Modern times? Not anymore…
Throughout the last couple hundred years, there have been people who thought everything was moving too fast. Henry David Thoreau, for example, fretted about the speed and rising dominance of the steam train in the late nineteenth century. In the 1950s, the atom bomb was a big source of both fear and resistance. And when Win Butler was growing up in the 1980s…well, actually, not much happened that caused resistance, although the Xerox machine and car phones each had a shining moment.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Those early years of Thoreau's anti-train sentiments are now known as The Gilded Age, a time when new technologies ranging from electric lights to telephones firmly took root in U.S. culture. These new developments led to rapid changes in how goods were produced (factories rather than individual craftspeople) and how goods were transported (fruits, vegetables and meats could go cross-country for the first time, along with manufactured goods). Pretty much throughout U.S. society, things literally started moving faster. The response to these developments led to an important shift in the focus and style of art and literature, a shift we now know as "modernism."
There has been a pretty detailed (and sometimes tedious) debate among scholars about what exactly modernism is, when it started, and what really marked the end of modern times (yes, they are technically over). Some people say we're now in postmodern times, and still others argue that we're in post-postmodern times. (By the way, considering how hard it is to understand postmodernism in the first place, no one can be blamed for having no idea what post-postmodernism means—don't sweat it). Anyhow, according to most authorities, modern literature actually stopped being produced in the 1950s, when postmodernism took the reins.
So what's the difference, you must be wondering? Well, we'll give you a very basic overview: Modernism was characterized by a blurring of linear narratives, a focus on the first-person perspective instead of the omniscient narrator, and a preoccupation with themes of the industrial age: work, war, and the speed and individualism of urban life. It was a reaction to the growing speed and mechanization of the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age. Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism that accepted some of its precepts (such as individualism and first-person perspective) but went a little further. That movement was preoccupied with a total loss of faith: technology, science, and objective "truth" in general were all in question. Belief in absolute truth and values was replaced by a sense of irony, subjectivity, and the idea that absolutely everything is a matter of perspective. The postmodern movements in art and literature brought us confoundingly awesome stuff like Jenny Holzer's ironic truisms and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
If you're not quite following us here, that's okay. There has actually been quite a bit of scholarly confusion and discord about the definitions of both "modernism" and "postmodernism." Philosophers mean one thing when they talk about modernism; English professors mean something else entirely; and unless you're planning to be an architect someday, forget about understanding the difference between modern and postmodern architecture. To top it off, in casual conversation lots of people use "modern" to mean the current era, which further confuses our understandings of whether or not we live in modern times (according to most academic-types, our times are actually "contemporary" and/or "postmodern"). Arcade Fire seems to share in—or at least contribute to—the confusion. In the song "Modern Man," Win Butler sings the line "I'm a modern man…" over and over, describing a dream in which he's waiting in line endlessly. But according to historians, no one who was born after 1950 can really be considered "modern" anymore. Are the Arcade Fire songwriters remembering times past? Or have they confused their literary and historical categories?
This distinction between eras probably doesn't matter too much to understanding this particular Arcade Fire song (though it may help you get through college). It might be more interesting to consider the characteristics of The Suburbs and whether it falls into the modern or postmodern tradition—after all, people can create modern literature in postmodern times. There are some things about The Suburbs that seem decidedly modern—the focus on boredom or the fear of the new speed of everything, for example. Other parts of the album seem decidedly postmodern—The Suburbs is devoid of the idea that there is an absolute truth or fundamental nature of things. Even more postmodern, whenever Arcade Fire seems to advance a certain viewpoint—for example, the idea that things are moving too fast in our times—the band comes back around in a semi-ironic fashion and questions that very viewpoint. At the end of "We Used to Wait," Butler shows that he's not just criticizing others for not waiting for things anymore, he's criticizing himself: "I used to wait for it/ Hear my voice screaming sing the chorus again" he says. In other words, he might criticize it, but he's a part of it just the same. And he might be the singer, but he's also the audience. He might have a viewpoint, but the viewpoint is always shifting and questioning itself. The best example of how Arcade Fire questions its own viewpoint in "We Used to Wait" appears not in the song, but in the music video.
Waiting in the postmodern era
"We used to wait," Win Butler wails. These days, those of us who live in technologically advanced societies can get everything we want automatically and super fast. From the sound of the song, the band thinks this change is more bittersweet than thrilling. So, it seems a little bit ironic that "We Used to Wait" is the song Arcade Fire chose for their first-ever interactive music video created in collaboration with Google Maps software. The video requires watchers to enter the address of the place they grew up, and then uses Google's satellite software to show pictures of your home during the song, and construct a sort of wilderness over the place you used to live. At the end of the video, viewers have the option to write a postcard to your own past self. The postcard, in turn, will be printed and given to someone at an Arcade Fire show.
Yes, the Arcade Fire is using the internet to send snail mail, in order to make a point about how snail mail has been overtaken by the internet. If you still don't understand postmodernism, you don't need to reach further: you're looking at it. Arcade Fire is self-consciously constructing a world in which the cool (internet! things that go fast! information!) becomes interchangeable with the un-cool (snail mail, trees) and un-cool things, in turn, become cool (snail mail! trees! now available from Google Maps!). The cycle of self-reflexivity becomes endless (What happens when snail mail and trees are cool? They become un-cool again, obviously. Now the internet is cool again. And so on…). Arcade Fire, well aware of their tech-savvy audience, plays with the irony of the facts: a band that is totally dependent on the speed and efficiency of the internet releases an interactive online music video for a song about how technology has changed everything and nothing is what it used to be. It's a beautiful postmodern moment.
But even without the lovely irony of the music video, "We Used to Wait" raises interesting questions about waiting, patience, and time in an age where people with access to technology can communicate and get information at lightning speeds. What happens to our relationship to music when we become used to instant gratification? Arcade Fire member Régine Chassagne remembers her childhood as a music geek before CDs, MP3s, and YouTube: "When you didn't have that, and you heard a song, somewhere, and then you had to remember it. You just had the memory of that song until you heard it again," she said in a 2010 interview about The Suburbs. "I definitely grew up like this and I actually think it trained my brain—I can play songs forward and backwards because I was so passionate about hearing these songs and I would just like drink the sounds and try to remember every detail."
In line with Chassagne's musical point of view, recent research has shown that over-dependence on technology can negatively affect memory. We become so used to getting information automatically—and we encounter so much data—that our brains become less and less practiced at actually remembering it. And by the way, technology might also be making us anti-social, and turning us into serial killers.
Admittedly some of these hypotheses are yet to be proven (especially the serial killer one), but the Centers for Disease Control certainly backed up Arcade Fire on the subject of sleep loss: "I used to sleep at night / Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain,"Butler sings. According to a report the Centers for Disease Control released in early 2011, sleep deprivation is a growing problem in U.S. society, and technology is likely a part of the cause."Sometimes we just have to unplug," said Lela McKnight-Eily, a CDC researcher. "Unplug the TV, unplug the radio, our BlackBerrys and computers."
It makes sense that it would help not to stay up all night staring at a glowing screen or cease talking to other people because we're too busy playing virtual games or checking our Facebook pages. But does all this mean that technology is "bad for us"? That's for you to decide. In any case, it can't be denied that with each new technological trend, we see shifts in the ways we relate to ideas, to memory, and to other human beings, and the shifts can be dramatic. What internet-savvy kid these days hasn't gotten at least a little irritated about having to wait a few extra seconds for something to download or for a website to load?
All Win Butler is trying to say is that good or bad, everything was different when they were kids: "In high school I had a letter-writing romance with a girl," he said in 2010. "I was trying to remember that time… waiting an entire summer, pretty much half a year, the anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive." Butler's memory is not necessarily a good one, and Arcade Fire's quirky-sad indie rock sound mixes nostalgia with a solid attachment to the present. The song pushes forward through plinking piano keys and building rock cacophony into that place they call "the wilderness downtown": Butler's memory of a dark, quiet, wild place that might be more metaphor for the feeling of being a child in the suburbs than real description of his personal history growing up in the suburbs of Houston. After all, the suburbs of Houston are hardly a wilderness.
"We Used to Wait" remembers the past, but the song (and the album it is a part of) doesn't necessarily dwell there—one reviewer aptly called the whole album "cynically nostalgic." It's more a description of change than a criticism of it. If anything, Arcade Fire created a thoughtful, reflective record of the inevitably changing times—and then went with the flow of the times by making the first-ever interactive Google Maps music video. Win Butler saw a good story in his memories of the past, so he made a song out of it. He explains: "All day every day there's almost this cloud of feeling hanging over everything. We'd be in Maine, I'd walk down to the post office and come back… the whole day was consumed by that feeling. I was just kind of realizing that, it's like, not to be like an old grandpa but it's like one of the things that I will be able to describe to my grandkids that will kind of blow their mind a little bit."