There’s this show called Song Exploder on Netflix and of course I love it. It is exactly my type. When the Angel and I walk around a clothing store, when we see a striped long sleeve shirt (or ‘top’), we both know and instinctively stop. This show is my long sleeve striped top. Or MaryAnne on Gilligan’s Island. Princess Leia. Janet Wood. I have opinions and specific tastes. Song Exploder is perfect.
This morning I watched the episode detailing ‘Hurt,’ by Nine Inch Nails, on the album The Downward Spiral. Released in 1994, it was a big hit and for 1994-me, it’s themes of loneliness and inadequacy were, um, familiar. The problem with the album was that it always gave me a headache and made me feel a little physically ill as I listened. In this Song Exploder show, Trent Reznor (who is Nine Inch Nails) explained that there were things you could “hide” in a song to make the listener “uncomfortable,” or “unsettled.” My physical reaction was totally unconscious but purposeful in it’s creation, and now looking at the album through 2020-me eyes, it’s even more brilliant.
I don’t really like the songs on the album too much anymore, but this one still moves me. It was covered by Johnny Cash and was reborn, for a new generation. And as it turns out, for it’s creator. The loneliness, inadequacy and pain that made it so relatable for me weren’t pretense at all. They were absolutely authentic, and he spoke about when the Johnny Cash version happened, he was questioning his worth, ability, talent, if he was enough.
This is the universal narrative for me, and to tell you the truth, it’s mostly why I do any of the things I do. To try to speak fresh words to this very human affliction, which is not affected by class, image, status, money. The voices in our heads scream us down just the same. Nine Inch Nails was famous, successful, popular, and unfulfilling. Johnny Cash covering that song was a re-telling of the looped false story in Reznor’s head, that told him he was not now, not ever, going to be enough. That beautiful cover was a crack in that wall.
Now, he seems easy and assured in interviews. I’m sure it comes and goes, like it does for all of us, but at least it comes now, right? It’s almost the new year and that means it’s time for dreaming. Wouldn’t it be cool if our lives could be covered by Johnny Cash and we could finally see them with new eyes? If we could finally see ourselves as we actually are, free of the sledgehammers in our heads? The song sounds different to him now. And to me. It’s not so hopeless anymore.