The Man Behind the News Songs

Studio 20 grad David Holmes just might be king of the “newsical” genre. Or at least a prince. 

Last year, at Studio 20, Holmes came out with the “Fracking Song” for the class’s joint explainer project with ProPublica. It went viral in no time. Since then, he’s been busy writing, composing, and playing more explanatory songs for various newsrooms. 

His latest song—another hit for ProPublica—covers the shady dealings of Super PACs, a new supercharged breed of political action committee. Watch below: 

We interviewed Holmes about his newfound success and what it feels like to be working in a relatively new news genre. 

What inspired you to start doing news songs in the first place? 

It started my first semester at Studio 20. I was in Mitch Stephens’ innovation class and I was in a group with fellow Studio 20-er Niel Bekker. He had this idea to write a rock-opera about bed bugs, and he didn’t even know I was a musician or anything. So we threw it together real quick. And though the visuals were really dumb, it was a ton of fun.  When the “Building a Better Explainer” project came along with ProPublica, I figured, “well people really like the bed bugs song, so I’ll make a song about fracking and see what happens.” We found some great animators, and everything that could go right did. 

Do you think that the song format is a good way to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged with the news? 

In the best case scenario, like with “The Fracking Song” which did really well, you have people listening to the song more than once. You probably don’t get that as often with an essay or written article. Listening to it over and over again allows people to retain the knowledge so much more.  If you can take a boring issue and add a fun beat to it, a catchy chorus, people will be more likely to share it and you can raise more awareness of important issues.

The new song is about Super PACs, again for ProPublica. What inspired you to cover this topic? 

Part of it was actually a tumblr post by Jay Rosen about how, at one of the Republican debates, David Gregory asked a question about Super PACs that sort of made it sound like he didn’t quite understand the issue himself. Now, I’m sure Gregory understands Super PACs, but the way he asked this question was very confusing to the average viewer. Basically, it just made me think this topic was really ripe for explanation. 

Did you pitch this idea to ProPublica yourself or was this something they were already working on and they wanted a new song? 

They have their PAC Track, an interactive that tracks all the Super PAC data. So, I figured they’d be down to do a song about Super PACs, since they’ve done a lot of reporting on the topic. 

You have a company now, right? 

Andrew Bean, a friend from high school who lives in New York, and I started a company called Explainer Music. He co-writes the music and lyrics with me. He and I worked on all the songs so far. For this last video, Krishanan Vasudevan, and Sharon Shattuck, both graduates of NYU’s News & Doc program, did the animation. Some other friends had done the graphics on the previous videos, but didn’t have time to turn this one around as quickly as we needed for ProPublica. So we went with these new animators and they’ve been great. 

This song has a 70s funk theme. Is there a reason you chose that musical style in specific? 

Someone mentioned the song “SuperFly” By Curtis Mayfield when we were talking about this idea at ProPublica. So that was sort of how the 70s theme started. I also just really like that genre of music, it comes easily in terms of song writing. 

What are the other topics you’ve worked on for your explainer songs so far? 

We did a “Euro Crisis Song” for the Guardian last summer, which was a lot of fun. There was the “Redistricting Song” for ProPublica, which went up in early November. I liked that one because it had more of a narrative to it than some of the others. It started off with a really naïve explanation of how redistricting works—like what you’d learn from high school—and then it goes into how the system has been corrupted. Then there was the big “Fracking Song,” of course.