It’s a dark message of dependency, of being trapped in a world that has “rules to follow” and requires “pills to swallow.” There are two explanations for the symbolism in No One Knows:
- the speaker in the song is a drug addict and takes pills to numb his reality
- the speaker of the song is literally in a mental ward, put there after the traumatic death of his loved one.
Assuming that the second is true, the speaker is being forced to take pills to counter his psychosis and ensure normalcy which sets a much darker tone for the true purpose of the song.
Rules to Follow / Pills to Swallow
The song begins with insight into the speaker’s current state. The “rules to follow” are complicated and confusing and the “pills to swallow” are difficult but change the speaker’s perception of reality, transforming him into a state of simulated happiness as a mindless captive. In this, the audience is granted a taste of the unreliable narrator’s true madness. In one moment, he is coherent and railing against the rules that harm his state of being, and in the other, he is dulled by the medication being shoved down his throat at regular intervals and can only focus on a desolation of love lost.
Tragedy of Love Lost
The speaker’s reality is also tainted by that love lost. A love that made him feel “a fool” that he continues to chase “through the desert / of the mind.” However, “with no hope,” he is unable to find that warm embrace and “drift[s] along the ocean / dread lifeboats in the sun / and come undone.” The complication of his tainted reality is the transformative powers of his love lost and the confused and blurry dream that he is given through medication. As he exists only in the realm of dreams at this point, the acquisition of his love is a reality that only endures through his delusion. Without the medication, his love would be lost forever as a distant memory; however, with the medication, she is lost with the potential to be found – if only he can meet the demands of eternal suffering imposed by his delusion.
Was the Love Imaginary?
It is uncertain whether the love lost has died or if she only really existed in the speaker’s mind. In his delusion, he relates that “heaven smiles above me / what a gift her below / but no one knows.” In this, the interpretation could be made that the girl has, indeed, died and will only exist to the speaker in his memory. However, the assumption could also be made that the speaker was in a failed relationship, and it is the trance granted by the drugs used to control his mind that has altered his perception of reality and transformed the love lost into a love never again obtained.
Significance of Loss - Why the Lyrics Resonate
The final lines of the song imagine a “gift you give to me / no one knows,” inferring that the lost relationship was indeed something significant to the speaker. Whatever actually happened in his reality, the world of induced delusion in which he now lives has altered the nature of the relationship into something that only he can understand. He is trapped in this place, though he seems to prefer the delusion of an affected reality than the pain of the present without the significant relationship.
Whatever the true meaning of the song, the imagery defines a deluded and long-suffering man who has lost something of great value to him. He is forever trapped in a new reality not of his choosing and will forever hold onto the regret that was that love lost. His only outcome is to continue taking the pills and following the rules because he cannot escape (or would prefer not to) back into the pain of his tragic reality.