Podcasts are one of the few formats that haven’t really had any crossover into other avenues. Other entertainment media, such as video games, radio shows, or theatrical plays, often get remade as TV series or films. Yet podcasts have occupied their own niche in the ears of millions because their conversational nature is ideally suited to listening whilst commuting or doing the housework. Song Exploder has been going strong since its inception in 2014 (and indeed I have been enjoying it throughout 2020). But unlike its contemporaries, this is a show ideally suited to make the leap into a fantastic TV series.
The concept is simple. Presenter Hrishikesh Hirway will take a song and break it down into its constituent parts, then interview the writer of the song about how and why those parts were written the way they were. This is a deep dive into songwriting that doesn’t get too nerdy technical but is way more informative than your typical interview. I have seen Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails interviewed many times about the writing process but such conversations usually only cover the emotion behind a song. Song Exploder takes the loops, beats, melodies, and arrangements that make up an individual track like ‘Hurt’ and dig deep as to how hundreds of individual choices resulted in the finished product.
In podcast form, the experience is entirely audio and almost entirely pre-recorded (e.g. Hirway’s questions are rarely part of the show). The format gets a necessary tweak for its Netflix series so we do see Hirway sat opposite the artist, clicking play on his laptop to quiz them as to the layerings of sound in their biggest hits. This is interspersed with footage of live performances, studio sessions, and bespoke montaged archives to create a show that is as visually compelling as it is aural. And once a song has been pulled apart and examined, every episode ends with playing the song in its entirety, letting you enjoy it afresh with your newly acquired knowledge of how it came to be.
The Song Exploder podcast covers a multitude of musical genres and styles including hip hop, gangster rap, metal, pop, hardcore punk, electronica, film scores and TV themes, video game music, and songs from musicals. There are only 8 episodes of the Netflix show at the time of writing but even so, the range of music is impressive, featuring the likes of Alicia Keys, Dua Lipa, R.E.M., The Killers, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer of the Hamilton musical).
Hirway’s gentle and unassuming interview-style really seems to draw out the joy in the artists as they delight in describing the clearly difficult and intuitive process of songwriting. Indeed, it is amazing to get an insight into just how much work it can be to bring a piece of music forth into being. Even if an episode covers a genre of music you don’t like (I have never cared for rap music), it’s still fascinating to see Ty Dolla $ign describe the attention to minutia required not just to create the sound, but also how to elicit the desired feeling when the audience listens to a track like ‘LA’.
Another fascinating insight that Song Exploder provides (although not explicitly – this is my interpretation here) is how different genres seem to write. When it comes to your rock and metal groups the band may be guided by a producer but otherwise craft the song themselves, whereas the relevant episodes that show stuff like pop tends to rely on a collaborative effort where the artist surrounds themselves with talented people. Dua Lipa’s catchy as heck track Love Again has behind the scenes writers coming up with the parts, but it is her vision (much like a movie director) that pulls it all together.
If you have any interest in music you will almost certainly enjoy Song Exploder. It never goes for style over substance and there is no wham bam frenetic editing to disguise a lack of any real content. What you get are short punchy episodes that still manage to give a real insight into the art of crafting music. In a world where the arts are frequently underfunded and under-appreciated by governments, Song Exploder lets you see that even the bubbliest pop song requires grit and determination to be wrought on the iron of inspiration.
Words by Mike Record