Netflix can offer more glamorous, more stunt interviews than, say, “Song Exploder,” in which Face Controls David Letterman’s loss of virginity as a crude flutist. But would any of these devote even a minute to the glory of the flexaton? This is a surgical-looking percussion instrument that, once shaken and bent, can sound like a triangle on a cartoon acid trip. Musician Ty Dolla Sign uses one in his song “LA” and praises him in the first season of “Song Exploder”, except that, damn it, he can’t remember what it’s called. The show’s creator and host, Hrishikesh Hiroui, fills the gap. Ty Dola̵
I love this show, rather than the Hirway podcast that inspired it. The format is the same: musicians talk about how they conceived and recorded a song. On Netflix, the season is obviously short of episodes and none exceeds half an hour. So they can be watched again. All four of this first batch – which also includes interviews with Alicia Keys, Lynn-Manuel Miranda and REM – are wonderful in part for their “aha”, “eureka” and “well, I’ll be” moments, as in episode 3, when REM drummer Bill Berry realizes that there is indeed applause in the final mix of Losing My Religion. Such epiphanies are similar to the part of “Finding Your Roots”, when Henry Louis Gates Jr. shocks a famous person (Questlav, Ben Affleck, Ming Tsai, Amy Schumer) with the facts from the family tree. Good TV.
But the other strength of the new show is its questionable variety. Each episode begins with a concise arrangement of Hirway’s table (this is the performer, this is the song) and ends with the playback of the song in its entirety. After the introductions, the episodes are guided by the personality of the performers and the specific origin of the song. For example, in Keys’ episode, she searches for the song (“3 Hour Drive”) instead of researching how it was found, as other artists do here. She arrived in London to write and record without knowing exactly what. Herway has a video of her in a room with producer Jimmy Napes and songwriter and singer Samfa, who gets involved and cooks.
The podcast does not need all of these assets (purchased video, editing of old footage) in the way that 20-minute TV minutes are made. A podcast episode could only survive for Keys, Napes and Sampha telling about us. But the television incarnation is satisfactory. It’s a thrill to watch Alex Lakamouar, Hamilton’s music director, Miranda’s palm tree as they enjoy an instant exclamation about how “Wait for Him” became one of the musical’s emotional encounters. There is the stress of Michael Stipe, the REM singer, who shakes when he is forced to listen to a 30-year-old vocal song.
The show needs to find a better way to present the finished recordings. Currently, the music videos he makes for each song (often animated and full of visualized lyrics) tend to align the songs with what they aren’t: kitsch.
Yet idiosyncratic ambition works here. You can imagine a show that is entirely interested in nostalgia for a backing catalog, one in which someone “blows up” past card breaks and past traffic jams to make us feel good again. Isn’t Hireway someone? Only one of the four songs here is a hit single and it is from 1991. Who knows how the songs were chosen for the Netflix show? Keys’s is from a brand new album. Ty Dolla’s is the opening track of his 2015 Free TC debut. Hirway’s approach is not cultural. We have other sources of light on this, such as the podcast “Hit Parade”, a show by Chris Molanfi through the Billboard charts and his own video series “Diary of Song”, in which the current hits are dismantled and essentially reassembled by people who have made them.
As the title “Song Exploder” tends to be the opposite of chaos. My understanding of the individual songs does not fall apart. If nothing else, I feel closer to the music by the end. Even when I’m not crazy about the song, I am repeatedly reminded of the alchemical fusion of skill, ingenuity and coincidence that culminates in art. I learn things; one of the connections between the songs in the Netflix version is how important the concept of space is, whether it’s the rest of the notes, the atmospheric calm or the rhythm of sui generis in Berry’s drumming. The show invites you to crawl through the window of the creative process and feel both excited and humbled by it.
“Song Exploder” is more like “Dissect,” a series of podcasts that uses an encyclopedic approach to evaluating the album, except that Hirway’s sessions are clearer and his interest in crafts borders on psychology. A good interview can overlap with therapy. Hirway is one of the few housewives who could be a true therapist. He makes Dr. Phil look like he works for Vince McMahon. Hirouay is present, gentle and almost noticeably attentive, but stoic. In the first minutes of the episode with the keys, she asks him what his sign is. Aquarius. Hers, too, but that’s about the conversation, because he wants to start a business. Time is wasted. He is not so much immune to her charisma (or Miranda’s) as he is curious about the goals for which she is set. When Hirouay hits Tai Dola with a vocal song for “LA”, the singer shudders. You don’t have to have this. But “this is the secret sauce of the show,” Hirouay informed him.
He is especially good with REM. Each member is interviewed individually, but he still makes them respond. During his exchange with Stipe, Hirway asks him to inhabit the thinking of the protagonist of “Losing My Religion,” something I don’t know that an interviewer has successfully accomplished with respect to Stipe and each REM song. But Stipe lives. Once inside, he admits that he has found a part of himself in the feeling of paranoid love for the song. He leaves Hirway to press and probe. It is gentle and risky – affirmative too. Hirouay wants to understand the song more than the people who composed it. Or maybe to understand the song is to understand his composers. Anyway, I left Miranda’s episode amazed by the complexity of “Wait for It,” a song about Aaron Burr’s smoldering long play; and he was reminded again that “Losing My Religion” is one of the greatest hidden revelations, which fits into both the Top 5 and the psyche of the planet.
Hirouay himself is a musician, but I only know that because I read it somewhere. It is not necessary. He doesn’t make any fires around. But I guess he speaks the language of the performers enough to switch tactics and draw them into an introspection deeper than what is already seen in the songs themselves. I hope his behavior continues with this removal, because anyone can stay behind the music. However, few are strict enough to go under it.