Written by Amanda Fees. 27 October 2015
In 2009, Blake Shelton gifted his girlfriend, Miranda Lambert, one of her most prized possessions. It’s a different world in the country music industry, where star country couples give each other the rights to a song, rather than a ring or a bottle of perfume. That’s right, Shelton gave Lambert the opportunity to record the song originally wrote for him: “The House That Built Me.”
When Shelton first played the song for Lambert, she immediately broke down in tears. Though she didn’t write the song herself and it may not have been initially meant for her to sing it, Lambert could identify with so many of the lyrics that she felt strongly about claiming the song for her own recording. “The House That Built Me” describes the chronicles of an emotionally distressed wanderer who takes a visit to her old childhood home, in hopes of re- discovering the person she used to be. The song is attempting to persuade listeners to understand that being surrounded by your old childhood memories, or doing something to make you remember those moments can allow you to feel a sense of restoration of your true identity, and that the childhood home or ideas of this home can be a source of refuge when enduring the hardships of life. It is also stating that childhood and upbringing greatly impacts a person’s future life and persona. The song conveys this message using a variety of rhetorical strategies, including the meaning of the house, simplicity of diction of the lyrics, and anecdotes from childhood.
Though released in 2009, the song was written seven years earlier, by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. The two refused to let it go to waste, even after it elicited no response from music labels the first few times. Shamblin said, “When you co-write a song, you each dig into your own heart for where you’re coming from. The inspiration for me was the last ten years or so with having my own children.” Once the song was given to Shelton and then passed on to Lambert, it only took one listen for her to agree to record it. She felt that “It was beautiful.” She said, “I mean, I just started bawling from the second I heard it. He [Shelton] was like, ‘If you have a reaction to this song like that, then you need to cut it.’”
Lambert’s strong attachment to the song occurred due her personal experiences from her childhood home that she cherishes. Lambert grew up on an old dairy farm in Longview, Texas. There were many instances where older women would come knocking on the Lambert door, asking “if they could just come in,” as the song says, and see the home they grew up in years ago. Lambert grew up listening to stories told by these women. The house is now home to friends of the Lambert family, and she is still welcome to go and visit. Just as the song says, her dog actually is buried in the yard, along with a plethora of childhood memories.
The song’s intended audience could include a range of people of all ages and walks of life who could potentially identify with its meaning. The song is probably targeting a young adult audience, still finding who they are or have lost their way. A lot of listeners may react positively to the song, as most people cannot say that they always have their lives perfectly together and know exactly where they are headed. It targets the flawed and imperfect, which in reality is everyone. The song may assume that people all leave their childhood home and “move on, do the best we can,” but some people may actually stay at the place of their upbringing for the entirety of their life. Though this may be the case in a minority of the listeners, they may still feel a connection to the song as it greatly admires a person’s childhood stories and memories, something that the person who remains in their childhood home or town clearly appreciates as well. However, some may have had a rough or abusive upbringing that may cause them to view their childhood or parents in a negative light, not wanting to think back or go back to the person that they once were. However, that is why one of the song’s main goals is to convey how important one’s upbringing may be, and urges people to acknowledge that childhood sets one up for the rest of his life, whether the experiences are good or bad. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily targeting only people who grew up in a house, but anyone who’s surroundings including their home (whatever the type), their family, or their experiences were influential to their lives, and the song conveys that anyone would fit into that category.
The song utilizes the meaning of the home to explain to readers just how important one’s memories from their youth is to who they are as a person, years later. As exhibited in the title, and portrayed throughout the entire song, the writers intended for the house to represent a force that physically builds one up as a person. The house is given a deeper meaning than simply a structure or object, but as an influence that has a major impact on the one’s identity, and creates lasting memories that shape morals, beliefs, and characteristics. Lambert takes this idea and applies it to her own life and background. For instance, she sings, “…in that little black bedroom/ is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar,” an example of things that Lambert spent such an abundance of her time as a child doing, and something that clearly shapes who she is now- an artist. Despite her family truly building the house in real life, she stresses the fact that it’s not that she built the house that matters, but that the house built her. When she sings, “I thought if I could touch this place… this brokenness inside me might start healing,” she is stressing over and over that the house is her sanctuary and refuge, a place that will alleviate her of the pain she is feeling due to hardships that she faces throughout life.
The simplicity of the diction in the lyrics of the song is also what makes it so meaningful and interesting. The words and stories are kept small and humble, very much like the upbringing that occurred in the house. The writers were trying to paint a picture of this modesty in the listeners’ minds. They even stated that this was a strategic decision and edit to the song and something that allowed it to become successful, as before the changes there was “too much story.” When describing this process, Douglas said, “We made it simpler and simpler and simpler. We took out a lot of information and kind of drilled it down to the essence.” For example, lyrics like “You leave home, you move on,” and “Out here it’s like I’m someone else” and “Daddy gave life to mama’s dream,” all convey a feeling of ease, effortlessness, and clarity, that ultimately allow more people to connect with the words and apply their own experiences to it. By doing so, the song is can reach a larger audience, and keep the meaning short and sweet- that a house and memories can build someone, and that childhood memories are valuable. Lambert encompasses this idea through her singing and vocal styles. She doesn’t incorporate a bunch of impressive pitches or long, dramatic notes, but keeps it to a bare minimum, by modestly and purely delivering the story of the song. For example, we see a lot of vocal showcasing in songs by Carrie Underwood, and Lambert could have easily attracted more attention to herself by doing so as well, but instead she chose to keep the focus on the significance of the lyrics.
The anecdotes of the song may be the most influential strategy that is used. The song begins by pointing out parts of the old home, then goes into separate stories about things done as a child, and memories about family during those times. At one point, the song refers to a “favorite dog” that is “buried in the yard.” This anecdote makes the song more personal and relatable, as so many people have similar experiences to this while growing up. Other memories in the song, like the building of the house with handprints on the front steps, or mental images of Mama cutting out “pictures of houses for years,” incite a feeling of nostalgia in the listeners, that can cause them to ponder their own experiences as a child, and remember back to the things that factored into their development as a person. The writers of the song constructed these anecdotes with the intention of taking listeners on a mental journey, causing them to ponder how their early experiences have accounted for their present persona. Lambert in turn conveys these ideas through her delivery of the story telling. Her soothing, composed voice stays at a low pitch for most of the song, calmly letting the elements of the story unfold and flow to the listeners’ ears. She does so in way as if to let the words do the talking themselves. She only puts emphasis on and changes her pitch during the choruses and the bridge, as if to dramatize her yearning to re- discover her true self.
“The House That Built Me” allowed Lambert to win three CMA awards in 2010, one for Best Female Vocalist, Best Album (that this song appeared on), and Music Video of the Year, and the writers won Song of the Year. In 2011 she performed the song at the Grammy Awards, and took home the award for Best Female Country Vocalist. The song went platinum twice, and was her first #1 hit on the country charts.
The song plays a mellow tune, with a calming and serene vibe. It uses the low strumming of the guitar throughout, with Lambert’s peaceful, talented voice guiding us through her thoughts. It includes two verses that are followed by a chorus, a third verse, a repeated chorus, a bridge, and ends with another slightly altered chorus and an outro.
The song was very successful in delivering the message about the importance of childhood memories and upbringing to a person’s overall identity and persona. The audience responded as positively as possible, as the popularity of the song skyrocketed. Many listeners left positive comments on both YouTube and iTunes. JRS said, “You can feel the emotion that exudes from the video and the song is so touching,” and boilerupwill said, “I get goosebumps when I listen to this song,” while billyformal said, “Always a song to remind me of me.” The song clearly resonated with people, as the use of rhetorical strategies of meaning of the house, simplicity of diction, and anecdotes of her childhood are all aspects that gave the song such significance and likeable quality. Maybe this song may inspire you to go back to your roots, and see what exploring your past memories may do for you.
|0:00||Intro||Guitar chords||Low strumming is heard for just a few seconds before lyrics begin, setting a serene tone for the song.|
|0:36||Verse 1||“I know they say…”||Lambert’s voice is somewhat deep, setting a more serious tone for the song. Instrumentals are soft and steady in the background. Each word at the end of each line is lowered, as if to signify a period. There is also a chime introduced toward the end that gives a kind of fairy tale feel.|
|1:00||Verse 2||“Up those stairs…”||Her voice is still deep and soft, each line still ending with a lower pitch at the end. “Yard” is emphasized and carried just slightly longer than other words to end this verse. The instruments are altered slightly, with the introduction of the steel guitar.|
|1:24||Chorus||“I thought if I could touch this place…”||Her voice is raised significantly to begin the chorus. The first two lines of the chorus are begun with a high pitch for the first few words, then brought back to low to end each sentence. The same high pitch is carried on the third and fourth lines, then brought to a calm tone for “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave…” to end the chorus. Each line also rhymes with the previous. Harmony vocals are used during these last few lines.|
|2:02||Verse 3||“Mama cut out pictures of houses…”||Pitch is still low and calm, as if she is being simple and nonchalant when telling details of her childhood. Note is still dropped at the end of each line, with same low strumming in the background.|
|2:26||Chorus||“I thought if I could touch this place…”||Chorus is repeated in exact same manner as before, with exact same instrumentals and voice inflections. There is the same emphasis and higher pitch at beginning of the lines. The emphases occur at “I thought if I could touch this place,” “The brokenness inside me,” “Out here it’s like I’m someone else, I thought that maybe I could find myself.” Instrumentals are changed to more dramatic than the usual strumming of before, with extra chords between the breaks in lyrics.|
|3:00||Bridge||“You leave home, you move on…”||Pitch is raised again at the beginning and continues throughout the entire first line. Pitch is also raised at the beginning of the second line in the words, “I got lost,” with the remaining words of the line somewhat trailing off to a lower key. “Who I am” at the end of the bridge is carried longer with each word as if to dramatize that she lost who she was in the world. Instrumentals seem to be the same as or very similar to those of the chorus.|
|3:20||Chorus||“I thought if I could touch this place. ..”||Chorus is again repeated in the same manner, but is signifying to us that the song is about to end. However, instead of singing “If I could just come in” as is in the previous two choruses, she sings, “If I could walk around,” as if to show how desperate she is to be consumed in her old home and memories one last time.|
|3:54||Outro||A few guitar chords are strum, then quickly fade out to end the song. Outro only lasts a few second.|
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