Near the end of her life, in 1999, the legendary advice columnist Ann Landers asked readers to select the best chestnuts of her 47-year career. They picked out nuggets of heartland wisdom about loneliness, integrity, romance, meatloaf, and warts. There was also a fortune cookie–worthy aphorism about keeping grudges.
“Hanging onto resentment,” Landers wrote, “is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”
These are resentful times in America. Liberals resent Republicans. Leftists resent liberals. Nationalists resent (((globalists))). Whites resent people of color. The coasts resent the center. The center resents the extremes. Men resent women. Women resent men. And as Ann Landers might have predicted, we have officially entered the great age of living in each others’ heads rent-free.
Rent-free: Suddenly, everywhere, there are brain squatters, hogging mental resources and coughing up nothing in return. To pick just a few examples from a recent Twitter search for the phrase, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is living rent-free in Fox News’ head, Pro-gun Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv is living rent-free in the heads of gun control advocates, Michael Avenatti is “thoroughly enjoying living rent-free” in Donald Trump’s head, alt-righters are living rent-free in the heads of “haters,” and Steve Bannon is living in H.R. McMaster’s head rent-free. And then there’s the greatest attention freeloader of all, President Trump — a landlord, no less!
“Hearing all the ‘jokes’ about @realDonaldTrump as a business man from last night’s #WHCorrespondentsDinner,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted earlier this year. “Only problem is they forgot about his best deal ever... Living rent free for 2 years in the media’s heads.”
The phrase is usually attributed to Landers, and has floated around self-help blogs for years. (It also stars in a late-career Wang Chung single) But in recent months, “living rent-free in your head” has come into its own, and is offered now not as advice but as a taunt. And in its new, antagonistic usage, the phrase has gained new resonance. Like any great turn of phrase, it pithily gets at something quite deep-seated: our anxiety over the way the indignant and polarized national mood intersects with the hyper-competitive, fully monetized attention economy that defines American culture and politics in 2018.
Landers’ maxim, “don’t let someone live rent-free in your head,” is about letting go of things beyond your control. But beyond that, it implies that the people and things we obsess over should reward us — or at least present us with the possibility. So, we obsess about our jobs, but we can get promoted. We obsess about romantic partners, but we can love and be loved. We obsess about sports, but our teams can win it all. (Unless you’re, oh, a Browns fan. They’re living rent-free in your head!) Someone or something that lives rent-free in your head is causing you agita without paying for it. They’re getting something for nothing.
We live in an age of unprecedented competition for our attention, from social networks, from incendiary cable news, from online advertisements that follow us around the world. Americans are just starting to realize the extent to which our attention is a valuable commodity — one that, as the backlash against the free, ad-dollar supported services of Silicon Valley has started to show, we have been valuing far too low.
So something or someone that lives rent-free in your head today carries with it not just an emotional sting but an economic one. Paying attention online without getting anything in return — which might just be another person mashing that like button — is giving away a resource for free. That may be one of the reasons interactions on Twitter and Facebook frequently turn so hostile; aggrieved or disappointed users want to feel, on some level, that they are getting their money’s worth — giving grief and not just taking it.
It makes sense that today “living rent-free in your head” most often refers to the effect on liberals of Donald Trump, a social media president whose shtick is dealmaking and whose methods are transactional. What could be better to our tweeting President Deals than living somewhere for free, than getting one over on the people who didn’t vote for him, and having them know all about it?
Like a lot of Trumpian putdowns, the phrase echoes the schoolyard, and the blunt way children express difference: You think about me, but I don’t think about you. It recalls the famous line in Mad Men, a show all about the nascent attention economy, in which Don Draper ends an argument with a surly subordinate by stating, flatly, “I don’t think about you at all.” The ability to make others think about you, and to let them know about it, is a form of power.
Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor and author of The Attention Merchants — a history of the commodification of attention in America — got at just this tactic in a January interview with NPR. “Donald Trump through The Apprentice understood deeply the power of capturing and using human attention,” Wu said. “The battle for attention is primary to a lot of other battles...The whole country is reacting to his agenda, his presence, his tweets, everything he does. That’s also known as power. Even if people are resisting you they are still paying attention to you.”
“Living in your head rent-free” is such a perfect expression of our moment because it shows the double powerlessness of being an American in the 2018 attention economy: at the mercy of tech platforms that aren’t giving us our money’s worth for our time, and at the mercy of power users who exploit the attention-based dynamics of these platforms in a way most of us never will. It is every tweet that has ever enraged you. It is every meme you’ve ever hated or celebrity you’ve found pointless. Trump is simply the most extreme example of a trend. In the social media–addled worldview of “living in your head rent-free,” we’re all constantly trying to get into each other’s heads, to think less about others than others think about us, to be cared about but not to care. It’s a hierarchy, and it’s fluid.
Indeed, despite what Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “living in your head rent-free” as an insult is always relative; it often comes from a place of vulnerability. The very act of stating that someone cares about you but you don’t care about them contradicts the assertion. President Trump’s thin skin is the stuff of legend, and he very obviously thinks all the time about people and institutions that bother him. More than that, it’s not true that the libs he triggers don’t get anything out of thinking about him. For all its demerits, #Resistance twitter seems to fulfill some intense emotional need for its true believers. And while Trump may have bedeviled the national media and delegitimized it in the minds of his base, he’s also been very good for its business. That’s led to worries that the mainstream media is running on a Trump bubble that will pop as soon as everyone stops paying attention to him (if that ever happens). Indeed, a political and technological culture in which everyone is trying to get everyone else to think about them as much as possible is, in the long run, clearly a bad deal for everyone. For one thing, it’s exhausting.
Which brings us back to the timeless wisdom of Ann Landers, and to questions of good old-fashioned mental hygiene. Fixating on how much we fixate on others is taking up more of our mental space than ever. But plenty of things already rattle around in our heads, doing damage and giving nothing in return. In her testimony last week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford recalled how she’ll never forget the laughter of the man — who she alleges is Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — who sexually assaulted her in a Maryland bedroom three and a half decades ago. What lives more completely rent-free in our heads than trauma? And what happens when those traumas are joined by the countless accumulated shocks delivered through unaccountable tech platforms by those whose livelihood is predicated on giving them? One thing is for sure: We’ll all find out together.