'Song Exploder' Makes the Leap to Ultra-Slick Netflix Show with Mixed Results

Hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway

Starring Alicia Keys, R.E.M., Ty Dolla $ign, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Photo: Matt Sayles/Netflix

BY Alex HudsonPublished Sep 25, 2020

Have you ever heard Weezer's episode of Song Exploder? It's one of the most fucked-up, confounding and ultimately inspiring descriptions of the creative process ever, single-handedly making the case for Hrishikesh Hirway's behind-the-music-style show as one of the most essential podcasts out there.

For the uninitiated, Song Exploder is a podcast about the songwriting process, featuring artist interviews and in-depth dissection of lyrics, arrangement choices and multitrack recording stems. In moving to the big-budget world of Netflix, the show gains celebrity access and a whole lot of polish — but this drains away some of the idiosyncrasies that define Song Exploder's best episodes.

The show begins on the wrong foot with a schmaltzy, extremely pre-rehearsed-sounding voiceover from Alicia Keys. She's talking about "3 Hour Drive" — a song so new that surely no one has had time to get curious about how it was written. There's a hi-def camera in the studio during her writing session with Sampha, making the whole thing feel like it was penned specially for the show as an exercise in brand synergy. It doesn't shed much insight on the song, or instil much faith that the Netflix show will be able to capture the podcast's charms.

After this weak opening episode, however, Song Exploder gets on track. Ty Dolla $ign's "LA" offers illuminating, emotional insight into its titular city and the prison industrial complex, while R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" is a predictable yet compelling story of how one hit song can change an artist's life forever. And while Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't make Hamilton's hip-hoppin' history lesson seem particularly cool, his "Wait for It" episode contains by far the funniest and most spontaneous moments of the series.

Song Exploder works better as a podcast than as a TV show; there's really no need for the uncomfortable close-ups on artists while they listen to their own stems, nor the corny lyric videos that accompany the final listen-through of the finished track. Hirway, who sounds so natural and likeable on the podcast, sombrely hams it up here with self-serious gravitas. And there certainly aren't any mind-blowing moments like that Weezer episode. Still, Netflix's budget allows for a wealth of interviews and B-roll footage, making this a worthwhile watch for fans of the podcast.

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