Last year, one of my long-held musical beliefs was shattered. I learned that alternative rock band REM’s 1991 single ‘Losing My Religion’, despite all the symbolism in its iconic music video, is not about lead singer Michael Stipe’s struggles with his faith. ‘Losing my religion’, I now know, is a southern American phrase that means “feeling incredibly frustrated” and the song is about the more pedestrian subject of unrequited love.
I was enlightened by Stipe’s interview on one of the eight episodes of the Netflix series Song Exploder, an offshoot of the immensely popular podcast of the same name created and hosted by US-based Indian-American musician Hrishikesh Hirway. On both, Hirway uncovers insights about the making and meaning of the featured tracks.
On one level, Song Exploder is about the seemingly cold and clinical task of picking apart and examining a composition’s bones or “stems”. What makes it such an interesting listen or watch is that, in actuality, this is just a stepping stone to get creators to reveal the heart and soul of their tunes. Consequently, Song Exploder is as much about the artist as their art. “The thing I’m looking for is a way to depict a portrait of the artist that’s interesting and compelling and unique-and [to] do that through the lens of a song,” Hirway told India Today over a Zoom call.
Since the launch of the podcast in 2014, Hirway has put under his metaphorical microscope both signature tracks and deep cuts. The web series, for instance, features industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails’ classic ‘Hurt’ and pop singer Dua Lipa’s non-single ‘Love Again’. “What I usually ask [the guest is]: ‘What’s a song that has personal significance to you?’,” he says. “[This] might not be the biggest hit [but] something that’s going to reveal the most about them.”
Musician artists Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ty Dolla Sign, Michael Stipe and Alicia Keys all featured in Netflix’s Song Explode (Courtesy of Netflix)
The web series plays much like an instalment of the podcast, which recently completed a milestone of 200 episodes. The key difference, apart from the presence of Hirway who edits his questions out of the podcast so that it runs like a first-person narrative, is that we also get to see archival footage and hear from multiple talking heads such as co-writers and producers. This gives the webisodes the look and feel of a monographic rockumentary.
A big part of Song Exploder’s appeal is that the listener or viewer learns something new even when they are familiar with the subject. “I feel like in every single episode, there’s always at least one thing, if not more, that really ends up surprising me,” says Hirway. “That’s why it’s still fun to make. It’s been seven years. I’ve never had a day job that has lasted that long.”
He says that in most cases, the revelations the artists make change listeners’ perspective of the tune, like with REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’. In some cases, they’ve happened to influence his own creative process. For instance, during his interview with erstwhile experimental music duo The Books, Hirway-who considers himself “first and foremost a musician”-found out that what he thought was a drum machine on ‘Smells Like Content’ was actually a vinyl record that guitarist-vocalist Nick Zammuto cut small notches into and played in a loop. “[Zammuto] said, ‘All rhythm is geometry’,” Hirway told us, recalling the 2014 episode. “If you cut it in 90-degree angles, that’s four-four time; if you cut it at 120-degree angles, that’s three-four time. That blew my mind. I’ve never stopped thinking about it since.”
Other series and podcasts you’ll enjoy if you like Song Exploder
The widely used lyrics website, on which fans annotate lines, publishes a series of ‘Verified’ video interviews in which an act “breaks down the meaning” behind their tracks
Switched On Pop
On this long-running podcast, musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding analyse how and why certain songs, like Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ and The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’, became huge hits
The Soundtrack Show
This podcast, which dissects the OSTs of films and TV shows, often features interviews with composers; past guests have included those behind the scores and songs for Frozen and Cobra Kai.