Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Commodification of Katniss and the Hanging Tree


It's one of those unavoidable facts of my life that I end up having to drive a lot every week. Not because I'm a delivery driver or I have a giant commute or anything, just that between getting to work every morning, dropping the kids off at their various schools, picking them up, driving home, doing errands, going to church and meetings and coffee dates and school plays and all that other stuff, I spend an inordinate amount of time in my car. And most of the time when I'm in the car, I'm listening to the radio.

Not all of the time, of course. Sometimes I listen to Welcome to Night Vale or The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcasts, or I get my fill of news with NPR, or I listen to a Tim Keller sermon because he's fantastic and very funny. But by and large, most of the time when I'm driving, I'm listening to plain old Top 40 radio.

I'm not ashamed to say that I like pop music. I don't know enough about it to be more than vaguely critical, and it's usually very catchy. But. The other day, as I was driving home from my sister's house, I heard something that made me want to pull the car over and just stare up at the sky wondering what the world is coming to. And that...was this:



If you're at work and you can't listen, that is, for the record, "Are You Coming to the Tree" performed by Jennifer Lawrence and direct off the Mockingjay Part 1 soundtrack. Except it wasn't this version of the song. I like this version. I mean, it's a little weird to hear a song like this on the radio, but whatever. It's cool. 

No, the version that I heard, and I still don't know if it was an official version or what, but it was a techno remix of this song. It was the exact same song, still Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss singing mournfully about a man and his lover being convicted of murder and dying, which then transforms into a chorus of rebels singing about injustice, only it had a club beat and you could dance to it. And I was very very nauseous.

But at the same time I kind of respected the genius of it all. I mean, yeah, actually, this is a song from the soundtrack of a major motion picture. Katniss is a fictional character, this is a movie that has made hundreds of millions of dollars, and if the studio wants to release a remix of the song that's proven inordinately popular, it has every right to do so. So why do I feel so weird about it?

Part of my objection did (and still does) stem from the way that turning this amazing, bone-chilling song into a dance party remix completely removes everything that makes it good. The stark vocals, the discordant harmonies at the end, the sweeping music. All that stuff is really lost when you add a steady beat and some autotune.

Plus, the lyrics are deeply and meaningfully weird to hear on the radio late at night. I mean, you thought "Goodbye Earl" by the Dixie Chicks was weird? These are the actual lyrics to the song:

Are you, Are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree

Are you, Are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree

There are two more verses after that, each just as bleak and dreary as the one before. It's a song about a murderer asking his lover to kill herself for crying out loud. Not really the easy listening sort of tune. Which is a large part of its context in the story. It stands in as an analogue for Katniss' relationship with Peeta. They're both sentenced to die, and in their current standoff, they're likely to cause each others' deaths. So there's a lot of meaning there, and it's weird to hear that with some backing techno beats.

It's more than that, though. I think the reason it bothered me so much is because it felt like something the Capitol would do, and that scares the crap out of me.

Like, this remixing managed to keep what was inoffensive and mediocre about the song - that it was from a movie soundtrack and made a lot of money - but utterly lose the message and impact of the song - that it is a rallying call for those disaffected from their government to rush out and seize power. It was a watered down version that changed a charged political statement into a purely commercial piece of entertainment.

And yet, at its heart, this is just a piece of entertainment. It's a movie created to entertain. To provoke thoughts, sure, that too, but primarily to entertain. So you see my dilemma. Can I really condemn this song for commodifying Katniss' struggle when her struggle isn't real? When it's all just a story made up by some people who are very rich because we all liked it and bought it? Does turning this song into a dance number matter at all?

I honestly don't know. I really don't. I keep going around in circles on this.

I mean, on the one hand, yeah, it's a movie and it's not real and there's plenty of real stuff in the world to care about. On the other hand, this movie has acted as a lightning rod for people to identify real suffering in the world. People are more capable of recognizing the overreaches of government in some places because they have this film to act as a metaphor and as a catalyst. I mean, the film was actually banned in Thailand for being too likely to incite revolution.

Last year, I think, Covergirl did an ad campaign where they advertised their cosmetics under a line about looking fabulous like the Capitol in the Hunger Games. They did a whole advertising line about aligning yourself with the out and out bad guys of the films. The horrible, corrupt elites. And it was very successful. Is that bad? Should we care?

The shifting of this song into something more meant for entertainment than revolt is very similar to the way that in the story the Capitol changes all of Katniss' revolutionary acts into acts of a young girl in love. They use this to make her more palatable and to weaken her. She's not powerful if they're the ones determining the message here. Turning her anthem of revolt into a tune you can really boogie to is exactly the kind of thing they would do. But, again, does that matter? It's fictional.

Because here's the thing: sure, the messages sent by the original version of this song aren't real. They're fiction. I do get that. But they do strike at something very real in my heart and in the hearts of the people I know. So is it okay for this all to be muted and toned down and turned into something inoffensive?

I still don't know.

But I think that it's important to ask. Because whether or not it is okay, and I don't even know if there is an answer to that question, it matters that we ask it anyway. It's important to think about the way that these things affect us, because the line between culture and media is so easily blurred. In a lot of ways our culture creates our media, but in a lot of other ways, our media creates our culture. And that's okay, it's always been like that, but it's not a process we should by any means be ignoring.

I didn't pull the car over, for the record. I drove home and by the end, I have to admit that I was kind of digging the remix. I mean, I like the original better, obviously, but it was catchy. Sort of like comparing a pop tart and a delicious home made fruit pie. You know the pie is better. Totally. But if it's around, you'll probably eat the pop tart if you're hungry and you don't have a fork.

That probably doesn't say very good things about our culture. But I'm still not sure if that means it says bad things instead.


6 comments:

  1. I remember reading someone's argument that EDM was mostly soulless garbage, and adding it to non-EDM songs drained a lot of what was good out of said songs.

    Not quite in that camp yet, but if there was ever a song that would convince, it was this grotesque modification of "Hanging Tree".

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    1. I'm not completely against EDM, because it find it very catchy and honestly I'm not that picky when it comes to music in general. But yeah, having it added on over the original version of this song was weird at best.

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  2. I only just read The Hunger Games two weeks ago. I put it off for a long time until I was sure I could devote enough time to read the books straight through. Since I finally read the books, I'm now working my way through the movies. I watched the first movie with my younger siblings last week. My mom, who has never read the books nor seen the movies, was sitting nearby as we watched. She kept catching snippets of it and was completely horrified by the premise. So I explained to her, "It's a story about a group of kids killing each other so others can watch it on TV as entertainment." But the irony is that that's exactly what the Hunger Games movies are: a story about a group of kids killing each other so others can watch it for entertainment. It made me really uncomfortable. Because there are a lot of important messages in the series, messages that I think make it an important series to read, watch, and then discuss and try to understand. But at the same time it only goes to show that this is the kind of stuff that our culture finds "entertaining." Like I said, very uncomfortable, and it had me going in the same kind of circular logic that you describe here with the song.

    (As a side note, the style of the techno remix of "The Hanging Tree" reminds me of the style used in a lot of the music for Moulin Rouge. It has a very eerie, melancholy quality to it. So while I agree with you that turning it into a "dance remix" has all sorts of complex implications, I actually found the stylistic choice interesting.)

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    1. Actually, yeah, that's a good point about tone. Even in the dance version it has this really intense tone going for it that does make you listen to the lyrics more closely. Of course, that might just be because they couldn't do much with it without re-recording, but still. Worth noting.

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  3. I've not heard the track, but I think the whole Hunger Games phenomenon is very interesting.
    A work colleague mentioned how she and her kids had gone to see it for a fun afternoon out, and that she'd been surprised by how gritty and violent some scenes were. And I thought 'Well yeah. It's a story based around the cycle of oppression and revolution, and how the media can be manipulated to make us accept horrific acts like kids murdering each other as normal. What were you expecting?'

    I enjoy the Hunger Games because of it's politics and darkness and honesty about the affects of war (our protagonist suffers from PTSD throughout), and the question it brings up about what lengths you should go to to win a fight if all it turns you into your enemy. I think it's an important story to tell. But there's a risk to it, as people can miss the point. They might watch the scenes that show the games and feel happy when 'bad' characters are killed by our heroes instead of seeing every single one of those deaths as awful.

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    1. Yikes. I wish that were the first time I'd heard of someone doing that, but sadly it seems that a lot of people don't really think through the content of the movie they're about to see. Personally, I liked all the complaints about how dark Into the Woods is. That was entertaining.

      And yeah, the application of a narrow moral framework onto this story really does it a disservice, but I'm not sure if there's anything to do about it since it is, at its heart, a piece of mass entertainment...

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