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. Explaining the self-loathing nature of the songs on The Downward Spiral album, Trent Reznor told USA Today: "I'm not proud to say I hate myself and don't like what I am, but maybe there is real human communication that ends up positive even though everything being said is negative." (thanks, Wes - Florence, AL)
This song is reportedly Trent Reznor's favorite and is always the final song played at Nine Inch Nails concerts. He considers it the most personal song he has ever written. (thanks, Konrad - Wellington, New Zealand)
Reznor lived in the Los Angeles home where the actress Sharon Tate used to live, and where she was one of the victims in the Manson family murders (Reznor didn't know she used to live there when he rented it). This song, along with most of The Downward Spiral album was done in the mansion. The front door of the house had the word "Pig" written on it by the murderers. Reportedly this was painted over numerous times, but you could faintly see the outline of the word on the wall. Trent apparently never noticed the word until after he was told whose mansion it was. After The Downward Spiral was completed, Trent moved out and the owner had the mansion demolished, but Reznor kept the front door handle "to remind him of what happened and the events that took place inside." (information compiled from the Nine Inch Nails CD biography book)
On his 2002 album American IV, The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash did a stark cover of this with a striking video. In the video, the 71-year old Cash appears very fragile as he sings this from his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Cash wore no makeup, and there was no attempt to make him look younger or more vibrant through lighting or other effects. This was interspersed with footage of Cash in his younger days. The video appeared to be Cash's obituary, as he was in failing health after a life filled with drug-abuse. The video was very emotional and drew a lot of media attention, including a story on CNN. Trent Reznor was very impressed by Cash's take on his song and quite moved by the video.
Cash's video was directed by Mark Romanek, who previously directed videos by U2, Michael Jackson and Madonna. He also directed the 2002 Robin Williams movie One Hour Photo. He shot some of the video at the House Of Cash Museum, which contained a lot of Cash's memorabilia but had been closed for years and was damaged in a flood. Romanek felt the museum was an honest and powerful reflection of Cash's life. He said of Johnny Cash's video in The Guardian September 24, 2005: "Johnny's producer, Rick Rubin, played me this track long before its release and I was so struck by it I said, 'We have to film something to go with this.' I'm a massive Johnny Cash fan and had been lined up to shoot a video for him a few years before which Anton Corbijn ended up doing instead. So this time I made Rick promise me I could make it. He called me on a Tuesday and said, 'Johnny's going on holiday to his ranch in Jamaica on Saturday so if you want to make this you better make it quick.'
I'm someone who usually takes a minimum of two weeks to prep a video but this was Johnny Cash. So I jumped on a redeye to Nashville with my producer and a cameraman and arrived on Friday with no idea of what I was going to make. I looked around the house and made a few suggestions of where we might film Johnny performing. I was making it up off the top of my head. Then I went to the House of Cash Museum and found it in total disrepair.
There was no time to clean it up so I decided that I'd just film it, and Johnny, exactly as they were. He was no longer in his prime - he was fading and that was what I wanted to show. While I was filming the opening segment of Johnny playing guitar in his living room, his wife, June, came down the stairs and watched. The look on her face was so complex: full of love and pride and concern for her husband. So I asked her if I could film her too and she agreed. But the most important element was when we discovered a film archive in the museum. When we looked back at the rushes we'd filmed at the house we thought they were good but not great. But once we dropped in the archive footage of Johnny we realized that was the soul of the video. The whole thing was so spontaneous. It's made me realize that sometimes you can be too prepared and that there's some value to urgency."
Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, died later that year.
Rick Rubin, who produced Johnny Cash's cover, says of this song in the October 2004 edition of Vanity Fair: "It's a strange song. I mean, the opening line is, 'I hurt myself today...' And then the next line is, 'To see if I still feel.' So it's self-inflicted. It's such a strange thought to open a song with."
Cash played this over 100 times before he recorded it. He called it "The best anti-drug song I ever heard."
Cash's video was nominated for 7 MTV Video Music Awards, including Video Of The Year. The only award it won was for Best Cinematography, but Justin Timberlake said some nice things about Cash when he accepted Best Male Video for "Cry Me A River
." Cash wasn't able to attend because of a stomach ailment. He died about 2 weeks later of complications from diabetes.
The Cash video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Video. June Carter Cash, who died 4 months before the awards, also won for Best Traditional Folk Album and Best Female Country Vocal.
The Johnny Cash cover was used by World Wrestling Entertainment for a video tribute to the late Eddie Guerrero. The video tribute was broadcast on the November 14, 2005 episode of WWE Monday Night Raw a day after Guerrero passed away. (thanks, Chris - Andover, MN)
When Johnny Cash covered this, he changed the line "I wear this crown of s--t" to "I wear this crown of thorns." This made the song more Biblical. (thanks, Chris - Bradenton, FL)
Trent Reznor has confessed that originally he was angry that Johnny Cash had covered this, as it was such a personal song to him. However, once he heard Cash's heart-rending version and saw the poignant video, he changed his tune.
Reznor recalled to The Sun Newspaper August 1st 2008: "The Cash thing was a couple of years into being clean I was very unsure of myself. Did I have anything to say? Could I still write music? Did anyone still care? I'd been out of the limelight for a while. I'd put the brakes on everything to try to get my life in order, to try to get healthy and stay alive. I'd been friends with Rick Rubin for several years. He called me to ask how I'd feel if Johnny Cash covered Hurt. I said I'd be very flattered but was given no indication it would actually be recorded. Two weeks went by. Then I got a CD in the post. I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I'd known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive."
It was when Reznor finally saw the video that his attitude changed. He continued: "It really, really made sense and I thought what a powerful piece of art. I never got to meet Johnny but I'm happy I contributed the way I did. It felt like a warm hug. For anyone who hasn't seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. I have goose bumps right now thinking about it."
On January 29, 2007 Johnny Cash's rendition of this song was voted the best ever cover version in a poll by BBC 6 Music. It got twice as many votes as other famous covers such as Jimi Hendrix' "All Along The Watchtower
" and Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends
." (thanks, Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England, for above 2)
Leona Lewis covered this for the title track of her EP Hurt: The EP. It reached the top ten of the UK singles charts after she performed it live on The X Factor's eighth series at Wembley Stadium as well as the Royal Variety Performance. Her version was released on December 6, 2011 through record label Syco.
Reznor sings here, "and you could have it all, my empire of dirt," a forewarning of the whole junkie lifestyle he got involved in following the release of The Downward Spiral.
"Interestingly enough, when I wrote the song I had no idea what was in store for me," he told Uncut magazine April 2005. "I wrote the album about somebody who follows this path who was an extension of me. But it was in my head. I hadn't actually lived it. Then later I lived it. I didn't realize the record was a premonition. I was using the metaphor of drugs at the forefront of what was going on. But I wasn't a junkie. Later I became one, but I didn't know there was an addict in me that just hadn't bloomed out of the dirt yet." (thanks, DeeTheWriter - Saint Petersburg, Russia Federation)