Nine Inch Nails’ “Only” Lyrics Meaning

“Only” can be deemed as sort of an autobiographical song as far as its author, Trent Reznor, is concerned. That is not to say that it centers on his childhood or anything like that, though at a certain point he does allude to his earliest days. Rather it apparently focuses on his internal misgivings as far as the trajectory of his adult/professional life is concerned.

Verse 1

In the first verse he enlightens the listener to the fact that he is “becoming less defined”. Of course with being a rock song and all, said metaphor is left undefined itself in terms of what it means exactly. 

But what it seems that what Trent is saying is that he started losing touch with himself, like he ‘lost focus’ and was “kind of drifting into the abstract”. 

One way all of this can be interpreted is that he didn’t feel he really stood for anything as an artist nor as a human being in general. Or at least when peering into his life intently, that seems to be one of the conclusions he came to.

Verse 2

Then the beginning of the second diverse implies that he became that way due to trying to ‘fit into the world’. 

So to counteract such, he adopts a don’t-give-AF type of mentality. This results in the vocalist feeling lonely, ostracized if you will, but his is able to deal with such as it is as he has  “always” been. 

Thus the implication there is that throughout his life he’s been an outcast, for lack of a better term.

But more to the point is the idea that he had disassociated himself from the individuals who were inspiring him to be fake. 

Despite this, he’s not placing the blame on them for his aforementioned state. Instead he was the one who gave their words and ideas power in his life, so to speak.

Verse 3

Furthermore, as metaphorically expounded on in the third verse, he was able to perceive the inherent danger in this situation early on. 

He compares it all to a “scab” which he just couldn’t help but to ‘keep picking at’. He also likens it to “a doorway trying to seal itself shut”. 

But instead of letting said door close and leaving it like that, instead Reznor “climbed through” it, apparently against his own conscience.

So now he finds himself in a place he shouldn’t be, seeing things that he shouldn’t be seeing. Simply put, he followed a path he knew he should not have and is now dealing with the negative consequences thereof. 

But more on the bright side, at least now he has ‘insider’ knowledge of the threat said path posed in the first place.

Lesson Learned

And the ultimate lesson he has learned through it all is at the end of the day, there’s “only” him. 

Again due to the highly-allegorical wording featured in this song, said statement can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, it can be said that the vocalist has learned that he’s the only person he can truly trust. 

Likewise is the idea that he doesn’t really need to rely on anyone but himself. Furthermore the enemies in his mind are more fabricated than they are real. In other words, he doesn’t have anyone else to blame but himself when he decides to sell out.

In Conclusion…

And with all of those theories in mind yes, many listeners have interpreted the lyrics as alluding to Trent Reznor’s relationship with the music industry. 

Musicians, perhaps hard rockers more so than others, possess them tendency to sometimes let the powers that be, even their own employers at times, have it. And maybe such is in fact the case with “Only”.

But more blatantly, the lyrics read more like a soliloquy. And in the process of keeping it real with himself, the singer concludes on one thing. And that is that his primary focus should be living up to his own ideals, not those of others.

Lyrics of "Only"

Facts about “Only”

“Only” is from the Nine Inch Nails’ album “With Teeth”. 

On 25 July 2005 it became the second single released from that project, despite being the last song actually completed for it. 

And its labels are Interscope Records and Nothing Records. The latter label was founded by Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor and the band’s former manager, John Malm Jr.

In all there were three singles released from “With Teeth”. And the other two besides this one were “The Hand That Feeds” and “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”.

This track most notably topped Billboard’s Alternative Airplay (aka Modern Rock) chart, where it spent seven weeks at number one

It also made it onto the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart, marking one of the band’s biggest hits across the pond.

The CGI-heavy music video to this track was directed by renowned American filmographer David Fincher. This is the same David Fincher who directed Fight Club (1999), the Hollywood cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. 

And in fact some of the lyrics of “Only” were reportedly influenced by Fight Club.

It has been noted that the lyrics of this song bear similarities to “Down On It”, a track the Nine Inch Nails dropped back in 1989.

Nine Inch Nails also came out with that is called the GaragaBand rendition of “Only”, i.e. one in which fans could use a software provided by Apple to remix the song themselves. And they did the same with “The Hand That Feeds”.


Who wrote “Only”?

“Only” was written exclusively by Trent Reznor. As at 2021, he is only member of the band who has been down since its formation. 

And the other official band member to participate on this track is Atticus Ross, who is also still part of the Nine Inch Nails in 2021.

Nine Inch Nails

The Nine Inch Nails are a rock band originating in Ohio that have released 11 studio albums between 1989 and 2020. 

Their heyday was around the turn of the century with their third and fourth albums, “The Fragile” (1999) and “With Teeth” (2005), both topping the Billboard 200. 

They also achieved some notable success during the 2010s with their 2013 project “Hesitation Marks”, which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard 200 and number 2 on the UK Albums Chart. 

However, they released two albums in 2020, “Ghost V: Together” and “Ghost VI: Locusts”, under The Null Corporation, a label created by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails’ associate Rob Sheridan. And neither of those project managed to chart.

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