A silhouette of Hrishikesh Hirway, host of "Song Exploder," in front of a colorful sound wave.
Illustration by Amelia Madarang

“Song Exploder” poignantly examines artists’ musical processes

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, when being an adult with responsibilities was getting me down, my mother recommended I watch the show “Song Exploder.” She specifically said to watch the episode about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the song “Wait for It” from “Hamilton.” As a Hamilfan (a person who loves “Hamilton”), I took her advice and ended up binging that episode as well as one about the 1990s rock band R.E.M. and their hit, “Losing my Religion.” 

“Song Exploder” was released on Netflix on Oct. 2 and is hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, a podcaster and musician. The show is based on a biweekly podcast Hirway created in 2014, which deconstructed the components of hit songs, themes from TV shows and movie scores while talking with the artists about their musical processes. The podcast received high praise and was even called “possibly the most perfect podcast” by Quartz, an international news organization.

Currently, the only volume on Netflix includes four 25-minute episodes: Alicia Keys, Miranda, R.E.M. and Ty Dolla $ign, focusing on each artist and one of their songs — “3 Hour Drive,” “Wait for It,” “Losing My Religion” and “LA,” respectively — and the process that went into their productions. Each episode follows a similar pattern: it first includes a brief description of the artist. Then Hirway interviews the artists and anyone else who was involved in the process of either writing, recording or producing. Following that, he breaks down elements of the songs into their core components from lyrics, tempo and even sound. Finally, episodes conclude by playing the songs in their entirety with either a music video or synesthetic animations.

The show serves as a reminder of the care musicians put into their music. They are not always looking to make a popular hit. Many are constantly trying to find the perfect lyric, melody and even syncopation (changes in the rhythm or beat) to fit the story they want to weave or the emotions they wish to convey. In the episode about “Wait For It,” Miranda explains that after five years of working on “Hamilton,” he was still figuring out the voice of Aaron Burr, a Founding Father who served as the third vice president during Thomas Jefferson’s first term. For example, when Miranda first performed “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House in 2009, he referred to Burr as the “genius” who shot Hamilton, which was later changed to “fool” for the show. Miranda changed this because he was not sure how to characterize Hamilton’s rival. Miranda first found the lyrics to the chorus of “Wait for It” by thinking about how Hamilton would never wait for anything; therefore, the song’s form needed to show that trait. Then a melody emerged from Miranda’s fingertips that reflected the slow and calculated Burr. 

Other artists may not have intended to create a certain story or emotion; instead, they played around with a particular key or instrument. Peter Buck, the guitarist for R.E.M. in the early ’90s started to teach himself to play the mandolin. While fiddling around with scales, Buck came to the main tune for “Losing My Religion,” which became their most popular song. R.E.M fully expected it to be a throwaway single and joked that they were hoping to destroy their decade long careers by departing from their previous style. They thought they were not going to make any money off the album, “Out of Time,” on which the song was featured. Instead, it solidified their place as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. 

“Think about it, you have a hit song … with no discernable chorus on the radio and the lead instrument is a mandolin. Why would anyone play that on the radio?” Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s bassist, said in the episode’s introduction. The song went number one in multiple countries making it one of their biggest songs to date; the music video even won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1991. However, the drummer of R.E.M, Bill Berry, thinks R.E.M has other notable songs to be remembered by rather than “Losing My Religion,” but he lives with it. 

“Song Explorer” also provides insight into what inspires people to create or write music. Miranda often wrote pieces for Hamilton at Burr’s former residence. He retold hilarious anecdotes of sitting in Burr’s bedroom rapping to himself while elementary school students were on tour. He immersed himself in the place where the men who formed this nation once stood in order to further his creative mental space. 

As for Keys, with the song “3 Hour Drive,” she was inspired by her co-collaborator Sampha, whose mother had passed away before they started collaborating. Keys had just had her second son, and the impact that this had on her life can be seen in the song’s lyrics. The line “you give me life” shows a longing and cathartic reflection sung-through two differing perspectives: a mother’s life conclusion and a mother’s life beginning. 

In Dolla’s episode, he talks about when he moved to Los Angeles and how later his brother was arrested and charged for a murder he allegedly did not commit. Dolla said telling the story of his brother had to begin where it all started: the City of Angels. The song represents how Los Angeles can be a city of dreams. However, due to systemic racism, people are suffering, especially those of the Black community from living in poverty, police brutality and, ultimately, a purposefully broken legal system. “Song Exploder” gives its watchers a deeper understanding that inspiration can come from anywhere, whether it be a shared personal experience or just a limb of creativity. 
If you are an active music listener, consider giving “Song Exploder” a watch. It truly does a remarkable job of presenting pertinent information while breaking down elements of beloved songs so that even those who are musically inexperienced can understand. I often say that music is a language that everyone can understand but not everyone is able to read. “Song Exploder” exemplifies that phrase. On Dec. 15, its second season will be released on Netflix, with episodes centered around “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, “Love Again” by Dua Lipa, “When We Were Young” by The Killers and “Hasta La Raíz” by Natalia Lafourcade.

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