25 November 2019

The Saddest Music Video

Thoughts in retrospect on the masterful video for "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. 

"I cried the first time I saw it. If you were moved to that kind of emotion in the course of a two-hour movie, it would be a great accomplishment. To do it in a four-minute music video is shocking.” - Rick Rubin

I’ve only cried at one music video in my entire life. (The one in the YouTube clip you hopefully just played and watched in full.)

This is coming from a ‘90s kids, who in the summer of 1994 alone watched no less than four hours of music videos a day, mostly of the CMT persuasion but we, of course, found ourselves, my little sister and I and various friends sliding through the revolving door of my Mom’s house, over at VH1 and MTV, especially as the years rolled by. By the time I entered high school in the Fall of 1998, the music video was still alive and well, though my taste had slipped to a past before the music video and eventually my love would turn to the vinyl LP, spinning the past over scratches of the dusty bin of Mom’s records gifted me along with a brand new turntable over Christmas of my 17th year.

“The needle tears a hole…

The music video persisted, as I found my way to my dorm room at Nicks Hall as a Freshman at Middle Tennessee State University. And, one morning, among the cloud of a Saturday morning bong hit, I flipped over to VH1 to find Johnny Cash, an artist I only vaguely knew at the time for older hits like “Ring of Fire,” stately and tired, the star of one final music video, a cover of a nearly forgotten Nine Inch Nails song called “Hurt.”

“The old familiar sting….

The video opens with shots of gilded relics in the home of Johnny Cash and his wife June. Cash himself is gilded as well, with light, a welcome choice by the team that made the video under the direction of Mark Romanek, a prolific music video director of the ‘90s, who found his highest praise upon the release of the video for the Nine Inch Nails hit “Closer.” The video cuts quickly between past and present, old video footage of Cash on a train, on stage, delivering a line in a Hollywood movie, and those relics of a time gone by inside his home and, most tragically, in his museum, The House of Cash, which Romanek chose as a location to highlight the frailty of the elder Cash. He would die only three months after shooting the video. His wife, June, enters towards the end of the less than four minute running time of the video, looking on at her fading husband longingly. She would die first, only three months later.

“Try to kill it all away....

Johnny Cash’s life, for those of us who have seen Walk the Line, or even having simply listened to his songs over the years, was not easy. He struggled to find success until he was a bit older than most, worked hard to achieve it, fell into a crippling drug addiction that nearly took everything from him, struggled as a husband and father, came out on the other side, and then re-emerged an old man, still plugging away at his own songs of outlaws and heartbreaks, while covering a vast array of artists, including Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” and, the one in question, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, on American IV: The Man Comes Around, one of a string of albums the elder country rocker made with famed rock and hip-hop producer, Rick Rubin.

“But I remember everything...

The themes of power, voice, and choice riddle Cash’s video for “Hurt.” We see the life of a broken man unable to continue keeping his home, fallen on hard times health-wise, sitting in his own crumbling museum, reminded of what used to be whole, asking for forgiveness for whatever choices he made that still linger as he delivers his swan song, one he didn’t even write for himself. Yet, it is a song meant for him, a better version of the song, in fact. Cash used his voice here for what looked, felt, and actually was the last time. The song itself is highlighted by that intercutting between the old man singing, bathed in bronze light, and those clips of the past. But then the video takes a turn. We enter the museum and starts cutting shots of the relics of his musical past his fans once cherished, and we find the Cash now sitting at a dining table, a king on his throne, the table strewn with lobster and caviar and champagne on ice. Nobody is eating. Shots from a film illustrating the Crucifixion of Jesus interspersed. The song picks up steam. My chills have turned to tears. With shaky hands, he lifts a glass of red wine and pours it all over the table, a sign of his diminished strength but a powerful choice that signifies a letting go of his past wealth and arrogance, a hope that he has done enough to redeem himself. He closes the lid over his piano keys and bows his head.

“What have I become, my sweetest friend?...

I noticed these themes and felt them deeply that first time I watched this video. I feel them every single time I hear the song. Hell, I feel them as soon as I hear the pick of its first three notes on Cash’s guitar strings. Those same three notes opened the trailer for the film Logan a few years back. I had chills while the screen was still black. And that’s what this video does so well. By the end, its cut to black, I was so moved that I just sat there in it and wiped my eyes along with the rest of my dorm mates. We all felt it.

“Everyone I know goes away in the end…

The story of this video and the story within it have the power to reach anyone. Aging is something we all face, and I know I question the legacy I will leave behind, what future regrets lay ahead, and hope beyond hope that I will be a good man for my wife and son. This is what we do when it comes down to it: We get to the end of the road, we look back, and we hope it’s been enough. It’s something I felt when my father died. And it’s something I hope he felt in the time before he passed. I hope it for myself. Romanek’s video of a song written by Trent Reznor that became the perfect and most memorable swan song for a legendary musician and performer has lingered with me for years. It sends a message to all of us that our legacy is in the love we show to those closest to us and how that is so much more important than the possessions we collect along the way.

“And you can have it all.
My empire of dirt.
I will let you down.
I will make you Hurt.”


  1. It is a moving video as it serves as what I feel to be the great final statement from Johnny Cash. This video and "Lazarus" by David Bowie are the ones that get me very emotional as I tend to avoid it because it will hit me hard. Even as the Cash video was a great interpretation of a song that I know and love being a longtime NIN fan for more than 25 years so far.

    1. Final statement indeed. To me, it's actually perfect that he found a way to make his statement through someone else's words. It shows his love of music of all kinds and the connections that defy genre.

  2. This is a great video. I'm not sure that I've cried in too many music videos. The one that comes to mind is Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day.

    1. So great. And yeah. That's a powerful one. I just don't dig Green Day very much.