Morning Music: Hurt

The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch NailsI’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.

The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.

Depression Is Not Absolute

In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.

I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.

Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.


I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.

9 thoughts on “Morning Music: Hurt

  1. I was a huge NIN fan for quite a while (at one time I had Halos 1-16 on my shelf, and listened to… at least a few of them… pretty often). “The Downward Spiral” (Halo 8 – the album that contains “Hurt”) was simultaneously the crest and the end of my fandom – he lost me with “The Fragile” and I never really came back.

    “Hurt” was my favorite song for a long time, and I do still love it; I completely agree about the change from “shit” to “thorns”. However, I also love Johnny Cash’s cover of the song, recorded not long before his death – and Johnny sings “thorns” too, so who am I to argue?

    • Ha! I can top you. I listened to the fragile over four hundred times!

      But I like the way Cash does the song “Hurt” because it really does just simply mesh with who he was-an old man who had lived hard and done a lot of harm but now has to say good bye to the ones who stuck by him.

      • I would have gone with the Cash version, but as soon as he used “thorns,” it destroyed the song because it became gospel — not because of the way he did it but because of who he was. I’ve always preferred the crank-addicted Cash. The Christian I can do without.

        Regardless, “thorns” has the singer putting on airs. And that isn’t in the original. If you say you are wearing a crown of thorns, you’re saying that you are Jesus. Of course, this goes along with my often mentioned conclusion that early Christians would be appalled by the hubris of modern Christians.

          • Now here’s a question. Which is the best version of this song? Moby, or Cash? (Obviously the old versions are best, I’m talking recent stuff.) Cash v. Moby! Epic spiritual cover battle!



            I’m partial to Moby, but just because that album helped me through a bad space way back when. They’re both good versions. And Cash was still a good singer even at the end. I think he actually got better with age.

          • He was from a different artistic generation.

            But as much as I think the word ruins the song, when I heard him sing “thorns,” I was relieved.

            • My sentiments exactly – I agree completely about “thorns” making the singer a stand-in for Jesus, and I somehow doubt that even Johnny was comfortable about that. But the first time I ever heard this version, I remember thinking “I hope he doesn’t sing ‘shit’ – that would just be wrong. Wonder what he’s going to sing instead? Ah damn – it’s ‘thorns’. Oh well. Man, this is a great version anyway!”
              Not the most profound internal monologue, but hey.

              • The truth is “mud” would be better. I like it more than “shit” too. “Mud” gets across exactly the same point without being coarse. In addition to the symbolism of “crown of thorns,” it’s cliche and thus very much not poetry. If you’re going to use it, you really need to know what you’re doing. What I suspect happened was NIN found that the song was getting traction so they decided to release a single. But they knew they couldn’t get it played with “shit” and so “thorns” was the first and only thing they decided on. Their label probably didn’t give them more than 5 minutes to make a decision. I suspect we’ve discussed the issue far more here than they ever did. I don’t blame them. If someone said to me, “You know, an article you wrote is getting some traction on FB and if you change this one word, Vox will publish it,” I would pick the first word that worked well enough.

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