Even those who know next to nothing about Johnny Cash may still know him as “The Man in Black.” Cash sings: “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day / And tell the world that everything’s OK / But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back / ‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.”
In some of his other songs, as well, Cash sings about this dark side of life, of the vacuity of human existence. Perhaps this honesty is what has made him stand out to a youth culture that is nervously aware of death, a growing cadre of kids out there who are frankly bored by Lady Gaga’s latest attempt to shock American sensibilities. What they are shocked by instead is this gravelly-voiced man, telling them, from beyond the grave, what they already suspect—the shallow kingdoms of this age are headed for a stunning collapse.
Particularly relevant to these youth is Cash’s rendition of the song “Hurt,” which was written and originally performed by the band Nine Inch Nails. Cash’s haunting music video for the song features faded film shots of his youthful glory days—complete with the images of friends and colleagues, once at the height of their fame, who are now dead. As the camera pans Cash’s wizened, wrinkled face, he sings about the awful reality of death and the vanity of fame: “What have I become? My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away in the end / You could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”
Whereas, the Nine Inch Nails delivered “Hurt” as straight nihilism, Cash gives it a twist—ending the video with the scenes of crucifixion, which, for Cash, was (and still is) the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.
The video of “Hurt” communicated exactly what the dying Cash seemed to understand, echoing Solomon of old: wealth, celebrity, fame, all of it is vanity in the maw of the grave. By contrasting images of the young celebrated Cash with images of the old, gasping, arthritic Cash, his “House of Cash” closed down and boarded over, the video turned then to what Cash saw as the only real alternative to his empire of dirt: the cross of Christ Jesus.