Like quite a few heavy metal bands, the music of Nine Inch Nails -- which is really more of a one-man project by frontman Trent Reznor than an actual band in its own right -- is awash in philosophical questions.
"Only" clearly provokes an underlying question of what is real: the protagonist of the song or the antagonist?
If one wanted to be facetious, the answer could be considered fairly simple: the writer of the song, Trent Reznor, is a real person. So from that point of view one would expect that it would have to be him.
When one takes a close look at the lyrics of the song, it quickly becomes apparent that the protagonist himself may not be entirely sure of his own existence, at least in the conventional, corporeal sense:
"I'm becoming less defined as days go by/The protagonist seems to suggest that he's beginning to see himself less as an actual person and more as an idea. He says that he can see right through himself, as if he's become invisible or, worse yet, he doesn't necessarily like this particular idea.
And well you might say/
I'm losing focus/
Kinda drifting into the abstract in terms of how I see myself
Sometimes I think I can see right through myself/
Sometimes I think I can see right through myself/
Sometimes I can see right through myself"
In other words, he doesn't like himself.
In his self-loathing, Reznor's protagonist takes the route that many self-loathers do -- he rejects the world itself:
"Less concerned about fitting into the world/But for Reznor's protagonist the matter may go deeper than even this. Even if he doesn't necessarily recognize himself as real in the conventional sense, even if he views himself merely as an idea, the world he's rejecting -- the antagonist's world -- may be nothing more than a fantasy that he made up.
Your world that is/
Cause it doesn't really matter anymore/
(no it doesn't really matter anymore)/
No it doesn't really matter anymore/
None of this really matters anymore"
Moreover, in a vein typical of self-loathers, Reznor made up his antagonist -- and his antagonist's world -- up out of sheer masochism:
"Yes I am alone but then again I always was/After remarking on his success in hurting himself, Reznor's protagonist rages about the nature of the fantasy world itself. For him the point of it all is very simple:
As far back as I can tell/
I think maybe it's because/
Because you were never really real to begin with/
I just made you up to hurt myself"
"There is no you/To put it simply, while Reznor is unsure of his own existence as anything other than an idea -- or, possibly, an apparition -- he is sure of his own existence period.
There is only me"
Furthermore he's also assured of the nonexistence of his antagonist. He rages over and over again: "there is no fucking you/There is only me."
But is his self-assurance justified?
If one were to be facetious again, one would realize that the listener -- to whom the song could be argued is addressed -- realizes that they are real. One must at this point question whether or not Reznor's protagonist is delusional, insiting that the antagonist doesn't really exist despite the fact that they clearly do, or is imagining himself in a world without his antagonist.
Then again, there's a reason why this particular line of reasoning is facetious. Reznor wrote this song for a purpose. Considering that he published it, that purpose was obviously not self-gratification.
One is brought back to Reznor's conceptualization of himself as an idea:
"Well the tiniest little dot caught my eye and it turned out to be a scab/Considering that Reznor's protagonist has already admitted that he can see right through himself, one is drawn to the conclusion that the scab in question must be metaphorical.
And I had this funny feeling like I just knew it's something bad/
I just couldn't leave it alone, I kept picking at the scab/
It was a doorway trying to seal itself shut/
But I climbed through
Now I am somewhere I am not supposed to be, and I can see things I know I really shouldn't see/
And now I know why, now, now, now I know why/
Things aren't as pretty/
On the inside"
Considering the aforementioned obvious overtones of self-loathing inherent in the song, it's pretty clear that the scab in question is not the healing over of a physical wound, but a psychological blemish that is either the cause of, or mere reinforcement of, the protagonist's palpable self-hatred.
As it turns out, this metaphorical scab is the doorway within himself, where he can see things he "really shouldn't see" and discovers that "things aren't so pretty on the inside."
Having been confronted by his inner self, the protagonist's discomfort seems to be enough to provoke a severe psychological crisis. His rejection of the world's existence could clearly be a manifestation of that crisis.
As interesting as the song itself may be, the music video actually adds additional evidence that Reznor's protagonist may actually be the one who is non-existent. In the video, Reznor appears only through an office toy -- the one that allows people to imprint their faces in magnetic metal beads. (If anyone knows what the hell those things are called, please feel free to share -ed)
Regardless of whatever conclusions one may draw about what the song's protagonist believes is -- or actually is -- real, the song does provide a fascinating window into the mind of an individual so disenchanted with themselves as to want to hurt themselves.