Pop Culture

“It’s My House” Too

In 1979, Diana Ross released The Boss, her first solo album since moving to New York from Detroit. She was, for the first time, far away from her label, Motown Records, and its gatekeeper Berry Gordy. The album was a declaration of independence, proof positive that she was, in fact, The Boss, her own. It also marked Ross’s reunion with songwriting husband-and-wife team Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, together Ashford & Simpson, who wrote all but one of the songs on her first solo album too.

At the time, the couple from New York were known for their big anthems like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” This new album had a lot of that bigness as well; it was about being “the Boss” after all, and its titular song spent 26 weeks on the Hot 100 chart. But it’s the not-quite hit that’s endured most insistently: “It’s My House.” 

I, not a music writer, would argue that right now, during all the this, it’s the most important song that exists. 

You don’t have to understand everything about “It’s My House” to know why it’s a song that meets this moment, but it’s more fun if you do. A while back, on a Thursday, Simpson graciously picked up the phone to talk about its genesis. (Ashford died in 2011, and Ross did not respond to multiple emails from me asking her to explain why her song is so good). From her home in Manhattan, Simpson told me she started with a sparse reggae beat on her keyboard. Staying true to their usual dynamic, Ashford wrote the lyrics. 

Simpson explained that her husband’s words came from the same place as Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” which they wrote together and which was released in 1978—that is, that “feminine place that’s in everybody,” which you trust completely. The new song didn’t have the same kind of straightforward empowerment refrain, though. This is good because “It’s My House” could never be co-opted into a commercial for performance bras.

Instead, it mostly consists of a woman describing her home. “There’s a welcome mat at the door,” goes one line. Another is, “Through every window / a little light flows.” Its power is in the ordinariness of the lyrics, the pleasure and simplicity of ownership, the teasing innuendo, the restrained coolness of the melody, the flute—is it?—weaving throughout. To the basic demo that Ashford & Simpson made for her, Ross added a disco kick and her simpering soprano. And so was born a disco-reggae cult classic about a woman delighting in her house, which she’s decorated herself. It would be the Mrs. Dalloway of songs if Mrs. Dalloway had a hair more self-possession. 

“It’s My House” was not a pop hit originally. It peaked at 27 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart at its height. But it’s lived many lives since 1979. It has endurance. Simpson says that a friend, whom she won’t name to protect the fun-loving, calls her and puts the phone up to the speaker when he hears it in the wild, which is often. It’s big in gay clubs, she hears.

Just last year, it made a cameo in Big Little Lies, Renata’s “Women in Power photo shoot” scene, which saw Laura Dern mouthing the signature words “It’s my house, and I live here” to the camera while hitting a power pose. Simpson approved that licensing deal, but hasn’t seen the show. The songs she and her husband wrote are “like your children, you know?” she said. “You let them go on and do their thing. And then you get a check in the mail and it’s all wonderful.”

“It’s My House” is more than 40 years old, but it’s only been stuck in my head for seven months. It’s been in there since, oh, I don’t know, let’s call it the Ides of March. The line that gets caught most easily is the unsurprising one: It’s my house, and I live here. It’s my house, and I live here. It’s my house, and I live here.

At first, it was a statement of grateful ownership, as it was intended. My house (apartment). Mine (and my landlord’s). Me in it (with four roommates). But soon it turned into a menacing reminder of reality. I live here. I live here. I live here. 

It can be maddening to have any song stuck in your head, not just one describing your current condition in the middle of a global pandemic. In the ’80s, Americans started using the word earworm, which we borrowed from the Germans, who had been using the equivalent (ohrwurm) to describe the sensation since the middle of the century. Stephen King popularized its use over here—and of course he did. The name gets at the itchy creepiness of it all, the way it burrows, but not necessarily the reasons for it.

According to one study, a song can get stuck in your head when some stimuli, often unpredictable, tickles the auditory cortex, the thing that registers and stores sound memory. For reasons that science doesn’t fully understand yet, the instinct to scratch it is triggered, and the auditory cortex gets trapped in a loop for a while, about 30 minutes on average. Would you believe that it happens more frequently in periods of stress? 

Doubly trapped by the song loop and by the condition of the world, I tried to fight the one thing I could this spring: the song part. I tried listening to other things. I tried not listening to anything. I tried listening to it on repeat. I tried writing this. I tried watching Diana Ross Live at Caesar’s Palace in full, which I recommend you do too, for every reason you already know, but especially the costume changes. She’s wearing a sparkling halter jumpsuit and pearl armbands to match. It’s heaven. Or hell depending on whether or not “It’s My House” gets stuck in your head because of it. 

When nothing really worked I accepted my fate. Then May arrived and the weather turned lovely. Those of us who could, got out. We flooded parks and nearby trails. Outside, farther out, we went. And home we came, and there was a new sort of appreciation for it. Through every window, a little light flows.

And then the appreciation took on a darker edge, one that revealed the stakes, when the lousy alternative to what you have shows itself very clearly. The courts staved off evictions for a while in a lot of places, but before we were out of this thing, they resumed. In March, police in Louisville, Kentucky, killed Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her home. All was a reminder that a house is an inviolable domain for some, but not others.

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