Song Exploder: "tUnE yArDs - 'Water Fountain'"
I drive a lot. Many, many hours per week, in fact, I sit in a car commuting to work or traveling to see family or going out to dinner. if I'm in there for too long, my butt gets very sore and sometimes my back sweats. I've put, like, 60,000 miles on my Jetta in less than three years. Thankfully most of my daily driving is only of the 15- to 25-minute variety, just enough time to listen to Song Exploder, the show that has come closest to "perfecting" the medium in podcasting's rosy-colored present.
Song Exploder is a music podcast (#7 on the iTunes music chart currently) in which producer Hrishikesh Hirway interviews singers and bands and takes apart a song bit by bit so you can hear how the finished product became the song it became. The show is part of the Radiotopia network, the fifth-most downloaded group of shows in the podcast world. And it's short: Each episode lasts roughly between 12 and 18 minutes and ends by playing the entire song it just took apart. You hear the parts, then you hear the final product.
A nice bit about Song Exploder is the anti-mainstreamness of it - either you learn the origin story of a song that's already stuck in your head or you get a new band or singer to follow, but don't expect to hear the hits of the 80s, 90s, and today. The episode featuring "Water Fountain" by tUnE yArDs from May 2015 is one of my favorites, in no small part because I'd heard the song a few months before the podcast episode launched and because the song is just so weird and in a great way. It wasn't much like anything I'd ever heard before, but it was strange and lively, almost like a song that belonged in some messed-up, alternate reality version of a Roller Coaster Tycoon game. The interview with Merrill Garbus (the musician behind the tUne yArDs name) made me appreciate the song even more.
When Song Exploder interviews an artist about a song, it isolates bits of the featured track - like the background clapping rhythm or the first vocals of the original lyrics. It's a unique use of the medium. This isn't something you could do in print. Certainly it's not conducive to television broadcast. You'd never hear this on traditional radio. It's uniquely a podcast. It's best digested via headphones.
At its best, Song Exploder not only gets the artist to explain the wayward, interesting origins of the song but it lets you actually hear it. In the tUnE yArDs episode, Garbus reveals that the song almost never happened (originally she hated it), and that she moved the original bass track from a major key to a minor one, which changed the song entirely and gave it the strange, warped feeling with which it finished.
I listen to lots of shows, and as producers and hosts try to figure out how long people will listen to any particular episode, shows vary wildly in their run-times. Dan Carlin's popular Hardcore History show runs sometimes in the four-hour range, which is insane. Some episodes of The Memory Palace (also on Radiotopia) are only five minutes long. Some talk shows just drone on and on and on for an hour or two at a time. That's not to say some long shows aren't totally great, but anything between 15-30 minutes feels right to me. Song Exploder's in the sweet spot.
Choosing a good podcast isn't much different from choosing your next Netflix show to binge - it's about time management. We all make those decisions based on someone's recommendation or Twitter or whatever: Is this going to be worth my time? Will it entertain me? Do I want to stick with this for 20, 40, 100 episodes? With Song Exploder, I say "yes" to all three.
More shorties and music shows:
- NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts - musical acts, playing intimate afternoon concerts behind a desk at NPR HQ.
- The Memory Palace - short, true stories from history, told by Nate DiMeo, who has a lovely voice.
- The Listening Project - this BBC show is beautifully simple. Put two people in front of microphones, let them talk.
Ps: One final note! If you have an Apple phone and have updated to the newest iOS 10 operating system, this gives you the ability to delete the native apps that Apple auto-downloads on your device. Take off the stocks app if you wish. Send iCal into outer space. Nuke your Reminders. Do what you wish, but don't delete the Podcast app!