The Sounds of District 12 (and the Capitol, too)

It’s been an exciting week for Hunger Games movie news. New images are appearing, and merchandising, most of which makes my skin crawl, is really going wild. But for me, the big news revolves around music. From Grammy shout-outs to the release of the first official video and two more songs from the soundtrack (as well as the complete official soundtrack list), this week may not make the mockingjays fall silent, but it has provided some very interesting food (er, music?) for thought. Join me after the jump for some thoughts on these very intriguing musical developments and what the The Hunger Games has to do with the loss of one very beautiful voice.

There is no denying that The Hunger Games is a remarkably musical story. Despite Katniss’s protests that she little values music (placing it somewhere between hair ribbons and rainbows), she is a singer like her father, and songs like Rue’s Meadow “lullaby” and “The Hanging Tree” are resonant aspects of the trilogy. When I first heard that T. Bone Burnett was going to be producing the film’s soundtrack,I was ecstatic. I knew he would beautifully capture the Appalachian Culture undertones while bringing in amazing, edgy, traditional musicians.

When the first soundtrack single was released, the haunting “Safe and Sound” by Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars, the odds seemed very much in favor of a fantastic musical backdrop for the film. The new video for the song does not disappoint. Filmed in the bleak winter in Nashville with rain (and some digital fire), the video ideally captures the novel’s tone. Swift, barefoot and in a ragged white gown, wears little make-up as she croons the song she calls “a death lullaby”; interestingly, with her blond hair and white dress, she strongly resembles Madge Undersee, a character who appears to have been cut from the film (I tweeted a question to MTV about this touch, but the after-preview interviewer instead chose really important questions like whether or not Swift likes cheese; she tried to turn it back to Prim’s goat cheese, but it was pretty useless).

The video cuts from dark, indoor, fireside shots of the Civil Wars, ( this emerging duo also has another song on the soundtrack as well) to Swift, wandering aimlessly across the sodden, bleak landscape, lying on the ground, clutching dead flowers (maybe Rue. I couldn’t identify it), or even sitting huddled on crumbling gravestones. Toward the end of the video, she enters a burned-out house that looks much like the one used for the Everdeen family (but the video was shot in Nashville, not North Carolina). Here she picks up a scorched Mockingjay pin, only one of the wonderful, subtle symbols woven throughout the whole video: the stopped clock in the burned house foreshadowing the arena of Catching Fire, the rain-sodden berry bushes and thorn trees, a deer that turns to ash, and, of course, all those flames. In her post-premier interview, Swift noted that the graves were from 1853 (they certainly look like ones I see in Civil War-era cemeteries) and that she was deeply moved by filming there.

Swift also stated in her post-video interview that this is her favorite video ever, and that’s quite a statement considering some of the ones she’s produced. The after-interview was super, despite the absolutely clueless host who had not bothered to read the novel (honestly, MTV, couldn’t you find someone on your staff who at least understood a third of what made Swift so happy about the way the video turned out? Caesar Flickerman, where are you?), was very revealing. Swift herself is extremely familiar with the novel, which she read after many friends suggested it and there was the possibility of her doing a song. I particularly like how she described how the novel changed her. Like me, she has become a “tree-watcher”–always sizing up trees to evaluate their potential if there is a need to climb one. She also quickly revised her initial ideas about the song she would write and perform. When she first heard about the possibility, she thought she would be writing a “we’re gonna win” kind of song for an action film, but once she read the book, she realized she would be doing something very different. The sparse, eerie song, accentuated by the gorgeous but understated tones of The Civil Wars (they do unbelievable murder ballads), may not completely clue non-readers in to the true nature of the novel, but it certainly shows that at least some of the musicians know what they are about.

I also have high hopes for some of the other songs on the soundtrack. Two others have already emerged for purchase on iTunes: The Decemberists doing “One Engine” and the spine-tingling “Tomorrow will be Kinder” by The Secret Sisters. “One Engine” is a folksy yet industrial-sounding piece that made me think of some of the more tech-oriented/factory districts, like 3 and 8. “Tomorrow will be Kinder” is a phenomenal song that perfectly embodies the Appalachian mindset: our way of saying “don’t worry, be happy” is more along the lines of “God willing, we’ll still be alive tomorrow, perhaps even with food and a warm place to sleep.” Fatalism is what we do best, and our brand of optimism is usually pretty bleak. The song also evokes early country music recordings, like Hank Williams’s definitive “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” taking us to the Depression-era look the filmmakers have given District 12.

No other songs have emerged yet, but the official soundtrack list is exceptionally promising, inlcuding additional songs from both The Civil Wars and Swift. I actually jumped into the air at the sight of the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the list. This amazing group beautifully preserves traditional African-American musical and performance styles. I hoped in an earlier post that we might be able to have a song from this amazing group on the soundtrack (I often hear them in my head as I read). What a treat to know they will, indeed, be included. Alas, no Gillian Welch doing her little bird song that I always have in the back of my head as I’m working with the novel, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

Of course, this album is being marketed as a different product than the actual score, which will likely include Jennifer Lawrence singing the Meadow Song as well as all the orchestral arrangements for the film.

Speaking of marketing, it was nice to see the Hunger Games spot during the Grammys, and the appropriate positioning of the Civil Wars and Taylor Swift (with her show-stopping number in Depression-era garb, like the video, yes, but also like District 12; don’t get too excited, folks, she’s had that 13 on her banjo/guitar for some time.).

At the same time, I could not help thinking, as presenter after musician paused to acknowledge the just-announced death of Whitney Houston, how this world, with its uber-glam singers, its special effects, and its goal to keep audiences glued to their seats, reflects the Games. It is a world in which these gorgeous young talents must produce ever more glorious performances, or they are tossed to the wolves. Many of them, with a huge prep team in tow, work to create increasingly shocking, surprising, or just plain weird looks for themselves–No one had cat whiskers like Tigris yet; I give Lady Gaga three years before she tries it, if that. There are those who survive this world, even seeming, like Bruce Springsteen, remarkably balanced, though his declaration that we “take care of our own” seemed a bit hollow in light of another lost star. Others, though, like the District 6 morphlings, try to numb their misery with drugs and alcohol, all the while painting on a happy face for the crowds (remember, they love camouflage). While commentators kept asking “what killed” Ms. Houston, I noticed no one had the right answer: She was a Victor who was eventually overcome by the Games, like so many of the others. It always amazes me when people express surprise over these dreadful deaths. I am surprised they don’t all have such tragic fates. Only time can tell which of the darlings of the music, movie, and television industries will be embittered like Johanna Mason, chemically dependent like Haymitch, victimized by their own allure like Finnick Odair, level-headed but cold-blooded like BT, or like Katniss and Peeta, wondering for the rest of their lives what is real, and what is not real.

Complete Soundtrack list
1. Safe & Sound (feat. The Civil Wars) – Taylor Swift
2. Eyes Open – Taylor Swift
3. Abraham’s Daughter – Arcade Fire
4. Come Away (feat. Rozzi Crane) – Maroon 5
5. The Ruler and The Killer – Kid Cudi
6. Run Daddy Run (feat. Pistol Annies) – Miranda Lambert
7. Kingdom Come – Neko Case
8. One Engine – The Decemberists
9. Take The Heartland – Glen Hansard
10. Lover Is Childlike – The Low Anthem
11. Dark Days – Punch Brothers
12. Tomorrow Will Be Kinder – The Secret Sisters
13. The Daughter’s Lament – The Carolina Chocolate Drops
14. Nothing to Remember – Neko Case
15. Just a Game – Birdy
16. Rules – Jayme Dee


  1. I think that last paragraph ranks as the best ever on this weBlog.

  2. joel hunter says

    Agreed. And Elizabeth even has me open to hearing the trilogy told through music, a thought which I could not have entertained prior to reading this post.

  3. Or ruthless like Cato.

    Wonderful and compassionate write-up, Elizabeth. I haven’t watched the video yet, but my first thought when I saw the video photo was the innocence of Prim.

    While my feelings are still quite mixed about seeing the film, I feel so encouraged by the heartfelt efforts being made to faithfully translate this book to the screen (shame about Madge, though–how does Katniss get the pin??). Thanks for all your great reporting.

  4. Thanks so much!
    Since I am not a musician myself, Joel, I really am eager to hear what you think of the music (or your suggestions on what would work better)!

    I was just sticking to the “survivors,” Arabella, though the process of becoming a Career does create brutes like Cato (and monsters like Titus, the one that ate his competitors, shudder), just as the world of celebrity can eliminate our humanity.

    (I think Katniss buys the pin in the Hob and gives it to Prim, based on the previews, which is a big let-down for those of us still cherishing the Pearl plot! It also makes her more active in selecting it, which I don’t like either. I love how she constantly forgets it’s there.)

  5. This is such a great post on so many levels. It’s so emblematic of what the Hogwarts Professor does right — weaving together inspiring webs of thought: English literature, philosophy, theology, popular culture, and even musicology. I loved the Taylor Swift video, but I was completely transported when I clicked through your link to the Carolina Chocolate Drops web site and sat in on their Wisconsin Public Radio jam session. When I listen to music like this I have hope that something real will survive the onslaught of ‘not real’ media-created tracker jacker poison that distorts our world.

    Rest in the peace that was denied you in life, Whitney Houston.

  6. I love the music video. It’s perfect, really.

    And your paragraph comparing megastars to victors… well, it’s spot on. Very accurate, unfortunately. Beautifully written and tragic in the end.

  7. Arabella Figg says

    I put in Cato (and I was thinking of Glimmer, too), because it’s easy to forget that the Careers are also victims, despite their advantages over the competition. They have been equally malformed by Capitol interests, and surely, when they are victors, they are used, blackmailed, and traumatized no differently than Finnick , Haymitch, and others. Perhaps they also wonder what is and isn’t real.

    For some reason, I’m not getting the Swift video; I’ll have to try again later.

  8. I think the Catos and the Glimmers of the music industry are those who spend their whole lives trying to be famous, but never quite get the big break they’re looking for. They aren’t the Victors with superstardom, and Victors are an even mix of Career musicians and those who had superstardom thrust upon them. Catos and Glimmers are those who have been told by society, by their parents, by whoever, that fame WILL BE theirs, and spend their lives chasing it, even though it never works out. In some ways, then, I think a Career who doesn’t make it would have it harder than even disillusioned Victors.

    Just my two cents on where they fit, at least.

  9. I would dearly love to write up something as substantial and interesting as the above comments of my fellow HogPro-ers; unfortunately, I have time only for a super-quick jot during a study break. Professor Hardy has hit the nail squarely on the head, as always, with her profound and informed sensitivity, thoughtfulness, wisdom, and creativity. I wholeheartedly agree that the video “ideally captures the novel’s tone” and I am thrilled that some musicians indeed know what the books are about. Quick observations in addition to the many already assessed: the lake reminds me of the one Katniss and Peeta are next to and drink out of when they ‘pull their berry stunt’; Swift’s walking in the meadow holding her dead flowers as though she is walking up the aisle makes me think of Katniss’s doomed “wedding” in Catching Fire; and, though this is probably too obvious to state, those thorns have such a distinctive form…..they make me think of the simultaneous cross (brutalization, humiliation, subjugation, punishment, death) and crown (heinous mockery of “honor,” “glory,” and “power”) which all the tributes, particularly Katniss and Peeta, are forced to bear. Good stuff. Very good indeed. I am impressed and encouraged, and I continue to marvel at the feat Collins has accomplished……. even our beloved Rowling and Meyer never made us really, deeply contemplate whether or not it’s ethical to see their works’ film adaptions. I’m not speaking of some individuals’ preconceptions on the matter of film adaptations or films in general; I mean at the most basic level, Suzanne Collins has taken hold of our very souls and made us question “real or not real” in regards to all of the factors that make up our existence….even the way in which we tell and receive stories. And she did it, of course, through a story.
    I love literature. 🙂

    Sorry if this made no sense, and pardon all the mistakes! Back to the grind now…. 😉

  10. carrenm says

    I realize that I’m responding to an old post, but I’m listening to the “Songs from District 12…” right now and have listened almost daily since purchasing it a month ago. (As a bit of a late-comer to the Hunger Games party, I’ve read the trilogy twice in the last few weeks and am obsessed.) I am struck by what an excellent job the music does of evoking the feeling and mood of the books. After reading many discussions about what the movie did right/wrong, it’s interesting to experience what a powerful medium music can be in conveying the message of not just THG, but really the whole series. The song, “Rules” in particular echos the “real or not real?” theme carried throughout all three books, and several of the songs have me pondering which character’s voice is being represented. Kudos to the songwriters who must really have read and appreciated the books!

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