Who better to provide a voice to the well-received feature adaptation The Hunger Games than the generation’s most popular soulful vocalist, 23-year-old Taylor Swift? However, when Lionsgate executives and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett approached Swift to pen an end-credits song, it wasn’t about the marriage of pop brands, rather it was her penchant for confessional folk ballads that caught their ear. Still, synergy doesn’t hurt. Last year, Swift’s album-sales headlines read like the boxoffice numbers of a record-breaking tentpole film: Her fourth album Red marked the second time in a debut week she sold over a million records, a feat no other female recording artist—not even Lady Gaga—can tout.
“They wanted the song to reflect what Appalachian music would sound like in 300 years, and they wanted me to write from Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s character) perspective,” says Swift of the Golden Globe-nominated tune. After watching exclusive clips from the apocalyptic thriller in Nashville, she promptly ripped through Suzanne Collins’ trilogy before teaming up with Burnett and the Civil Wars (Joy Williams and John Paul White). When the four gathered in a studio home that Burnett was working from, “It was just like lighting a match,” she says. “Joy suggested that we write about how Katniss wants to protect and comfort (the youngest Hunger Games contestant) Rue to the very end.” Coincidentally, Swift had been working on a song concept she was calling “Safe & Sound,” hence the tune’s title. Swift wrote the song on the back of her baby Taylor guitar (a brand unrelated to Swift), while the Civil Wars mapped out harmonies, an experience that she says was akin to “watching twins.”
“Throughout the course of writing ‘Safe & Sound,’ we discovered we were also writing about Katniss and her (best friend) Peeta, as well as her relationship with her (sister) Prim,” explains Swift. “The theme of protecting and comforting someone is so broad-reaching throughout the film.”
This is further evident in the song’s refrain, recalling the scene in which Rue dies in the forest before a crying Katniss: Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound.
Swift dropped the song on Twitter just before Christmas 2011, three months prior to the Stateside release of Hunger Games. Within two days, the song sold 136,000 copies on iTunes before culminating a tally of 1.4 million last month, in addition to two Grammy nominations (best country duo/group performance, best song written for visual media) and, of course, its Golden Globes best original song nom. Unfortunately, the song was deemed ineligible by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences as it plays as a second end-credits track—a pity because the song, coupled with Swift’s ethereal, touching vocals, truly captures the film’s spirit.
Outside the film, “Safe & Sound” stands on its own with its guitar-stringed heart-wrenching lyrics about undying love against a wilderness setting. Should “Safe & Sound” softly bring to mind Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” that’s no coincidence.
“Stevie Nicks has inspired me in so many ways,” exclaims Swift, who spent time with the iconic artist a few years ago, “I’ll never forget the way she tells a story. There’s so much feeling in everything she does. No wonder that comes through in her songs.”