“Safe & Sound” was written by Taylor, Joy Williams, John Paul White, and T-Bone Burnett. In summer 2011, Lionsgate required Burnett to record songs for The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond, and he subsequently corralled a range of artists, including Taylor, Maroon 5, The Civil Wars, and Arcade Fire. On a fall night in 2011, Burnett and the production team, as well as Taylor and The Civil Wars, came to Burnett’s house in Los Angeles to write a song for the soundtrack. After two hours, “Safe & Sound” was finished. Taylor elaborated:
On December 22, 2011, Taylor posted a portion of the song’s lyrics via her Twitter account and said: “Something I’ve been very excited about for a very long time is going to be happening very soon.” Four days later, “Safe & Sound” was released to iTunes in the US on December 26, 2011.
Taylor and The Civil Wars were asked to write from The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss’ perspective. She told Ryan Seacrest on the Golden Globes red carpet: “We were given such an amazing opportunity to do that by Suzanne Collins, who wrote the books, and Jennifer Lawrence, who portrayed Katniss.” She continued:
The sullen track was penned over the course of just four hours. “I had this title that I had been working with called ‘Safe And Sound,’ and I just knew that I wanted it to deal with the empathy, sort of the more sensitive side, the bittersweet side of this story,” Taylor told MTV News. “Never imagining that this would ever be picked or a single, ’cause it’s a lullaby. This song was such an amazing experience, because it’s like it just happened.”
“Safe & Sound” was a departure for Taylor from her previous country pop releases, being described as a moody folk ballad. Rolling Stone deemed the song reminiscent of alternative country music. Taylor’s vocal range on the song spans from the low-note of G3 to the high-note of D5. The song is mainly accompanied by an acoustic guitar and features the Civil Wars’ “harmony” vocals.
The music video for “Safe & Sound”, which was directed by Philip Andelman, premiered on February 13, 2012 on MTV. It was shot in a cemetery, and features a scene of Taylor sitting atop the graves of a couple who died in 1853. Additionally, Taylor is walking barefoot through a forest in Watertown, Tennessee, wearing a long white gown. Between scenes, The Civil Wars are seen inside a cottage house sitting in front of a fireplace as they sing along to the song. It contains multiple references to The Hunger Games, including Taylor finding a mockingjay pin.
“Safe & Sound” received universal acclaim from music critics. Jody Rosen from Rolling Stone gave the song four out of five stars, calling it Taylor’s “prettiest ballad.” In a review of The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond, AllMusic‘s Heather Phares picked it as one of the highlights on the soundtrack, calling it “the most crucial” track. Idolator praised Taylor’s “breathiness that sounds more eerie than sweet”, while Jason Lipshutz writing for Billboard commended the “non-Swiftian anthem that embraces the folksiness of the soundtrack” and favored the guest appearance contributed by The Civil Wars.
During the first week of release, “Safe & Sound” entered the Billboard Hot Digital Songs at No. 19 with 136’000 digital units sold. On the Billboard Hot 100, the single debuted and peaked at No. 30. As of November 2017, the song has sold over 2 million copies in the United States.
The official Hunger Games companion album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 175,000 copies in its first week. It was the first multi-artist film soundtrack to reach the peak position since The Twilight Saga: New Moon rose from No. 2 to No. 1 in its second week on the tally in November 2009.
At the 2012 CMA Awards, “Safe & Sound” was nominated for “Musical Event of the Year”. It also garnered a CMT Music Award nomination for “Collaborative of the Year” in that year. The song was nominated for “Best Original Song” at the 70th Golden Globe Awards in 2013. At the 2013 Grammy Awards, “Safe & Sound” received a nomination for “Best Country Duo/Group Performance”, and won the award for “Best Song Written for Visual Media”.
This was the last time Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars, who accepted the award with Taylor, were seen together. Their relationship had soured during the recording of their second album, which was released a few months later after they had effectively broken up. At the ceremony, they kept their distance.