The language that Joel Embiid uses can be taken as an ice core sample of the language the internet is using at any given time. The Sixers center is one of the NBA’s savviest disciples of the Do-It-For-The-‘Gram ethos, a skilled user of meme and timely dialect, always hitting the right notes to Maximize Engagement. “I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head,” Embiid said of Andre Drummond after Philly lost to the Pistons on Oct. 23. This wasn’t the first time he’s tried that tactic. When the Sixers were down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, Embiid got in a confrontation with the Celtics’ Marcus Morris, and pointed to his head repeatedly, mouthing, “I’m in your head.”
This idea of owning real estate in other people’s skulls underpins one of the most bone-crushingly dumb phrases in common internet parlance today: “living rent-free in your head.” (Embiid hasn’t said those specific words yet, but it’s only a matter of time.) As someone who is typically charmed by the ways language bends and warps as it wends its way through the extremely stupid labyrinth of Online, I was surprised to find myself so instantly revolted. It reliably came out of the mouths of the absolute dumbest people in this dumb place: the semi-anonymous tough guy trolling under the banner of a dog or flag, the highly pixelated chud with camera-flash eyes leaning back and to the left with a beer. Once noticed, the phrase was impossible to unnotice. Not unlike the way you might spot a lone ant, let your eyes loosen their focus, and see a thousand teeming ants, I began to see the phrase everywhere. Let me beat you to the punch: hell yes, “rent-free in your head” was living rent-free in my head.
Some small store of sanity was returned to me when I saw some mainstream recognition in the form of a BuzzFeed article. At least it was no longer a private terror. Joe Bernstein offered several examples of its use and traced its origin back to the advice columnist Ann Landers in 1999. The expression has since been co-opted by all manner of aggrieved people, including some of its very shiniest, as Bernstein observed. It’s used by deadlifting blobfish Donald Trump, Jr., predictably. It’s used by Michael Avenatti, the airbrushed Grand Theft Auto character who’s trying to one day be the president of all this ruin. It’s used so widely that I encourage you to explore yourself rather than offering any stable of cherry-picked examples. And it’s easy enough to see why it’s so popular.
“Living rent-free in your head” is widely usable because it’s topic-agnostic. It’s not “about” anything; it shifts the conversation from what you’re actually talking about to a meta-commentary about the conversation: You have been opposed to my shit for a while, and have cared a lot, and that’s embarrassing for you, because it is lame to care that deeply. That kind of sneering nihilism always does the trick, no matter the context. Are you arguing with a stranger who has persistently complained about your racist remarks? Just tell the complainer that you’re living rent-free in their head. Mad about drugged and detained children? So sorry that the President is living rent-free in your head, eating a well-done steak while supine on a futon. A murderer being dressed down by the tearful family member of your victim? You know what to do: Tell that snowflake you’re thinking of getting a credenza for the unused space in their cerebrum.
The user of the phrase is conceding that the argument isn’t the point. The aspirational head-tenant has dropped the pretense of argument altogether, freeing themselves to simply point out that the involved parties hate each other, and hate takes headspace. In that sense, sure, it is the “perfect” insult of our times. But it almost makes you wish for the quainter days of internet abuse.
As a remark, “rent-free” is totally devoid of content, not even reaching the level of a burn or own. Which is telling: the standard of discourse has sunk below the level of bare fact, below reckless opinion, below even a nice spicy ad hominem. Those would all require too much creative juice or fine-tuning. At this point, merely gesturing at the fact that you have been having the conversation at all qualifies as a trump card for certain people, e.g. terminally red doofuses pulsing with the dammed-up sensation of not having eaten a vegetable in eight months. It is for people who do not want to provoke you with any particular fact so much as they want you to notice that they have been provoking you for a while. Just empty provocations all the way down.
The edgelordy cretins who thrive in this era of the internet, are, after all, less interested in saying anything in particular than in making sure that you have to listen to it. Even they often know they have nothing left in the tank. Joel Embiid was down big in perhaps the strongest currency that his sport recognizes: playoff wins. His only recourse was to point out that his opponent had been thinking about him, and, well, he probably was. You think about someone when you’re trying to beat them. Marcus Morris replied in a simple, potent way: three fingers upheld, then the loop of a zero.