Christianity and keeping profanity out of a song that he felt may not require it although, many of Johnny’s earlier recordings contained profanity that was edited out before hitting the shelves. Reznor on the other hand, regularly adds expletives to his songs. Maybe Reznor does this to have a bigger impact on the listener, shock value, if you will.

Nine Inch Nails appeals to a younger, more modern crowd of listeners while consequently, Johnny Cash, because of his musical career, appeals to the more mature listener. Nine Inch Nails came onto the music scene some 40 years after Cash making Johnny’s recording of the song that much more appealing to those of us who did not have the opportunity to get to know him all those years ago (“The Nine Inch Nails Wiki,” 2012). Trent Reznor was born in 1965 while Johnny was born in 1932. Each man had his own difficulties growing up; Trent had the separation of his parents and Johnny lived through the depression on a cotton farm (“Johnny Cash,” 2012).

Reznor’s version of the song begins soft and sincere with the plucking of a guitar with synthesized distortion in the background lasting a full minute after the last lyric. The difference between the two versions is evident down to the way the song is sung. Reznor sings the song; slowly, almost at whisper level at first then louder and stronger as each of the verses progress. Cash essentially talks his way through the song adding a haunting, downhearted feel to an already sorrowful song; sounding much as a preacher may on a Sunday morning. Later in his life, Cash had a way of reciting a song rather than full-out singing; probably related to his medical issues at that time. By reciting the song, Cash adds an importance to it; a story he wants everyone to know. Cash’s version is done with two guitars with an emphasis on the plucking of the strings during the musical rests reminding the listener of the country and gospel musical roots that Johnny has been known for his entire career. “Johnny once again, you gave us the unexpected and proved no 'label' can truly describe your legacy to music” (Sharples, 2011).

Each singer has a dark history which includes drug abuse; Johnny with prescription drugs and Trent who had a fondness for heroine. It would be Johnny’s wife June who would have a hand in helping him overcome his addiction to pills (“Johnny Cash,” 2012). The differences go on to include their preference for where they would make their music; Trent preferred New Orleans whereas Johnny had a passion for Nashville. We can only imagine that the darkness of this song “Hurt” spoke to both men in some way. Both versions of the song represent each man almost equally in that each man has a difficult, dark past. Each song, while different at first, has many similarities in their result. So if the industrial version by Nine Inch Nails does not appeal to you, maybe the country/gospel version by Johnny Cash is right up your alley.

References

“Hurt Lyrics.” (2012). Retrieved on March 28, 2012 from http://www.elyrics.net/read/j/johnny-cash-lyrics/hurt-lyrics.html

“Johnny Cash. Biography.” (2012). Retrieved on March 30, 2012 from http://www.biography.com/people/johnny-cash-9240610?page=5

Sharples, K. Johnny Cash, 'Hurt' & Trent Reznor - A review. (2011). Retrieved on March 30, 2012 from http://www.stagepassnews.com/articles/vox/johnnycash_hurt.html

“The Nine Inch Nails Wiki.” (2012). Retrieved on March 30, 2012 from http://www.ninwiki.com/Trent_Reznor#The_Early_Years

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