“Every breath you take”: A brief look at love obsessions in popular music

“You are an obsession/I cannot sleep/I am your possession/Unopened at your feet
/There’s no balance/No equality/Be still I will not accept defeat/I will have you/Yes, I will have you/I will find a way and I will have you/Like a butterfly/A wild butterfly/I will collect you and capture you” (Lyrics to the song ‘Obsession’ by Animotion)

Like the word ‘addiction’, one thing we can say about the word ‘obsession’ that there is no absolute agreed definition. Dictionary definitions of obsession refer to an obsession as:

  • “…an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind” or “a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Oxford Dictionary).
  • “…unable to stop thinking about something; too interested in or worried about something” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/obsessed
  • “…a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • “…an emotional state in which someone or something is so important to you that you are always thinking about them, in a way that seems extreme to other people” (Macmillan Dictionary).

More medical definitions (such as Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) describe obsession as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it”. Given all these overlapping but differing definitions, it can be concluded that obsession means slightly different things to different people. In the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an obsession must be distressing to be classed as a disorder. (And that’s why my obsession with music is not problematic).

I deliberately mentioned my self-confessed obsession with music because this article is a (somewhat self-admittedly) frivolous look at obsession in song lyrics. The first song I remember listening to called ‘Obsession’ was in 1981 by Scottish band Scars (from one of my all-time favourite LPs Author! Author!), quickly followed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song ‘Obsession’ on their 1982 LP A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (which reached No.11 in the UK albums chart). Arguably the most famous song entitled ‘Obsession’ was 1984’s top five hit by the US band Animotion (which was actually a cover version as the original was released by Holly Knight and Michael Des Barres) and later covered by The Sugababes and Karen O (lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the theme song to the US TV mini-series Flesh and Bone). Many artists have recorded songs simply called ‘Obsession’ including Tich, Tinie Tempah, Future Cut, The Subways, Jake Quickenden, Jesus Culture, and Blue Eyed Christ (amongst others).

Almost all songs with the title of ‘Obsession’ have been about being obsessed (or obsessively in love) with another person and are probably not that far removed from songs about love addiction (such as Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Perfect Drug’). Not all obsessional songs have the word ‘obsession’ in their title and probably the most famous songs about being obsessed with someone are ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police) and ‘Stan’ (Eminem; in fact the word ‘Stan’ is now sometimes used as a term for overly-obsessive fans of someone or something). As the Wikipedia entry on ‘Every Breath You Take’ notes:

Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from [actress] Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with [actress, film producer and director] Trudy Styler. The split was controversial…The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching ‘every breath you take; every move you make’. [Sting said he] ‘woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour…It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother surveillance and control…[Sting] insists [the song is] about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow”.

Sting’s experience of writing from what you know and feel is a staple motivation for many songwriters (and probably no different from academics like myself – I tend to write about what I know about). An article in the New York Post by Kirsten Fleming (‘When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession‘) features a top ten list of ‘obsessional love’ songs (although I think very few of them are. Much better is the list of ‘greatest stalking songs’ put together by The Scientist on the Rate Your Music website). However, I do think the song-writing process can border on the obsessional and I think the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has a realistic (and perhaps representative) take on her song-writing as she noted in an online article:

“For me, what writes songs is passion. So if I’m passionately angry about something or if I’m passionately in love with something or if I’m passionately addicted to something or if I’m passionately curious or scared, this is what creates worlds in art. I think love and anger are two of the most gorgeous life forces, with love being the only one that is bottomless. All of these different feelings that I’ve been running away from my whole life, the only one that has remained bottomless and endless is love. All other emotions seem to ebb and flow and move through once they get my attention long enough to really feel, but love is the one that remains limitless”.

In this interview extract, Morissette uses the word “addicted” in an arguably positive way and echoes a quote I used in a previous blog from Dr. Isaac Marks who said that “life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. Morissette (in a different interview) was also quoted as saying:

“My top addictions are really recovering from love addictions, which is a tough withdrawal that I’ve also written records in the midst of. Probably the worst withdrawal I’ve experienced. Food addiction, which I’ve been struggling with since I was 14, and work addiction it’s the respectable addiction in the west, but it’s actually an addiction to busy-ness and the fear of stopping and being still, and all that would come up from that. Those three are my top ones, and I’ve dabbled in all the other ones but none of them have grasped hold of me like the first one did”.

The band that I think have lyrically explored obsessive love more than any other is Depeche Mode. I’ve followed them from before their first hit right up until the present day. I’ve included their songs on almost every mix tape I’ve made for any girlfriend I’ve had over the last 35 years. Their main songwriter, Martin Gore, explores the dark side of love better than any lyricist I can think of. Whereas Adam Ant wins the prize for the most songs about different types of fetishes and paraphilias, Martin Gore is the lyrical king of obsessive love (although he does occasionally wander into more paraphilic kinds of love such as the sado-masochisticMaster and Servant’. Here are just a few selected lyrics that I hope help argue my case:

  • Extract 1: “Dark obsession in the name of love/This addiction that we’re both part of/
Leads us deeper into mystery/
Keeps us craving endlessly/Strange compulsions/That I can’t control/Pure possession of my heart and soul
/I must live with this reality/I am you and you are me” (‘I Am You’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 2: I want somebody who cares for me passionately/With every thought and with every breath/Someone who’ll help me see things in a different light/All the things I detest I will almost like” (‘Somebody’ from Some Great Reward, 1984)
  • Extract 3: “Well I’m down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength to bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I’ve done/Oh girl, lead me into your darkness/When this world is trying it’s hardest
/To leave me unimpressed/
Just one caress from you and I’m blessed” (‘One Caress’ from Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993).
  • Extract 4: “Taking hold of the hem of your dress/
Cleanliness only comes in small doses/
Bodily whole but my head’s in a mess/Do you know obsession that borders psychosis?/It’s a sad disease/Creeping through my mind/Causing disabilities/Of the strangest kind/Getting lost in the folds of your skirt/There’s a price that I pay for my mission/Body in heaven and a mind full of dirt/How I suffer the sweetest condition” (‘The Sweetest Condition’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 5: “It’s only when I lose myself with someone else/That I find myself/I find myself/Something beautiful is happening inside for me/Something sensual, it’s full of fire and mystery/I feel hypnotized, I feel paralized/I have found heaven/Did I need to sell my soul/For pleasure like this?/Did I have to lose control/To treasure your kiss?/Did I need to place my heart/In the palm of your hand?/Before I could even start/To understand” (‘Only When I Lose Myself’ from The Singles, 86-98)
  • Extract 6: “I want you now/
Tomorrow won’t do/
There’s a yearning inside/And it’s showing through/Reach out your hands/And accept my love/We’ve waited for too long/Enough is enough/I want you now” (‘I Want You Now’ from Music For The Masses, 1987)
  • Extract 7: “Don’t say you’re happy/Out there without me/I know you can’t be
/’Because it’s no good/I’m going to take my time/I have all the time in the world
/To make you mine/It is written in the stars above” (‘It’s No Good’ from Ultra, 1997)
  • Extract 8: “Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me/Lead me on, eternally/And the spirit of love/Is rising within me/Talking to you now/Telling you clearly/The fire still burns” (‘Insight’ from Ultra, 1997).

These are just a few of the ‘obsessional’ lyrics from Depeche Mode’s back catalogue (and there are plenty of other songs I could have featured). I often think that the lyrics in songs or poetry say far more about the human condition than any paper I have published on the topic, and that is why I am (and will continue to be) a music obsessive.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Fleming, K. (2014). When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession. New York Post, July 2. Located at: http://nypost.com/2014/07/02/the-10-creepiest-musical-stalkers/

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on August 18, 2016, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Eating addiction, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Paraphilia, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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