by Darius Dunn
Song lyrics often offer us a dream like connection to the universal themes of love and heartbreak. And like dreams, the lyrics of your favorite song can often seem confusing; although, dreams, like lyrics often utilize overtures of emotions and intuition that present us with symbols that are broader than words in conveying meaning; so, these signifiers must be carefully considered to apprehend their message. With such an unreliable approach to conveying meaning and with the inherently subjective way each of our minds forms perceptions toward subject matter, interpretation often contradicts the universally intended message the lyricist meant to deliver.
Having recently listened to Hurt, written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, as the closing theme of the season two finale of Rick and Morty (where Rick (spoiler alert) turns himself into authorities for a slew of crimes so that his family doesn’t have to live on the lamb), I enjoyed the melancholy theme in the song. I enjoyed the feeling of an internally reflected sadness, not induced by external stimuli (otherwise known as melancholia), that was until the last stanza. Then—not to blame the song writer, the band, or the performance in any way—I suddenly felt the rush of disdain sweep across me. There, and only there at the end, I suddenly recognized the romantic gesticulation of false hope.
While the rest of the lyrics supported the theme that hurting one another, and ourselves, is inevitable and that the experience of pain is realer than unfulfilled hope (the type of hope hinted at in the final stanza), the somber meditation I had accomplished earlier in the song was instantly obliterated when the closing lyrics suddenly hurled a bleak lie at me that was more bitter than the depressing truth extant in all the prior lyrics. It suggested, given the opportunity to start again in a new environment, the narrator of the song would be somehow different, better; but, the lyrics never addressed the change the subject must undergo in order to become that different, better person. Essentially, the narrator was the same person he had always been, as referenced in stanza 6 with the lyrics:
“Beneath the stains of time
“The feelings disappear
“You are someone else
“I am still right here” (Reznor).
Additionally, the narrator only hoped desperately at the end to become different; but, that hope is a cruel lie, especially from an emotional atmosphere so filled with neuroticism made apparent throughout the song. It makes the narrator seem unreliable; although, as stated, the narrator was obviously neurotic in every previous stanza, he suddenly and at the end displayed an until-then-unknown element of his personality that shown a certain extroversion and openness to new experiences that bombarded the theme, suddenly destroying the starkness inherent in the rest of the song with the crushing force of a, “Psych, just kidding,” feel at the final moment of an otherwise melancholy meditation on the inherent and inescapable notion that we should accept that pain is part of love, not something that can be—or even should be—avoided. The rest of the lyrics embrace that notion in plaintive appeal to the listeners’ reason. The entirety of the song, excepting the final bit, is coated in the concrete assertion that we will cause pain to each other. We will raze each other, if we engage each other in loving relationship is a poetic summary of the song’s primary lyrics.
The fifth stanza introduces the crux whereby the whole motive is hinged:
“I wear this crown of shit
“Upon my liar’s chair
“Full of broken thoughts
“I cannot repair” (Reznor).
The “…I cannot repair” part is most telling. It suggests that the narrator is aware of the fact that the things he’s set asunder, in the lives of those he’s engaged, can never be mended. He’s sensate of his ability to harm those he claims to love, or those he simply involves in his life. He knows that his activity within relationships is prone to lay bare the singed feelings and devastated debris of the structures his partners and friends are left with (those structures that once supported their successful psychological functioning—their joys, the goals of their strivings and so forth), in the wake of his volitional and involuntary schemes. So, for the focus of the theme to suddenly turn to a hope that, in the aftermath of love—after all the towers the narrator has erected have turned to ash upon which he sits on a “liars chair” with a shitty crown pressed atop his head due to the inherently selfish human will—the narrator of the song could start anew only because of a change of scenery is inauthentic to the rest of the song’s motive, which informs us that love is as much about pain as it is about joy (or at the very least, that we should expect pain in love.)
Although this shift is sudden, it is not without reason. Every element of this beautifully executed song is ordered. So why the sudden shift in theme at song’s end? Literary theorist, Edmund Husserl, suggests in his seminal essay, Ideas, that the individual’s connection to the world is subjective and transitory and not the production of a static cognition. In fact the cogito, a person’s thoughts, change when their chosen focus on phenomenon changes. To quote Husserl, “I am aware of a world, spread out in space endlessly, and in time becoming and become, without end. I am aware of it, that means, first of all, I discover it immediately, intuitively, I experience it…If I am so concerned, a new cogito has become livingly active, which for its part is not reflective upon, and so not objective for me.” (Husserl 137, 139). The specific place of cogito is where the song’s narrator starts his expression, from a place of past experience toward pain and love that informs his world view. The phenomenon he has intuitively known, as anecdotal evidence, saturates the early lyrics of the song. The sudden change of view during the ending can be explained in some way as a shift in focus that sees the narrator switching perspective from the reality of his past toward an optimism regarding his future hopes. As Husserl puts it, “The arithmetical world is there for me only when and so long as I occupy the arithmetical standpoint. But the natural world, the world in the ordinary sense of the world, is constantly there for me, so long as I live naturally and look in its direction” (Husserl 139). This “looking in its direction” facilitates the narrator’s position when focusing on the very real potential for individuals to hurt each other but this same principle also allows him to look in other directions, specifically in directions associated with hope and good intentions for future encounters. Receiving this message of false hope, I feel betrayed as a listener—especially considering the unabashed honesty and gut wrenching truth displayed in earlier lyrics.
False hope and denial are the root of romanticism. Seeing the silver lining at the edge of the dark clouds blocking the sun, is someone’s futile attempt at hoping that somehow things will eventually be different; although, the conditions that caused things to be the way they are remain unchanged. Romantic denial is the gap between longing and fulfillment that Isaiah Berlin in his book, The Roots of Romanticism, discusses this way, “a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness…a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals” (Berlin 92). This view on the artist’s romantic yearning suggests that the narrator is denying the starkness that his own experiences have taught him, exchanging it instead for the unattainable goals of the romantic aesthetic. This type of hope, the one that can’t be fulfilled, is one from which people should turn away. Even in the sincerest acceptance of the starkness of life, the glimmer of hope that things might be somehow different, without sufficient effort to make things different, is the rotten core in the apple of delusion.
That delusion acts on the perceptions of individuals to force them to wax nostalgic for a time when things were comfortable, a chance to start again, but the comfort of the past can never return once one encounters the randomness and pain of living. One must skillfully manage the random and often absurd pain of living, by growing through her experiences, to step out of the world of puerile naivety and into the world beyond angst where maturity is the expected behavioral outcome. One must forge her own destinations and brace truth to have an authentic identity and free themselves from delusional longings that lead to nowhere.
This message is by no means conveyed to crush people’s dreams, but to suggest that dreams must be attainable. If we long for that which is unattainable, we run the risk of wasting our lives chasing the tail of a dragon, one which we will never apprehend. My dream for you is that you enjoy the now and hope for what you may accomplish but allot room in your life’s journey for hopes that you may acquire and leave childish things behind.
Nine Inch Nails. “Hurt.” The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor, Nothing, Interscope Records, 1994, Googleplay, https://play.google.com/music/preview/Txulwrirxaonxpct2v4g7jznfty?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics.
Hesserl, Edmund. “Ideas.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second edition. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 137 – 139. Print.
Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. 95. Print.