Sometime in my early adolescence, I think when I was 14, but I can’t quite remember, I was given a bunch of albums by an older friend. Now, most didn’t really make much of an impact on me (sorry Pennywise, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the rest of you) but one did. That album was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, a gripping, visceral trip of addiction, rage, pain, sexual neurosis and existential angst through the medium of heavy beats, layered distorted guitar and the earnest if not exactly virtuoso vocal stylings of Mr Trent Reznor. Something that set this particular record apart from the previous NIN releases was it that worked really well as a concept album, listened to as a whole it is still greater than the sum of it’s parts. Part of NIN’s appeal has always been to temper harshness with moments of fragility, and one of the best moments of this on The Downward Spiral is when the crashing waves industrial aggression begin to subside, gradually through the title track the tide goes, leaving us with ‘Hurt’, a relatively stripped down introspective number that trades howls for softly vocals that strain with a touching vulnerability. An exploration of abject self-pity, self-harm and the hopelessness of addiction, the track is cathartic and bleak, the faded industrial buzz in the background and the gradual build-up reminding us of where this angst comes from. A self destructive persona that is self aware enough to recognise he’s trapped, who longs to start again but lacks the willpower, who knows they will just hurt everyone around them again, the spiral doomed to repeat.

For your consideration:

Now I’m no smack addict, but that album turned me on, it crawled through my ears and nestled into a soft part of my brain where it began to spread its tendrils through my synapses and laid the eggs that would germinate into new obsessions. It became part of my life, part of my consciousness, more or less strong but always there. All music lovers have a few, if not many albums like that, and this one led onto to greater things as I chased up the rest of NIN’s records and investigated the industrial genre and subgroups down paths previously unknown from Throbbing Gristle to Ministry through Front 242, Neubauten and Velvet Acid Christ and many more.

Although one can be snide about a teenager really connecting with a piece of work so dark in subject, I had an empathy with the feeling of a self-destructive failure trapped in a vicious circle and a liking for the album which grew over time, even as my tastes matured. I’m not a slavering fanboy, I get annoyed at ‘Closer’ being used as a ubiquitous strip club anthem and certainly don’t think that every work of Trent Reznor is masterpiece. But The Downward Spiral is a special album. Hurt is a special song. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The song is a live favourite and cherished by NIN’s many, many fans.

And that includes other recording artists that have decided to have their own stabs at the song. Let’s start by revealing the elephant in the room:

Johnny Cash’s version from The Man Comes Around is easily the most beloved version of this song out there. It was a huge hit and reached a much larger audience than the original, and there are still many who take it to be a Johnny Cash original. And it’s great. As many have pointed out, Cash’s version lends a sense of gravity, loss and finality to the song that comes as much from the context of his history and personality as from his actual musical delivery of it. I’m not one of the many who enjoy it more than the original, but I do really appreciate it. Reznor himself has gone on record as endorsing the version: “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. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [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.”

‘Nuff said on that, I think.

Other notable artists have covered ‘Hurt’. Over the course of my concert-going life I’ve personally seen it performed by Peter Murphy

and Anathema

Peter’s is more like the NIN arrangement, Anathema’s more like Cash’s. Both are good renditions of a fine song by seminal bands but in my opinion, fall in a class just below Reznor and Cash. Many other bands and artists have covered it to lesser acclaim, I’m sure (hell, even I’ve done it). In many ways Hurt has transcended NIN and the Downward Spiral and become a folk song, an anthem of self harm and despair that struck a chord with the diverse and wide ranging fanbase of ‘dark’ alternative music. And I’m only happy for this. I’m generally in favour of cover songs, even when they’re not as good as the original, I am fascinated by different interpretations of songs, what changes in the subtle chemistry of what makes a song special can result in.

However, lately I was made aware of a recently released version of this classic song which would challenge my typically indulgent view towards covers. I’m talking, of course, about Leona Lewis’ version, which was brought to my attention via the usual x-factor buzz on Facebook. Now, I’m fortunate enough to be living outside of the UK, and so I could’ve happily ignored the whole thing. Some would say that that would be the healthy thing to do. Yet despite my better judgement, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to dip a toe into these troubled waters of controversy. Now, please be aware that I am, deep down, a terribly insufferable music snob. This is a personality flaw that afflicts many people who become music obsessives (melomanos) as teenagers, and grow into hipsteresque oh-you-wouldn’t-have-heard-of-them types. It’s an attitude that comes naturally from identifying so much with music as part of one’s self image. It also complemented the work I did reviewing bands. Nowadays I try to reign in that tendency, since there’s little to be gained from it socially and because once you move away from your family and live in a city where you can go to places that play music you find agreeable, it because quite easy to simply ignore a lot of the more commercial crap around you. If you don’t live with people who listen to it, don’t listen to the radio, don’t watch tv, you manage to create a comfortable bubble where you’re not force-fed shit. Sure, it turns up on your social networks a bit and you have to put up with it when you go to the supermarket, but by and large it’s fine.

So I could have just let this one pass me by like the rest. But I couldn’t. I held off for several days but eventually morbid curiosity drew me to check out the Leona Lewis version on youtube. It struck me as bizarre that this song about self-harm that has offered me cathartic comfort in times of dejection would lead me to such an act of masochism with no redeeming factors. I thought about putting the video here but I can’t stand putting it on my blog, but it’s easy enough to find on youtube. Once again, Hurt reached into my heart and moved me. In this case, moved me to disgust, anger and despair (no self-pity this time, just despair for popular culture as a whole).

So Hurt now exists as a bland, insipid power ballad by a reality show diva. This exists in the same world, same culture, same reality as myself. The song which blossomed into an anthem for the troubled and iconoclastic struggling with their own self-loathing has been put through a refining plant and made just a string of words, completely divorced from the the spark, the feeling that gave birth to them. As in the bullfight beast of muscle and blood and so full of life has been bled to death, drained of blood and flavour by the vampiric processes of Simon Cowell’s biomechanical atrocity of industry focus groups, reality tv circus and legion of soulless Mariah Carey-esque divas, stepford-smiling note-hitting automata with no free will of their own, all in conspiracy to murder a song and raise it as an undead, bloodless cruel mockery of life.

Now, my objection to this isn’t a snobbish rejection of pop music. I love a lot of pop groups and believe that music with accessible arrangements can be intelligent, fun and important. In fact, I’ve always thought of Trent Reznor as a pop musician adept at decorating fantastic pop hooks and sensibilities with industrial buzz and darkness. Nor do I have a problem with covers, in fact, as previously mentioned, I’m a big fan of a new interpretations of existing songs.

I suppose that it comes down to a matter of respect. NIN, Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Anathema, Peter Murphy and other popular artists who have done versions of Hurt all have something in common. They all occupy a place on a broad spectrum of general ‘dark alternative’ artists, who while being very different from each other, are artists whose body of work, aesthetic and ethos channel pain, loneliness and iconoclasm. You can believe that they identify with the song, that they channel something meaningful through it. The issue with Leona Lewis isn’t that she’s done a terrible version (that’s bad enough though), but it’s where she comes from. The song is an anthem for a culture and an attitude that is against everything the X-Factor stands for. For a replicant born from Simon Cowell’s goopy breeding vats to appropriate this for the X-Factor culture isn’t just disrespectful, it’s downright insulting. No one with any shred of respect for music could have been involved in this violation and come out with a clean conscience. It’s manufactured pap spitting in the face of alternative artists and their fans and laughing. It’s revenge for fans getting Killing in the Name Of as Christmas number one.

So far, my live and let live attitude to this crap was working for me. It felt good to be above petty music culture wars. This is a folk song now, it belongs to the people. But even if it sounds hypocritical, I have to say: not those people. There’s a line to be crossed, and that line is right here. I suppose I should thank Leona for making me taste bile again, for reminding me that I cared enough about who sang a song. For teaching me how to hate again.

Of course, for a better reminder of how special this song is, there is always this:


~ by theserpentscircle on December 19, 2011.

2 Responses to “Hurt”

  1. As a music reviewer, thank you so much for writing this, I shall spread it for you, as I agree 100% with every single word wrote

  2. […] to read more about this topic? Click here to read a sister blog from The Serpent’s Circle discussing about the meaning behind the song […]

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