“Obsessions” is the debut single of singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis, formerly known by the stage name Marina and the Diamonds and currently known by the stage name MARINA. It also appears on her debut album, The Family Jewels. In the song, a speaker, who seems to suffer symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compares the impact a toxic romantic partner has on her life to the impact her own disordered thoughts have on it. By keeping the line between the demands of the speaker’s partner and the demands of the speaker’s own obsessive thoughts ambiguous through various literary techniques such as shifting point of view and diction with multiple connotations, the song explores how an unstable mental state and an unstable romantic relationship can feed into each other.
The song begins by setting the occasion: the speaker waking up in the morning after a night spent with a romantic partner. The singing is soft, slow, and deceptively gentle as the speaker describes the moment: “Sunday, wake up, give me a cigarette/Last night’s love affair is looking vulnerable in my bed/Silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate, tongue warm.” However, it quickly slips into a much more rapid tempo as Diamandis drops the pitch of her voice significantly, as if to imitate a male one, and sings, “Won’t you quit your crying? I can’t sleep.” In this line, the point of view of the song seems to shift briefly to that of the original speaker’s male partner and the occasion seems to flash back to the previous night, as the original speaker is crying and her angry partner displays no sympathy. While some of the prior lyrics hinted at the issues to come later in the song, this line is the first one in which the audience realizes that the relationship in the song is one characterized by conflict and unhappiness. This becomes absolutely clear in the next line, which is back in Diamandis’ normal voice, the voice of the original and primary speaker: “One minute I’m a little sweetheart/And next minute you are an absolute creep.”
In the next verse (I’ll come back to the chorus later), with the toxic, hot-and-cold nature of the relationship established, the song begins to explore the mental instability of the speaker. With an increasingly frenzied pace and repetition of harsh consonant sounds, the song describes the speaker going to a grocery store and being unable to pick out a box of crackers because she is so paranoid that there might be something wrong with one of them:
Supermarket, oh what packet of crackers to pick?
They’re all the same, one brand, one name, but really they’re not
Look, look, just choose something quick
People are staring, time ticker-quicking
Skin is on fire; just choose something, something, something
In this verse, the panic of the speaker is conveyed through the repetition of harsh consonant sounds, especially the “k” sound (as in supermarket, packet, crackers, pick, look, quick, ticker-quicking, skin). These sounds heighten tension by being so abrupt, almost evoking through their sharp yet gutteral sound the noise of somebody choking, as if the speaker is struggling to breathe smoothly. Words are repeated as well (particularly “look” and “something”), intensifying the sense of the speaker being “stuck” and unable to move on enough to even find new words, let alone take action and choose a box of crackers. This verse poignantly conveys the extent to which the speaker is debilitated by irrational and anxious thoughts.
Once the audience is aware of the two main conflicts in the song, the unhealthy romantic relationship and the speaker’s unstable mental state, it becomes clear how these issues play into each other. One way in which the song demonstrates this is through multilayered diction. For example, there is a great deal of diction that connotes common symptoms of OCD, such as a fear of germs and contamination. This diction is often used in reference to the speaker’s romantic partner, giving the impression that the speaker’s partner is the source of many of her intrusive, unpleasant thoughts. In the first chorus, the speaker says, “I want to wipe out all the sad ideas/That come to me when I am holding you.” The word “wipe” connotes cleaning. Excessive cleaning can be a compulsion for some people with OCD, who may use it to ease negative, fearful thoughts about germs or disease that will not go away. However, the speaker in this song wishes to ease the negative thoughts that are a direct result of her relationship (they appear when, as she says, “I am holding you”–when she is physical contact with her partner). The speaker also uses diction that evokes bugs, germs and disease when referring to her partner, such as “creep,” “sick,” and “weak.” It is almost as if she obsessively fears her partner the way certain people with OCD might obsessively fear germs.
Diction is not the only tool used to show the link between the speaker’s romantic relationship and her mental state. The song also uses imagery and contrast, particularly in the line, “Silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate, tongue warm.“ In this line, the cool, clean feelings evoked by the beginning section (“silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate”) contrasts with the squidgy tactile imagery evoked by “tongue warm.” It is as if the crisp cleanness of the beginning of the line is ruined by a messy, human aspect, as symbolized by an actual human body part. Interestingly, it is unclear whether the speaker is referring to the feeling of her own tongue or her partner’s (don’t worry, I’m not going to get too graphic here). It could be either her own issues or the presence of her partner that ruins her desired cleanness and perfection.
This is not the only instance in which the speaker leaves it unclear which of her issues stem from her relationship and which are entirely her own. She also uses diction that connotes germs and illness when referring to her own thoughts without mentioning her partner, such as when she says, “I want to erase every nasty thought/That bugs me every day of every week.” In this line, she admits that her thoughts are “nasty” and “bug” her. These words connote contamination of sorts (germs are gross and “nasty” and can also be referred to as “bugs,” as in a “stomach bug”). However, the speaker does not specify what sort of “nasty” thoughts she is having, only that they bother her and she feels she cannot get away from them (as is made especially obvious by repetition of the word “every”). It is unclear whether or not these thoughts have anything to do with her partner. Likewise, it is unclear whether the speaker’s breakdown in the grocery store in the second verse has anything to do with pressure being put on her by her partner or simply her own issues, as it is ambiguous whether lines such as “Look, look, just choose something quick/People are staring…” are spoken by the primary speaker to herself or her partner to her.
Another way the song uses ambiguity is the fact that the speaker leaves it unclear which party in the relationship–herself or her partner–is more troubled. In the first chorus, she says, “We’ve got obsessions/All you ever think about are sick ideas/Involving me, involving you.” By using the first person plural, the speaker shows that both herself and her partner suffer from upsetting, inescapable thoughts. When she says, “All you ever think about are sick ideas/Involving me, involving you,” she hints that her partner (“you”) may suffer symptoms of OCD as well, particularly constant intrusive thoughts with disturbing sexual or violent content. However, another way this line could be interpreted is the speaker is fearful that her partner will harm her in some way, an interpretation supported by when she calls him a “creep” earlier in the song.
One final set of lines that heightens the ambiguity of the song is when the speaker says, “Can’t let your cold heart be free/When you act like you’ve got an OCD.” In this line, it is unclear whether she is talking to herself or to her partner, as both of them seem to have issues letting go of control and letting their hearts be “free.” However, it interests me that she says whoever she is speaking to acts “like they have an OCD,” suggesting they do not actually suffer from OCD, they merely act like they do. This could be interpreted to mean that the people in the song would be mentally healthy if not for the toxic relationship they are in. However, it is also true that there are a wide range of mental disorders and even non-disordered patterns of thinking that share some similarities to aspects of OCD, and the fact that the speaker and her partner have obsessive thoughts does not mean they have actual OCD. So they might have issues completely outside of the relationship as well, just not clinically diagnosed OCD.
Overall, it is clear that the primary speaker in the song has mental health issues of her own, but it is also clear that her relationship is an unhappy one. The song keeps it purposefully ambiguous the extent to which the relationship is exacerbating her issues and the extent to which her poor mental health is harming her relationship. I believe this is on purpose, as these lines are not always so clear in real life either. Our relationships, if toxic, can hurt us, but our own personal issues can also contribute to the toxicity of those relationships.