Music fans will enjoy the Song Exploder docuseries on Netflix
The television adaptation of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder adds new depth to the concept behind his acclaimed podcast. The conceit is simple. Hirway asks his guests questions that help demarcate where they were in their lives before they started working on the song being discussed and from there the journey through song creation and production begins.
In the docuseries, the intimacy of only hearing the guest speak—with the occasional insertion of Hirway’s voice as he sets the scene and gives background on the artists—is replaced by the intimacy of watching the artists respond to Hirway’s questions as he asks them.
You can see the awed, excited look in Alicia Keys’s eyes as she describes the songwriting process saying:
"I love the fact that you never know how a song is gonna come together. I love the anxiety that that you feel when you’re like, “There’s a pretty likely chance that this isn’t even–I’m not going to find the rights words. I’m not going to find the right melody.” And then there’s another chance this might be the day that you write that thing that you never knew you had in you."
Or you can watch joy light up Alex Lacamoire’s face as he recounts how the build of the echoed voices on the upbeat in “Wait for It” from Hamilton took Lin-Manuel Miranda by surprise.
A series not afraid to show vulnerability
The series, with its tight close-ups, cuts to the artists’ ticks like fidgeting hands or tapping legs, and the inclusion of different settings creates an atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re along for the ride with Hirway.
At times, it’s also uncomfortable. Song Exploder leans into the inherent vulnerability in songwriting by embracing when the artists pause, gather their emotions, or ponder over how to talk about difficult subject matter and just how open they want to be on camera and with Hirway.
The real magic behind the series, outside of hearing the artists talk about the meaning and purpose behind their songs, is the gradual layering of the song from stem to stem as it’s built over the course of the episode. As the story of the song progresses so, too, does the song’s production until it’s played in its entirety at the end of the episode with a music video made especially for the series.
Each episode of Song Exploder runs under 30 minutes keeping in form with the length of the podcast’s episodes. Their short length is ideal for viewers looking to learn more about a song by an artist they might admire, but aren’t looking to sit down for the kind of in-depth exploration found in hours long docuseries.
That, however, does not mean Song Exploder isn’t packed full of backstories like Ty Dolla $ign’s tribute to his hometown of LA and his brother, TC, who is serving a prison sentence due to a wrongful conviction. Or how R.E.M. went from being dubbed the best band in Rock & Roll by Rolling Stone to one of the most popular bands after “Losing My Religion” hit the mainstream.
Casual viewers will most likely only view the episode of an artist they know, however, with the series being on the short side, Song Exploder can be viewed in its entirety in under two hours. I encourage watching the whole series to get a feel for how Hirway’s work gives a platform to artistry and spotlights the passion and thought that goes into the songs we know and love.
Song Exploder is now streaming on Netflix.