[WARNING: Minor spoilers to follow.]
HBO fantasy-epic Game Of Thrones finished its throat-slittingly good third season last month in an ocean of gasped tweets and smirks from dutiful George R. R. Martin book readers. Whether brought in by the overall hunkishness of the cast, the mystical elements involving dragons and White Walkers or simply the pedigree involved in the shows creation, fans of Game of Thrones and its show runners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have shown a heady commitment to managing the credentials of any and every entity on the show itself to great effect. Nothing means nothing in a world where writers must weave treachery, familial (dis)loyalty and ancient (fake) traditions together in equal measure.
All of which makes the inclusion of The Hold Steady and The National, two of Brooklyn’s most heroic indie bands, seem less like pie-eyed zeitgeist grabs and more like careful curatorship on both sides of the aisle. Prior to season three, HBO, Benioff and Weiss contracted the two seminal bands to craft actual songs from author Martin’s famous Westerosi hymns, “The Bear and the Maiden Fare” and “The Rains of Castamere.”
Matt Berninger and company deal a fittingly morose tribute to “Castamere,” a song about the quashing of a rebellion at the hands of the mighty Tywin Lannister; Beringer’s gruff, deep voice accompanied only by lilting orchestral flourishes. One gets the sense that the song was lobbed at The National simply for Berninger’s voice—his American accent may be the only thing from actually getting him a part on the show as a character.
“The Bear and The Maiden Fare,” on the other hand, is the common Westeros drinking song, and certainly not fit for the stately chamber pop of the Dessners. Instead, The Hold Steady bring punk to the Seven Kingdoms, piling chanting and solos atop a semi-cruel limerick about the real identity of combative men and their maids. Picking a song more successful in its thesis or execution is a fools errand, sort of like choosing between Houses Stark and Lannister in Westeros. Yet both tunes’ individual excellence belies a reality behind the bands that make it, one that doesn’t speak well to the indie-rock institutions they’ve become.
The Hold Steady and The National were chosen by HBO to put music to some of the more cultural touchstones in HBO’s most important series because the results were never in doubt. Choose a buzzier, more unproven band and the results might’ve been on another level of tweetability, but also could’ve fallen completely apart at the seams. Yes, Local Natives and Diarrhea Planet would’ve been “cooler” selections to attach to Game Of Thrones, but being able to control the output is what makes HBO the most successful of all pay-cable networks.
Two bands that seem like natural fits are natural fits; the problem there is a lack of excitement from the other end.
Sure, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is going to be lauded by Hold Steady fanatics as a riotous take on one of their better songs, “Stay Positive.” Yet The Hold Steady aren’t doing themselves any favors or garnering any cache from the song; The National are only slightly better off, with their newest record, Trouble Will Find Me, arriving just on the heels of “Rains of Castamere’s” shining moment in the season. A scene that is now used to eating its own young for not buying into new technology or throwing curveballs at an audience that won’t bat an eye at two songs that fit perfectly within the discographies of the bands performing them.
With a scene as focused on finding the next sound, it’s a wonder The Hold Steady and The National still command any attention whatsoever. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” and “Rains of Castamere” are signs of their age catching up to them, if not so much in qualitative degradation as marketability fatigue. And while both bands might have agreed to write their respective songs out of a respect for the show, both of them must have realized the potential marketing opportunity inherent in getting songs in the credits of HBO’s biggest show. Shame, then, that their relentless and honorable commitment to the sounds they’ve perfected got them so far—like so many honorable men in Westeros’ innumerable wars, it is the ones who play it safe that get left behind the easiest.