Music

Try As It Might, Netflix’s ‘Song Exploder’ Fails To Capture The Podcast’s Magic

While the podcast allows space for intimacy and revelations, the heavy-handedness of video storytelling left us cold.

netflix song exploder photo

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Most people have a grief show. You know, the only thing you can bear to watch when something has dropkicked you into a black void.

While I would usually inhale melodrama on the daily, in the midst of grief, I require the following of television: there can be no romance impending or otherwise, no having of children nor planning for them, no death, no happiness, no contemplating death, no aspiring to happiness, no musing about death, no onerous ideas, like happiness. I require the televisual equivalent of a weighted blanket. Gardening Australia and Salt Fat Acid Heat work wonders. Chef’s Table but only certain episodes. ‘Grief shows’ is a sparsely populated genre.

So the announcement that streaming giant Netflix was adapting a much loved, near perfect podcast to the screen buoyed even the heaviest hearts. In the year of our pandemic, in the year of their election, staring down the barrel of many years of recession, what handy timing! If there was an MVP for shows-you-can-stomach-with-a-broken-heart, Hrishikesh Hirway’s multi award-winning Song Exploder, would be it.

The original podcast series, which began in 2014, is brilliant. The premise is simple; Hirway goes deep, by way of recording studio outtakes, via previously unheard song demos and finally through the full multi-track recording session, into a single song. Specifically, he goes deep on writing process and the minutiae of the recording and mixing.

After a quick contextualising introduction, Hirway makes way for the composer or songwriter to do the bulk of the storytelling, belying an incredibly tight edit that for many years Hrishikesh did himself. We learn from the isolated tracks of drums, bass and vocal takes just how the song came to sound like it does, and at the very end we listen to the un-exploded song in its entirety — and even for well-known radio bangers, it sounds like a total rebirth.

The podcast is approaching 200 episodes and has featured acts like The National, Tune Yards, Julien Baker, Ghostface Killah, The Magnetic Fields, Björk, Iggy Pop, DJ Shadow, Bonobo, The Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent, Lorde, Yo La Tengo, Christine and the Queens, Janelle Monae, Cat Power, Fleetwood Mac, Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten, The Mountain Goats, Robyn, Mobb Deep, Dua Lipa and FKA Twigs. This podcast does not fuck about.

Hirway himself is songwriter and composer of film scores, and Song Exploder was born from a desire to know more about the process of others so he could better understand his own. “If there are things that I hold sacred, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to learn about how they’re made. It’s the opposite. I want to know everything about it,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

If there was an MVP for shows-you-can-stomach-with-a-broken-heart, Hrishikesh Hirway’s multi award-winning Song Exploder, would be it.

So vast is the breadth of talent and so different their approaches to the common goal of song writing that the programs end up conveying a primordial sense that there is no right way to go about making music.

Phoebe Bridgers completely annihilates lyrics by her drummer, cackling at his desire to “italicise the subtext.” St. Vincent fears getting doxed, not for her address but for her pitchy voice memos of lyric ideas and almost melodies. Stephen Merritt woke up to scrawled lyrics he was too drunk to remember writing. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer caused a minor conniption in men-of-a-certain-age-on-the-internet when he revealed a complex system of spreadsheets to manage lyric detritus and offcuts, tagged by syllable and consonants.

Song Exploder has been described as a design show about music, and it is nerdily preoccupied with lifting the hood and kicking the tyres of this particular fuzz pedal and that specific recording technique, but it’s less Grand Designs purist chest beating than it is Samin Nosrat wandering around the Yucatan searching for the perfect naranja — it’s diligently, obsessively wholesome.

From Ears To Eyeballs

That Netflix saw the potential for Song Exploder to platform hop into a documentary series is a no brainer; more Americans listened to podcasts last week than attended church.

Podcasts are a cultural eco system that no content maker or burgeoning media conglomerate can afford to ignore, and the podcast to video pipeline has been running hot recently. True crime podcasts like Serial and Dirty John have spun off into HBO documentaries and a Bravo series respectively, Amazon Prime developed Homecoming and Lore after their successful outings as podcasts.

Into this fray Song Exploder: How Music Gets Made debuted with four 25-30 minute episodes, featuring Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M and Ty Dolla $ign.

For the most part, the well established format of the podcast has been adhered to with a few notable exceptions; Hirway no longer disappears as the artists begin their recollections, instead the formal sit-down interview is embraced. The scope of the stories told has shifted too, there’s much more artist backstory and historical archive These changes undoubtedly make the show more accessible to a first-time viewer, but for long-time listeners it can feel a little like someone watered down your single malt.

Alicia Keys opens the series with ‘3 Hour Drive’, her gorgeous two hander with British singer-songwriter Sampha. The episode explores the dynamics of collaboration and is supported by a raft of footage provided by Keys’ management team — the song writing process had conveniently been professionally filmed.

These changes undoubtedly make the show more accessible to a first-time viewer, but for long-time listeners it can feel a little like someone watered down your single malt.

The experience of watching the song being written left me cold, primed as I was for revelation. It felt I was being fed something a little too neat, then a very television-ready set of emotional stakes that kept getting returned to again and again, and my back was truly up. I was mollified by the small talk averse Sampha and his effortless verisimilitude.

In episode two, the conceiving and writing of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘I want’ song for Aaron Burr is gloriously unhinged. ‘Wait For It’ is explosive banger at the best of times, and I found myself getting sucked in to Miranda’s vortex of charm and hyperbole; frantic searching for a chorus that will serve character and politic, trains arriving at stations at the wrong time, the dark streets of Williamsburg armed only with an iPod and a voice memo.

This is a rollicking good watch, and a much more realised visual approach graphically than the other episodes, though it does suffer from a visual samey-ness that has started to creep into Netflix documentaries. Miranda and his fellow creatives from Hamilton give insightful interviews, but I found myself closing my eyes against the onslaught of endless offspeed b-roll.

Episode three dispatches R.E.M’s ‘Losing My Religion’ and there is a genuine meeting of the minds. All four members of the band are interviewed, and the story telling emphasis is shared in egalitarian fashion between words, bass, drums and mandolin, appropriate for a band who agreed on a four-way publishing split from the get go.

There’s real humanity in Michael Stipe’s twisting away from listening to his early passes at the melody, eyes flashing with embarrassment and mirth. Watching him trying to decode his own lyrics was another real visual highlight from the series.

But for the most part, the incredibly heavy-handed use of archive did little to enhance the storytelling, and by episode four, Ty Dolla $ign’s ‘L.A’, there was little of the Song Exploder formula left to tether me to the show.

Swinging And Missing

The close edit and intelligent pacing of the podcast has yet to manifest in the Netflix show. The podcast makes every breath, space, um and giggle feel purposeful and intentional in your earholes, all of it coaxing you in to a state of active curiosity, by the time you finally get to hear the song in its entirety…well it’s slightly sexual at best, and pretty darn good otherwise.

Perhaps the biggest failure failure is the ham-fisted way the songs are treated visually at the end of each episode — by a film clip that might not even pass muster in first year uni. It leaves you wondering whether the songs were worthy of the scrutiny in the first place.

In 2015 Hrishikesh Hirway had this prescient thought: “…I did know that I wanted it to be an audio program. I didn’t want it to be a video series. When you’re making music and you’re listening back to a track, to make sure it sounds right, you turn off your monitor, or you close your eyes. You do this mini sensory deprivation so that you’re getting as much detail out of the listening experience as possible.”

And so, I am back to the drawing board, my compendium of grief shows still lacking. But all is not lost. Hrishikesh Hirway is a talented and prolific creative, and during the California lockdown he teamed up with Samin Nosrat to make a podcast, about food, and there it’s a perfect weighted blanket.


Maeve Marsden is a writer and theatremaker, and the producer of Queerstories, an award-winning LGBTIQ+ storytelling project, podcast, event series and book. Follow Maeve on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Netflix