A common interpretation is that the song is about her relationship with Trent Reznor, supposedly evidenced by her reference to “made my own pretty hate machine,” the title of one of his CDs. I don’t think the rest of the song supports this interpretation, although it’s possible that elements of that relationship provided her with ideas for the lyrics.
The song is clearly about a pregnant young woman who has been abandoned by her boyfriend. She’s caught a “lightning seed” but is “hiding it well.” She is surrounded by “boys on my left side, boys on my right side,” which I take to mean sons, and the “boys in the middle” may refer to the baby developing in her womb. All of this male energy, especially in the context of the boyfriend who is not coming through for her (“and you’re not here”), prompts her to cry out for a balancing energy, a “big loan from the girl zone.” Whether this is invoking the Goddess, as someone claims Tori explained the lyrics to mean, or more generally the feminine aspect of the human spirit, I don’t think makes a difference. In any event, the relationship she spent time building is tumbling down, and the topsy-turvy effect on her world is heightened when Tori sings “building” with a descending melody and “tumbling down” with an ascending melody, the opposite of what you would expect. The bottom line is she “didn’t know our love was so small,” so insignificant.
There is a lot of religious imagery in the lyrics, particularly Catholic imagery: a spire, Sister Ernestine, a Belle (which ambiguously could be a beautiful woman or a church bell). The person she calls Mr. St. John could be the father of her boyfriend, or perhaps he is St. John the Baptist and the “son” is Jesus. Is it a church spire or a phallic image — or perhaps both? I suspect that Tori deliberately leaves some of these references ambiguous so there are multiple layers of meaning, a stream of consciousness.
When she sings “made my own pretty hate machine,” though, I feel she’s referring either to her own anger against the boyfriend or how her anger has seeped over to influence the attitudes of her sons — not to Reznor. The evidence that these are her sons is clinched for me when she adds this line toward the end: “boys in their dresses.” That image recalls how baby boys in my grandfather’s day were clothed in dresses for photos and special occasions. So perhaps this character is someone from an earlier day and age. The use of the word “Belle,” which is an older southern expression not much heard these days, favors this interpretation, too.
The title, as Tori herself alluded, is a reference to a relationship that turned out to be insubstantial, hence the spelling “lite.” She uses the imagery of sickness — catching something that’s just a sneeze, not the full-on flu — in an ironic way. After all, wouldn’t it be better NOT to have the flu? Yet having nothing, only a simple sneeze, is why the young woman is distraught. The complexity of that image is a fine example of Tori’s lyrical genius.
I almost get the impression that Tori is singing about a specific person but keeping it obscure. After all, why a reference to a specific nun, Sister Ernestine? And why the use of imagery and terms that were prevalent from a past time? Many of Tori’s lyrics have this same quality of suggesting real experiences, not necessarily her own, that are obscure for us. She doesn’t give us all the details because she is more interested in what the experience represents or symbolizes.
She often uses masculine imagery of guns, violence, invasion — clearly emerging from her own rape experience — but also imagery that criticizes orthodox religious beliefs in favor of the feminine aspect of the divine. Such contrasting references, for example, are scattered all throughout the CD “The Beekeeper,” which, with its garden theme, recalls the Garden of Eden. Tori sees this contrast between masculinity and femininity as being at the heart of both the relationships she sings about and the larger societal/spiritual context of our culture. Like any great artist, her insightful comments are worth paying attention to.