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The Good Listener: When We Call Songs 'Filler,' What Does That Mean?

Friday, June 13, 2014

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the large wooden crates housing our new summer interns is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what makes some albums seem padded and inconsistent.

Miggy Pascual writes via email: "On a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, you described Daft Punk's Random Access Memories as having 'a ton of filler.' I cringed at that moment, mostly because of the word 'filler.' ... What defines or constitutes filler? What are the signs that tell you a song qualifies as filler? Is it just a matter of personal preference?"

Though consensus often forms around certain albums — it's largely accepted as truth that Red Hot Chili Peppers' 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik is insanely padded at 74 minutes, and that Prince's Crystal Ball wanders just a bit over the course of two and a half hours — "filler" is in the eye of the beholder. I got a bit of push-back for that offhand comment about Daft Punk, from people who felt that Random Access Memories was a consistent pleasure, and perhaps I should have explained the thought further.

In the moment, I was simply expressing surprise that a record I'd found so inconsistent would win the Album of the Year Grammy — because to me, Random Access Memories wanders right off the rails three tracks in, with "Georgio By Moroder." For those who haven't heard the song, it sets a Moroder interview to music for nine meandering minutes. For many dance-music diehards, it's a nifty tribute, but to me it just felt interminable — and like an absolutely bizarre way to pace and sequence a 74-minute record. (Maybe I've just got a thing against 74-minute run times?)

"Georgio By Moroder" was likely intended as a combination mission statement and history lesson for a record that immerses listeners in the sounds of dance music's past. But it felt, to me, like the ultimate "When are we gonna get to the fireworks factory?" moment. Random Access Memories' juiciest, Pharrell-iest singles, "Get Lucky" and "Lose Yourself to Dance," are plopped squarely in its midsection, where other records might start to drift a bit. That's clearly by design, but I found the record erratic and opted to simply cherry-pick a few favorites and move on.

But there's more than one way to appreciate a record, and albums are more than merely mechanisms artists use to dispense singles. Random Access Memories is meant to sprawl out, to look back, to test attention spans, and to celebrate the shoulders on which it's standing. It's designed with multiple uses in mind; it's got singles if you want singles, but it's also generously stuffed with detours for those looking to get lost. In hindsight, I was probably too hard on it.

Listeners' view of "filler" is often shaped by the formats through which we listen to music. Getting back to Blood Sugar Sex Magik for a moment, that album was absolutely shaped by the idea that CDs and cassettes could and perhaps should hold 74 minutes of music, just as pop songs of the past were often limited in length by what could fit on a 7" single. (You had to flip Don McLean's epic "American Pie" midway through.) In the age of iTunes and dwindling CD sales, album lengths have largely drifted back downward, at least in pop and rock music — and that, in turn, places stronger emphasis than ever on making every song count.

The best way to define filler, for those who wish to bother with the word, is "songs you skip every time." To those of us who judge albums as a whole, and who covet the idea of a perfect record, they're sources of frustration — barriers to perfection. But that concept is probably best kept in perspective: If an album is tantalizingly close to perfect, skipping a track here and there hardly presents an insurmountable obstacle.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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