Monday, December 12, 2011

The Mercy Side: An Empire of Dirt

On Saturday night I was made aware that pop singer Leona Lewis was covering a song called “Hurt”, originally written and released by industrial metal band Nine Inch Nails. I believe Leona Lewis sung this song on the X Factor recently and the EP was released yesterday, with this song and two other cover versions of songs by the Goo Goo Dolls and Counting Crows.

Now my initial reaction was one of disgust and anger. My feelings haven’t really changed on the situation, but after raising my views with many people of different interests and musical tastes, it’s not as straight forward to slam this move as originally thought. There are a lot of complications and perceptions when it comes to doing cover versions, and who does them. Before I get into that nitty gritty however let me make you aware of this song and its importance, in the event you don’t know of it.

“Hurt” was written by Trent Reznor, lead singer and mastermind of the band Nine Inch Nails, and was the last track on the critically acclaimed album, “The Downward Spiral”, released back in 1994. Trent said he wrote this song in his bedroom and it was written when he was at his lowest ebb, on drugs, depressed, suicidal, and potentially self harming. The song is usually interpreted in one of two ways, either as a suicide note (obviously not Reznor himself, but a possible persona he created for the album) or as someone hanging on the edge of life but manages to cling on and finds reason for living. Lyrical evidence supports both arguments with the lines “Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything” and “You are someone else/I am still right here” can be interpreted in either direction.
Much to Reznor’s surprise, the song was praised by both fans and critics and has remained one of the most important songs of the nineties and a song that has a strong setting in nearly (if not every) Nine Inch Nails gig. Self harm is a very serious issue, and it has only for the last fifteen or twenty years become more prominent. A lot of people who have harmed themselves, tried to commit suicide or suffered with severe depression have found comfort in this song, knowing that a high profile singer like Trent Reznor has had similar issues in his own life. The good news about Reznor himself is that while this wasn’t the end of his drug problems and personal demons, it was his own “Downward Spiral”, one that things would slowly get better from. For the next 7 years Reznor still had these issues but they would come to an end in 2001 after he entered rehab and successfully stopped taking drugs, and his life is better now than it ever has been, with a wife and a new baby. But the elements in “Hurt”, its meaning and significance to Trent Reznor remain key to his life and career, and the fans of his music.

In the beginning of 2003, nine years after the song’s release, country music legend Johnny Cash decided he wanted to cover the song on his album “American IV: The Man Comes Around”, which had many cover versions, including songs by Depeche Mode, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles. When the producer of the album, Rick Rubin, asked Trent if Cash could cover the song Trent said he was flattered due to Johnny Cash’s status as a legendary singer, but he was concerned it would sound “gimmicky”. Trent never heard Cash’s version until the music video was made and released and had this to say when he heard it:

“I 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.”
What made the song so amazing was the music video, produced by Mark Romanek, who had also worked with Trent Reznor no less than two occasions before, with music videos for “Closer” and “The Perfect Drug”. Romanek wanted to emphasise on Johnny Cash’s clear frailty, the weakness the elderly state of the country musician and contrast it with his bright and beautiful career. Some say this song is Johnny Cash’s epitaph, which is ironic due to the nature of the lyrics, but it some how fits in with Cash’s career. No, there are no signs of self harm from the Man in Black, but drugs and depression almost crippled his career decades ago. And as Johnny Cash died in September of the same year, the video is as striking as anything; it brings fantastic closure to a career that spans 58 years.

The song has been covered by other artists, although it’s usually been done live, and as homage to Nine Inch Nails, or maybe because they too, had serious issues in their lives, or can associate with the people that have. Artists that have covered it include Tori Amos, Matthew Good, Peter Murphy, Breaking Benjamin, Underoath, Aaron Lewis, and Sevendust. However the big difference between Leona Lewis and these artists is simply the genre of music, and more importantly, the lack of logic behind such a cover version.

I don’t claim to know much about Leona Lewis, she’s not someone I enjoy listening to and I’ve barely followed her career. What I do know however is that she is 26 years old and she won the X-Factor back five years ago. She’s been singing for most of her life and she didn’t get a break she arguably deserved until she appeared on the TV show. As I said, I don’t really like her music personally, but I do think she has a fantastic voice; she is a brilliant singer and as far as a lot of the other X-Factor contestants go she’s probably the most talented and most deserving winner on the show so far. However, there’s very little revealed about Leona Lewis’ background and personal life, but from what I can tell she had a decent upbringing in London from her parents and was raised musically pretty much her entire life. She seems like a nice woman, I can’t say she’s ever come across as anything other than a charming and respectful person who has kept her feet on the ground despite her immense popularity.

But that’s a lot of the issue here. In a certain way I feel Leona Lewis has no right to cover “Hurt”. Has she ever “hurt”? I can’t say she has, not in the depths and stresses the song talks of. Sure, she got hit in the face two years ago by some idiot, but has she ever been depressed? And by depressed I don’t mean she split up with her boyfriend and felt down. I mean she has suffered through anxiety and can’t face to looking out of her own window. Has she ever felt like hurting herself, to deal with depression? Has she ever felt suicidal? I really doubt she has.
I’m a very lucky guy. I’ve never been depressed. I’ve never felt like killing myself. But I know a lot of people who have. I’ve had to watch some of the closest people to me suffer with symptoms they have very little to no control over. It’s awful. It’s distressing. But what I feel is nothing in comparison to how some of them feel. If I could sing, I too, would have no right to cover this song.

But for Leona Lewis to even contemplate covering such a song, is appalling. This isn't a pop song. This isn't a song that a pop singer with a cushy lifestyle should be touching. And I’m sorry I’m being blunt but in comparison to what the people who find comfort in this song have gone through, she has a cushy lifestyle. Yes, Trent Reznor was addicted to drugs. I’m sure a lot of people who understand and seek assurance with the track have too. But, does Leona Lewis don't have any idea what the song is about? And if she does, is she really a person that should be singing a song about such upsetting topics?

This cover version isn’t about raising awareness, if it was I’m sure Leona Lewis would have made that clear by now. If she has suffered, or a friend or family member suffered, and she wants to show understanding, she would have said so by now. And if it’s about homage, has she even come to understand that it’s Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails that wrote this song? If so she hasn’t shown it.

There is an argument to this opinion of mine, one that I am aware of, and that is about the rights to the track. Does Trent Reznor, the lyricist, or Interscope Records, the record company, have rights to the track? It’s still not clear if Reznor has the rights, or if it’s the record company. There’s a point to be made regardless of who has the rights to the song and that is in the end, Reznor gave away the move for this cover version to happen in the first place. If Intercrope have the rights to the song, it’s only natural that they would agree for such a huge pop star like Leona Lewis to cover the song, as it would give them a lot of money. If however, it is Reznor that has the rights to his own music, then he gave Leona Lewis direct permission to cover the song. And if so, why? Trent Reznor is a clever man in the respect that he rarely makes moves based on money and greed, but for the good and honourable options available. Johnny Cash is a country music legend, and someone who was unfortunately close to a terminal state when he asked for the rights to cover the song. Leona Lewis is a pop singer, and it’s often clear that Reznor has a large distaste for that genre of music. In my opinion the chances are low that it is Trent that gave Leona Lewis a big, juicy thumbs up for covering this song but it’s not been made clear at all.

In the end one thing is for certain is that someone is cashing in on Leona Lewis’ mainstream popularity against the logic and understanding of the contents in which she will be singing. Someone once said that the topic shouldn’t dictate who sings it, but there should be I feel. Especially when it’s such an important topic. But it doesn’t matter what I think, what matters is on written paper contracts, and the empires that control them. And if it is Interscope that have the rights to this song, this is an empire that does exactly just that. And while it’s not the “empire of dirt” that Trent speaks of in this prestigious song, it’s an Empire of Dirt that chooses making money over keeping songs like this immaculate and untouched. An Empire of Dirt that would rather put their slime on the feelings of thousands of sufferers for the sake of making a quick buck. And it really shows that money indeed, is what makes the world go round.
Do you agree? Disagree? Am I being too sensitive? I don't think so but I can see why you might think so. Comment below with your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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1 comment:

  1. Your article was very helpul to those people who wants to harm themselves. Good joob!