Johnny Cash‘s late-career comeback reached another peak on July 24, 2003: On that date, 17 years ago today, the music video for his remake of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” from American IV: The Man Comes Around, received six MTV Video Music Awards nominations.
The MTV VMA nods for “Hurt” included a slew of technical nominations (Best Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Editing and Best Cinematography) and two artistic ones: Best Male Video and the prestigious overall Best Video.
Cash’s “Hurt” clip was filmed at his house and also features scenes from the House of Cash museum. Director Mark Romanek told Rolling Stone the latter location sparked inspiration: “The place was in such a state of dereliction. That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health — as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs.”
The stark “Hurt” video ended up being incredibly moving. Vintage footage of Cash alternates with contemporary scenes of him singing, strumming his guitar and playing the piano. These affecting scenes were then interspersed with scenes of the museum and other meaningful references to family and religious iconography.
Despite the devastating scenes, “Hurt” only took home one award at the MTV Video Music Awards, for Best Cinematography. (Video of the Year went to Missy Elliott’s “Work It.”) Cash unfortunately couldn’t attend the awards show, which was held on Aug. 28, 2003, as he was in the hospital fighting off a stomach-related illness. He passed away roughly two weeks after the ceremony, on Sept. 12, 2003.
However, as CMT reported at the time, rock stars, rappers and actors alike all waxed ecstatic about the Man in Black’s legacy and influence. In fact, when Justin Timberlake won Best Male Video for “Cry Me a River,” he shouted out the legend: “My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash,” he explained. “I’m from Tennessee. And I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight.”
“Hurt” won Best Short Form Music Video at the 2004 Grammy Awards and Music Video of the Year at the 2003 CMA Awards. The video was also in rotation on MTV2 and VH1, and the song received radio airplay.
Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, the writer of “Hurt,” found the video incredibly moving, he told Rolling Stone: ”We were in the studio, getting ready to work — and I popped it in. By the end I was really on the verge of tears,” Reznor recalled. “I’m working with [Rage Against the Machine’s] Zach de la Rocha, and I told him to take a look. At the end of it, there was just dead silence. There was, like, this moist clearing of our throats and then, ‘Uh, okay, let’s get some coffee.’”
But, as Romanek told Rolling Stone, all of this success and resonance wasn’t necessarily expected: “I don’t think any of us expected anything to come of this video on any commercial level,” he said. “If you know you’re about to see a video, your expectations are pretty low. So I think that’s what grabs people: Mortality is a very unusual topic for this medium. But I ascribe most of the power to the Johnny Cash-ness of it all.”
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