The following headline from ology.com sums up the general take on Leona Lewis’s performance on the British X Factor: “FML: Leona Lewis Covering Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.” The song’s the title track of her just-released covers EP, which also features the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and the Counting Crows’ “Colorblind.”
It should go without saying that neither of those two tracks has much associated baggage as “Hurt”; whether you find Reznor’s lyrics ultimately hopeful or bleak, they’re undeniably about fairly deep pain. And after all, it’s written right into the X Factor contract that in order to consent to being televised, you must permanently forfeit all ability to feel pain or any other emotion, making it somewhat difficult to interpret a song. (It’s not really, Steve Jones aside.)
That’s all the information you need to dismiss Leona Lewis’s performance without hearing it, but bear with us. Whether “Hurt” needed to be turned into a stadium-sized, diva-sung power ballad is a fair question. Her rendition’s almost like a template, in fact, for the “make it your own!” mentality that’s crept into Idol and The X Factor: dealing with theme weeks by taking source material and molding it into what was your old singing style anyway. For Leona, that’s big notes in bigger arrangements, with a couple hushed sections for contrast. In other words, you maybe don’t need to hear it, but we’d prefer that you did. One of two things is going on. Either she knows that quiet-to-loud arrangements and whispered vocals can simulate gravitas pretty well regardless of whether you’re thinking of pain or grocery lists, or she’s genuinely feeling something that comes out in her voice. That it isn’t immediately obvious can only be a point in Leona’s favor.