Meaning can be a funny thing, changing over time, influenced by the storyteller and how the story is told. Take the song Hurt. Originally released by Nine Inch Nails (NIN) in 1995 the song hit the top 10 on Billboard for Modern Rock tracks. This was during undergrad for me, and part of my grunge phase, so the song and album got a good bit of play back in the day.
Fast forward to 2003, when Johnny Cash rerecorded the song and music video. Often new versions of old songs take second stage to original content, but not this time. Trent Reznor, lead singer of NIN who also wrote and produced Hurt has this to say:
“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. [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.”
It wasn’t just Trent Reznor that was impressed. The Cash version of Hurt went on to be named best video of the year by Grammy and CMA awards, and in 2011 went on to be named the best video *ever* by NME.
So what changed? For one thing, the artist. As much as I love NIN, the legacy of Johnny Cash is tough to top. The Cash version of Hurt also made a minor, but significant change to the original lyrics. The NIN version speaks to wearing a “crown of $#!+.” Cash removes the four letter word – not to censor, but to enhance – instead referencing a crown of thorns. This change, of one little word, opened up all sorts of possibilities to what narrative the music video would tell.
Before diving in a bit more, maybe it’s worth a view of Hurt.
The video is a highly personal view of Johnny Cash, showing footage of his life over past decades alongside current video of the 71 year old. The dark, reflective lyrics and images show Cash looking back on his own life, his empire of dirt the lyrics say.
The crown of thorns reference, again a new lyric for this particular version, gets put to good effect near the end of the video. One scene shows Jesus carrying the cross, blood pouring from the nails hammered into his palm and from the crown of thorns that sits atop his head. As the video closes Cash finishes playing the piano and closes the cover over the black keyboard. That moment reminds me of closing a casket, some good foreshadowing for this legend; fittingly he passed away seven months after the video was filmed. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that everyone I know goes away, in the end.
More importantly, this end is not an end at all, it’s a look forward to a coming new life promised to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus isn’t in this video to say goodbye. Instead he’s here as a reminder of the hello that is coming.
So what can we take away from all this? Sometimes powerful messages change over time as they are retold. We see this in the evolution of Hurt from depressing NIN grunge to the reflective faith of Johnny Cash. As a future pastor, I’ll be using older source material too, ancient material, and looking to retell the stories of that source in new, fresh ways. Thank you Johnny, you’re a great example. I hope to use your storytelling excellence as a reminder of what is possible for years to come.