Artists are rarely precious with the meanings behind their songs. In fact, it often seems that—when probed in interviews, etc.—artists are frequently the opposite of possessive when it comes to the psychological or emotional interpretations of their work. They’re quick to say something like “I couldn’t tell you the meaning, really” or “You’d know better than I would.” The lyrics might hold some specific ideas or a personal story, sure, but when their song is in the world, it belongs to the world.
Hrishikesh Hirway hosts the Song Exploder podcast, in which musicians explain how a specific track came into existence from a granular level—or, as Hirway himself describes it at the start of every episode, “where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” Hirway founded the show in 2014 and hosted it until 2018, at which time artist Thao Nguyen (of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down) took over until late last year.
Song Exploder has yielded 193 episodes spanning indie artists (Kelly Lee Owens and Waxahatchee were recent guests) and pop superstars (Fleetwood Mac, Selena Gomez, etc.) alike throughout its history. Now, Hirway is once again at the helm, and his brainchild has crossed from one medium to another in the form of a new Netflix show of the same title, which landed on the streaming service last week.
Across four quite manageable episodes (each under 30 minutes) honing in on one song a piece, Hirway applies the podcast’s successful format to the small screen without any blunders to report. Longtime fans of Song Exploder will undoubtedly enjoy seeing familiar audio elements translated to a visual form, but there’s plenty for newcomers to love, too. No prior understanding of the four featured artists—Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M. and Ty Dolla $ign—is even required. Hirway is a composed and generous host (as he is during the podcast), gently guiding musicians towards the story that is ultimately theirs to tell.
The most powerful episode might just be Miranda’s, where the musical theater sensation picks apart the song “Wait For It” from his show Hamilton. As with most songs featured on the show and podcast, “Wait For It” began as Miranda’s alone but bloomed into something shaped by many. He’s joined by two collaborators—composer Alex Lacamoire and director Thomas Kail, who both worked with Miranda previously on his first Broadway hit In the Heights.
But it’s clear “Wait For It,” which is Aaron Burr’s powerful moment in the spotlight in the musical, was lightning in a bottle. It captures all the tension, conflict and movement that’s happening within Burr at this point in the show. While he’s ultimately the one who brought on Hamilton’s demise in real life and is positioned as an antagonist during Miranda’s interpretation of events, it’s hard not to feel empathy for him during “Wait For It,” which weaves 808s with hand claps and piano. Kail’s explanation of Burr during this Song Exploder episode says it all: “If you weren’t judged by your worst day, who would any of us be?”
The R.E.M. episode should be required viewing for fans of the band—and all maybe pop music fans. In it, we learn the band’s biggest hit, “Losing My Religion,” was a product of Peter Buck wanting to experiment with instruments outside of the electric guitar (hence the famous mandolin riff). He was afraid of becoming a “guitar dick,” as lead vocalist Michael Stipe says in the show. We also peer into the percussive genius of Bill Berry and watch Mike Mills perform the song’s alluring bass line. One aspect of Song Exploder that always proves interesting is when the track is actually broken apart in individual layers for the listener to hear autonomously. In R.E.M.’s case, we’re treated to an original demo of “Losing My Religion,” as well as Stipe’s vocal recordings, which are played alone. It turns out the original chorus lyric was “That’s me in the corner / that’s me in the kitchen” before Stipe changed “kitchen” to “spotlight.” Can you even imagine what that version of the song would’ve sounded like? Learning quirky details like that one is what makes Song Exploder so entertaining.
In addition to the familiar interview questions and answers, Netflix’s Song Exploder implements visualizers to accompany artists’ explanations as well as the experience of hearing the completed song. In the case of Alicia Keys, who details the collaborative process of writing her emotional song “3 Hour Drive” with British pianist and singer Sampha, we see photos of Keys and her newborn son. For Sampha, the song is dedicated instead to his late mother. It’s a moving story about how one artist bringing life into the world worked so effortlessly with an artist who was experiencing grief to ultimately make something beautiful.
Like its podcast counterpart, Song Exploder is a music nerd’s paradise. The technical language is diluted for the Netflix audience, but the same concept remains: Hearing the songs we love in their most vulnerable forms can give us even more appreciation for them—and their creators.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.