This trend piece comes to us from Teddy Wayne, bestselling novelist and author of one million mildly to somewhat amusing one-sentence articles for McSweeney’s. (For those not familiar with McSweeney’s, it is an online humor site for people who hate dick jokes and love those Yelp reviews that are in the form of an open letter to an abstract entity, but wish they were a little edgier.) But he’s not just a disarmingly quirky observer of modern mores; he’s also a concerned and judgmental observer of modern mores. For instance, one day Wayne was on Amtrak, and overheard four debutantes conversing. He found their discussion to be humorous, so he began typing what they said and posting it on Facebook for his friends to laugh at. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a really cool story. It’s a shame that only Teddy Wayne’s Facebook friends got to see those posts, when they should have been made available for everyone to read. Teddy Wayne is too modest, making fun of teenage girls on Facebook and then trying to get out of taking credit for it.”
But you’d be wrong. Teddy Wayne has overcome his natural reticence to reveal himself as the heroic “Amtrak eavesdropper.” In his article “Obsessed? You’re Not Alone,” he tells us that he overheard the “chatty” gals, started “[cataloguing] all the vernacular expressions they emphatically overused” (such as “‘they’re just jealous'”), and transcribed them to Facebook. But he didn’t just notice that women be chattin’ and usin’ vernacular English. No, he started thinking. “The short phrase that so got my attention was ‘I’m obsessed.'” It’s a phrase that is used, by ladies. He notices that about it. He asked around, and other people have noticed it, too! Sofia Cavallo, “the online editor for the fashion retailer Opening Ceremony,” weighs in to point out that she “‘[hears] it all the time,'” so it must be true. Wayne has found that most precious of things: An honest-to-God trend.
“When and why did this verb, which once connoted a serious psychological disorder, become hijacked by the fashionable young women (and a few men) of America?” Yeah, a few men. An odd number, if you know what I mean. Odd as in queer. Queer, as in fruitier than an Edible Arrangement sticking out of a glory hole. And speaking of metaphors, when did the word “hijacked” become hijacked to connote the mere metaphorical or hyperbolic extension of a word to express related meanings? Hijacking used to connote a serious crime; what’s more, it used to denote it, because that’s its literal meaning. Now it’s being serial-murdered and eaten by linguistic Jeffrey Dahmers of colloquial language use. Even cannibalism is being cannibalized to refer to things that imitate other things. For shame.
If you’re like most of my readers, you’re probably an alcoholic humanities graduate student, and you’re thinking, “figurative language and hyperbole have existed in every known community since humans developed the capacity to use language; they are a defining feature of creativity and cultural change.” Well, it’s easy for you to say that. Sure, just sit on your sofa and point out something that’s totally obvious to anyone who’s familiar with the topic, and that you didn’t even need statistics to demonstrate. While you’re bitching, Teddy “bestselling author” Wayne is putting in the legwork to do real journalism: Interviewing young women to better understand their perspectives and let them explain in their own words why they communicate the way they do. Just kidding, he did an internet search. And what he found may shock you: numbers and factoids. “The word ‘obsessed,’ tracked by Google Ngram’s search in books, sees a sharp rise from 1900 to 1920, then a slow and steady increase to 2008.” Hang on there! Who cares about 2008; I think the real story is that mysterious sharp rise. These were uses of the word “obsessed” all by itself, without the “I’m,” so one can only assume that people were accusing others of being obsessed with things — but what? celluloid collar maintenance? influenza avoidance techniques? ocean liner sinkability? trench redecoration? stockpiling liquor “quick while it’s still legal”? drawing unflattering caricatures of Kaiser Wilhelm?
Yes, we could probably learn a lot from the vanished trends of a bygone era. But they do possess one large drawback: Not one of them has ever caused society to disintegrate into a dystopian hellscape of social media narcissism. If trends aren’t threatening to destroy civilization, what’s the point of caring about them?
Perhaps for this reason, Wayne declines to give context or meaning for the historical data that he spent valuable seconds Googling. Instead, he speeds through the decades. “The phrase ‘I’m obsessed,’ however, is flat and low until the mid-’50s, after which it steeply ascends.”
Just like your mom’s love life “The first instance of ‘I’m obsessed’ shows up in the New York Times archive in 1967. There are four examples from that year…after that, they’re few and far between, with a five-year gap between 1980 and 1985, totaling just 19 by the end of that year. It heats up a little after that, but remains sporadic, with just 98 total entries through 2007.” Just like my love life A riveting narrative. I especially liked the part where the thing remained flat and low before steeply ascending, then heated up for a while while also remaining sporadic. A true triumph, if not of the human spirit, of the spirit of lines being used to represent the numerical fluctuations of abstract entities. It’s the feel-neutral story of the year! The hand of the master storyteller is evident in the way Wayne generates suspense about the fate of the line. Maybe he should quit writing novels and go in for nonfiction, since he has such a talent for it. Veer: How Statistical Instances of Qualities or Occurrences Ascend, Descend, Fluctuate or Remain Static When Represented in Graphic Format. Malcolm Gladwell is going to be so jealous, he’ll respond with Slice: The Manner in Which Proportional Segments of Pie Charts Look Like a Half-Circle, a Triangle, or Just a Skinny Little Line, Depending on What Percentage They Represent. The Freakonomics guy will fire back with N: The Untold Story of a Notational Symbol That Can Be Used in Mathematics to Represent Any Integer.
Yes, Wayne has stripped narrative to its very essence. And like all narratives, this one features an action-packed climax near the end: In this case, the triumphant 2008 rise of “I’m obsessed.”
“It’s now entrenched in our everyday informal language, most often employed by young women.” Oh, these are young women doing this? Why didn’t you say so before? Because I feel like if people would just complain a little more often about the way young women speak, pronounce words and interact on social media, we could halt humanity’s slide into barbarity and chaos. For instance, on “Instyle’s daily ‘We’re Obsessed!’ feature[,] one object of obsession [is] a $4000 Fendi bag.” I gather that he disapproves of this, but dude, you’re writing for a publication that recommended readers spend $80 on a set of four nails, and use them “to hang a picture.” You’re a few column inches away from someone telling me that a $1,870 blue glitter biker jacket will “become that jacket you can’t live without.” At least the bag is cute.
On Twitter, “a recent sampling of obsessions deemed worthy for public display: cream soda, cardigans, ketchup, one girl’s own eyes.” To be fair, those people didn’t know their tweets were going to be summarized in the newspaper. If they had know those words would become their most lasting contribution to posterity, perhaps they would have tweeted something more edifying. “I’m obsessed with the importance of kids staying in school & saying no to drugs! Don’t text and drive, kids!” “These colorblock wedges are EVERYTHING… but so is preventing cervical cancer by getting a routine pap smear! #cancer #adorbs”
“One reason for the mainstreaming of ‘obsessed,’ in fact, may be the very mental malady with which we associate it.” Very lucid. And one reason for the failure of this sentence to make any sense may, in fact, be the very rules of logic and syntax which are flouted by it. Would that Wayne were as “obsessed” with the craft of English prose as Twitter users are with mundane condiments and beverages.
“Formerly a rare diagnosis, [obsessive-compulsive disorder] is ‘the obsessive disease of our time,’ says Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of ‘Obsession: A History.'” As so often when English professors give quotes for Times trend pieces, questions proliferate. Are there even any other obsessive diseases besides OCD? If it’s the only one, wouldn’t that make it, by default, the obsessive disorder of every time? Or is Davis trying to say that people are “obsessed” with the very fact or possibility of suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and won’t shut up about it, like with food allergies? Is anyone really out there bragging about how many times they had to tap the doorknob and spin in a circle before they were able to leave the house? This is why I think English professors should stick to analyzing the phallogocentric ontology of desire in Paradise Lost, instead of turning disorders of organic brain function into “Hot or Not.”
“Saying ‘I’m obsessed with’ as opposed to ‘I love’ might also advertise the speaker’s intellectual heft, given its scholarly implications of philosophers and researchers being obsessed with problems.” As a regular viewer of Youtube makeup tutorials and haul videos, let me just say: I always knew those gals were up to something. All this time, they’ve been trying to advertise their intellectual heft…and it worked! Think about it: When you hear a sorority girl chattering away about how she’s obsessed with Pinkberry, tanning beds, Pucci rain boots and Skinny Girl margaritas, your unconscious mind tells you she is a deeply erudite and intelligent person. Then it gets totes jealous of her intellectual heft, and tells your conscious mind to hate her. Your brain only makes you think she’s an airhead because it had to come up with a reason for disliking her so much.
This mental process is also why college men are so driven to procreate with those type of women. It is a manifestation of their desire to find an intelligent mate who will be better able to survive the unforgiving hunter-gatherer environment. I think Wayne should have interviewed an evolutionary biologist for this piece, as well as an English professor and the fashion retailer for Opening Ceremony. He could have proven that this so-called “trend” is really a hard-wired biological imperative.
“…much as ‘random’ is most closely linked to the highbrow realm of statistical probability.” And yet everyone’s so against having “randoms” show up at their party. It just goes to show that the sciences aren’t truly respected in this country.
“I think the introduction of Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance, in 1985, and the risque ads and haunting commercial in 1993 featuring Kate Moss whispering the word over and over, helped bring it into lexical prominence.” That has to be it! Factoring in the obvious 23-year time lag between the introduction of the perfume in 1985 and the increased usage of “I’m obsessed” in 2008, it accounts for all the data. Teddy Wayne should be a detective. He’d be calling the chief of police, all like “I’ve discovered the perpetrator behind the jewel heist. This man confessed to shoplifting an ice cream sandwich when he was 8, thus bringing a pattern of larcenous actions into behavioral prominence.”
“That campaign, said Professor Davis, was ‘a perfect example’ of our culture ‘that’s geared to obsession.'” Brilliant. The success of a product called “Obsession” does indeed suggest the culture has an interest in obsession. I can’t wait to hear what he says about Estée Lauder Beautiful (the perfect example of our culture that’s geared toward beauty), the Snuggie (the prototypical illustration of our culture that’s geared toward snugness) and the pocket pussy (the supreme instantiation of our culture that’s geared toward pussies that can fit in pockets). Does this guy have tenure yet? If not, they might want to consider witholding it until he can demonstrate that his powers of analysis extend beyond pointing out that a word’s meaning relates to the concept that it refers to.
Davis complains that “‘We think that things are not good unless we’re obsessed about them…If you’re only mildly interested in your partner, that’s not as hot as being obsessed about somebody.'” Finally, someone willing to stick up for being only mildly interested in the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with. “Contrary to our claims of obsession, Professor Davis believes that ‘the generation now is very low key — the emotions are flat — compared to movies from the ’50s, when people look sentimental.'” As part of the generation now (or at least a generation now), I’d just like to say that we’re tired of being compared to actors in movies from the 50’s. It’s really getting to be a sore subject with me and my co-generationists. Just when we’re having a good cry on our Youtube channel over meatless Mondays or Justin Beiber’s cancer, someone from the “then” generation turns up to point out that we don’t look as distraught as Lauren Bacall did in Written on the Wind. Leave me alone, gramps! I’ve got my own fake life to live!
Anyway, having emotions is good, but only if you’re not trying to have them. It’s like in Peter Pan, where Captain Hook says that “to have good form without knowing it…is, of course, the best form of all.” We’re trapped in a phenomenological paradox wherein the only way to be authentically emotional is to be unaware of it, plus our tweets are inane. Is their no end to our failures?
No, there’s not. We’re also “inflat[ing] the language'”: “‘We’re using this powerful word, but lowering the standards by having everybody be obsessed by everything.'” If you understand economics, this makes perfect sense. Inflating the language of emotions lowers the value of everyone’s emotional savings, unfairly punishing the emotionally responsible and discouraging emotional job creators (“sob creators”?). People who spend 80 hours a week feeling things don’t want to see their earnings trickle away just because a bunch of freeloaders thought they deserved to get LOLs handed to them. These emotional handouts (“affective entitlements”) are bankrupting us and saddling future generations with emotional debt. What we need is a return to the emotional gold standard. (The emotional gold standard stipulates that you can only smile on your wedding day, you can only cry if someone dies, and the only thing you can be “obsessed” with is actual gold.)
Is it ever okay to use the O-word? Wayne’s next interviewee, a memoirist named James Lasdun, says that obsession is only good when you’re a scholar obsessed with a research subject. In a strange non sequitor, Wayne observes that “It is indeed hard to imagine, say, Stephen Hawking boasting about being ‘obsessed’ with M-theory.” It’s not that hard, but take it from me, don’t bother. Worst fanfiction ever! I got curious about this topic, though, so I searched around and found an article which states that “Hawking admits he’s obsessed with time travel.” But it’s from Fox News, so maybe this is part of some secret right-wing plot to discredit science and/or contribute to language inflation by putting hyperbole in the mouths of prestigious figures. Wait a second, why would Fox News want to encourage inflation? I thought they were pro-austerity. Have they been concealing their true agenda all this time? Are they using a façade of conservatism to promote a radically anarchistic program of linguistic hyperinflation leading to the complete breakdown of communication, and thus democracy? Is this why Glenn Beck is always crying about bald eagles or whatever? It all fits. First debutantes, then Calvin Klein, then Fox News…this conspiracy goes all the way to the top!
But Lasdun, blissfully unaware of the gathering storm, continues, “‘It’s a gesture of self-promotion…. They’re compensating for not having the capacity to get all that interested in things. Younger people create an atmosphere of hysteria around themselves and get caught up in it.'” I can remember when the word “hysteria” connoted a serious medical condition caused by a woman’s womb wandering throughout her body due to fluid imbalances, leading to insanity and apoplectic fits. You used to have to smear honey on your… wait a minute, whose side is Mr. Lasdun on? Now that I think about it, both he and Teddy Wayne have been using a suspiciously high amount of figurative language, for guys who are ostensibly so anti-hyperbole. They’re just as bad as Fox News. Now I don’t trust anyone. All this time, has Teddy Wayne been pretending to crusade against hyperbole in order to conceal his role as the puppet master behind the Kate Moss illuminati inflation conspiracy? My God, things are worse than I thought. If I develop a conspiracy theory about obsessive use of the word “obsessed,” am I obsessed with being obsessed with being obsessed?
Likelihood that trend exists: 69/10 WHO CARES
Importance of trend in grand scheme of things: 0/10
Adherence to trend piece formula: 10/10 (obligatory Paragraph of Statistics, obligatory pearl-clutching about Youth of Today, obligatory assertions that the internet is to blame, obligatory needless “expert” commentary)
Best aspect of author’s writing style: Knows how to use Google
Suggestion for improving author’s writing style: Stop eavesdropping on teenage girls, you creep
10 thoughts on “Trend of the Week: Obsession Obsession”
This is why I think English professors should stick to analyzing the phallogocentric ontology of desire in Paradise Lost, instead of turning disorders of organic brain function into “Hot or Not.”
I have an English degree and even I can agree with this.
On a more general note, I am incredibly happy that you’re back. I love your blog so much.
‘Finally, someone willing to stick up for being only mildly interested in the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with.’ HA!
This is a great read, I feel very.. Sentimental about it? Also wondering if there was a popular perfume 30 years ago called, ‘Literally’, that we can blame that trend on. Not wondering about it to the extent that I’d spend all that effort Googling it, but still.
Glad I read this!
This comment is making me imagine what it would be like if there were a perfume for every phrase that annoys people. What would “Wag More, Bark Less,” “Keep Austin Weird,” “For All Intensive Purposes” or (shudder) “Cool Beans” smell like?
I would imagine that “Keep Austin Weird” would smell like your unwashed hair after you’ve spent a week freegan dumpster diving and have grown it into a white afro/cornrows. “Wag More, Bark Less” would smell like my dog’s breath after she snarfed up somebody’s half-digested fast food dinner off the sidewalk.
Haha, yes. “Cool Beans” would smell like the inside of a hackey sack, & “For All Intensive Purposes” would smell like whiteboard markers & toner fluid.
Other obsessions of 1900-1920: toques; tonics; viamotes, locomobiles and mobes (thanks, This Fabulous Century!)
So happy you’re back!
Slightly off topic, and late to the game as usual, this reminds me of when Dame Elizabeth Taylor introduced her discount drugstore line of fragrances, White Diamonds, which I always associated with Blood Diamonds; that is, the vicious wars that broke out in Africa to supply white people (and others) with things like engagement rings bought with cheap credit and “tennis bracelets” and, for a certain lucky few, dental implants.
I would love to hate on White Diamonds, but alas, I don’t think we can call ‘racism’ considering the whole rap/bling phenom. But White Diamonds is still a sappy name for a cologne or anything else, and diamonds in general suck.
I didn’t really mean to invoke racism, sorry, I just always saw “white diamonds” and flashed to those horrific stories from the 1990s about diamond mining practices and those strange ads from Zales and deBeers (now THERE’S a company that has a fun corporate history) using white male models to exhort readers/viewers to spend a minimum of two months’ salary on an engagement ring or you’re not being sincere.
Yeah, the whole murderous colonialism/capitalist exploitation thing is the most disturbing aspect of diamonds. But it does seem kind of suspicious that the more colorless and “pure” a diamond is, the more valuable it is considered to be. Like, blue diamonds are okay, but if you’re a diamond that’s yellow or brown, you can “get out of town.”