Take Cover! Johnny Cash Vs. Nine Inch Nails

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.

Cast your vote wisely:

The Cover:

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The Original:

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[poll id=”117″]

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  1. Posted August 26, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I have much respect for Cash as I do NIN. With that being said i think that comparing the cover of ‘Hurt’ by Cash to the original is like comparing Cashes’ cover of ‘Redemption Song’ to the original. It really can’t and shouldn’t be done. Both Cash and Trent are fantastic artists in their own right. Why exactly Cash did all those covers near the end I do not know, his original songs are awesome. I am very suprised that the votes on this cover are in favor of Cash. Has the whole world gone crazy? I think so.

  2. Bruce
    Posted August 31, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    The whole world has gone crazy, but not on this particular issue. Almost every song Cash covered became his the instant he sang them. Reznor himself said it wasn’t his song anymore. It is probably my favorite song Johnny Cash ever recorded. The NIN version is wonderful, but when Cash’s version gets to the part where the one piano note is just pounded over and over, I get goosebumps every single time. I give Rick Rubin a pass for his next 100 Weezer Make Believe-type disasters because of the brilliance the American series. It was the defining moment of Johnny Cash’s career at a stage of life when most musicians are either touring state fairs or being bored to death in Florida.

  3. Xox
    Posted August 31, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    One of those instances where a cover actually redeems a song. Even go so far as to say it makes the original sound like an annoying cover of the Johnny Cash version.

  4. random bit of data
    Posted July 2, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    the first time i remember hearing the original nine inch nails version was back when i had bought the album (probably a week or so after it was released back in 1994). i still think it’s a good song, but i was not as moved as i was when i first his mr. cash’s interpretation. he definitely made this song his own…
    so to put it plainly, i prefer the cover to the original.

  5. amanda
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    if you watch the VH1 special, the Greatest 100 Songs of the 2000’s, Trent Reznor even says he is in favor of this version over his own. It’s almost like he wrote this song for Johnny. Both versions are great, Johnny’s I can’t listen to without tearing up

  6. daniel
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    i think the johnny cash version lacks the dischord and chaos found in the nin version. i love johnny cash though much more than nin but i have to go with the original

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I respect Johnny Cash greatly, but NIN’s version is more powerful in musical terms, in my opinion. If you listen to both, you will clearly notice a difference in the sound. While Cash’s version does not vary much in dynamics, it does have a nice, full sound to it. NIN’s version is much more desolate in sound and has a dramatic difference in dynamics throughout the song… but, in my opinion, this fits the lyrics better. I realize that it is touching and eerie to think that Cash covered the song near to his time of death, and while the cover is great, for some reason, the original touches me more and seems a lot more depressing.

  8. Anon
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Hurt was not one of my favorite NiN songs. It’s a good song, but it is a bit melodramatic. That said, the Cash version is just plain bad. He sounds like the studio told him, “Sing this, it’ll get a lot of buzz”, and he begrudgingly agreed in the way an old man who doesn’t want to argue does. His singing never conveys the feeling of the song. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it’s saying so he just gives his singing a generic emotional inflection.

    The song doesn’t suit him, and it comes off as forced throughout. His change of the line to “I wear this crown of thorns” pretty blatantly betrays that he doesn’t grasp or care to grasp what the original words meant.

  9. GlitchyFlame
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Cash… but Trent will always kick your fucking ass when it comes to Hurt…

  10. DoubleA
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Johnny Cash, hands down! Before the release of his cover, no one paid attention to Reznor’s orginal. While I really like Reznor’s version A LOT and respect NIN, Cash’s rendition comes across as more soul piercing. Definitely one of the few times the cover is better than the original

  11. Posted May 28, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Cant choose, wont choose. They both have their own style, both are done well, and for me it comes down to the mood I’m in to which version I’m going to listen to at the time. Johnny did Hurt proud and that’s how you do a cover, but If it hadn’t been an awesome song to begin with, that many people can relate to well it just wouldn’t have been done. I love both!!!!!!

  12. JT
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    It sadens me that so many are so unable to appreciate music. Once and for all, there is no debate, Cash trying to cover NIN sounds forced and fake throughout. The completely emotionless voice just ruins this song. Hurt must be felt. Cash made it hollow, and touch-less. Anyone who prefers Cash’s version has either never heard the real one or has no understanding of music. I fear the later is usually the case. And to answer why Cash did covers is because he sold out and did them for money. It wasn’t his idea, producers just paid him to do it. It was the low part of his career, like Brett Favre trying to hold on the past in his last seasons. The albums sold though. This is why the founders of country believed the average person was too stupid to vote.

  13. Jenny
    Posted July 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    ^LOL JT! I could not have said it better myself. I’ll always love Cash’s old stuff, but this cover really did make me think he was just doin’ it for the, well, cash. haha. I guess I CAN see how Cash could relate to the song….but ehhh, Reznor’s version just gives me the ******* chills! He sounds genuinely HURT (and how could we doubt him, he’s the creator of the song). Cash’s version doesn’t touch NIN’s version.

  14. Tanisha Cook
    Posted August 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    NIN does it way better. The music and Trent’s voice. Johnny Cash sounds like he was about to roll over and die as if he could barely get the words out. He was trying to rack up last minute money so he covered other people’s songs. He should’ve stuck to his own.

  15. Jsquires from BUC
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Wow, I completely respect mr cash’s version but just wow and wtf??? The Cash version in my opinion completely takes the darkness someone felt while writing the song away and for anyone to even say that cash redeemed it, just wow! At a guess, the person on this thread had never; nor ever will understand and likely had made a decision based upon never being in the place the person who wrote it was. No true Musician would ever say his song was redeemed by cash, and cash himself would take offense to that notion because he was just that, a true musician himself.

  16. Posted March 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    This is not to take away from NIN’s phenomenal lyrics tho. NIN made the song and did a good job delivering, but Cash definitely improved on the original.

    In other words, both did a superb job making the song, but Cash’s version takes the cake.

  17. Jon
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Cash did the song honor. I don’t understand the “He had no heart, just wanted money” argument. The reason he agreed to do this song is because it related to his years of addiction and decrepitude, and even spoke to his memories of when he attempted suicide at Nickajack Cave. Nine Inch Nails did a great job on the song, but Cash gave the song a new sight toward a life of hardship and addiction.

  18. Arowful
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion Cash is the most overrated musician in recent times he didn’t bring anything new to the table just more of the same there is nothing wrong with that its just not something that deserves such praise and to be honest i feel like the only reason no one wants to say that is because hes dead