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I used to write letters I used to sign my name
Songwriter Win Butler really did used to write letters.
"We Used to Wait," he says, is loosely based off of his memory of a letter-writing love affair he had with a girl during his isolated teenage-hood.
"I was trying to remember that time and it's all just colored by the feeling of waiting. An entire summer, pretty much half a year, was just like this feeling of this anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive, kind of coloring the whole time," Butler told an NME interviewer in 2010. (Source)
In other words, "we used to wait," or at least Butler did. Now we just check our email.
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 10% of adults in the U.S. experience chronic insomnia—and the problem is getting worse every year.
The CDC says that 70 million Americans are affected by sleeping disorders of some kind. In 2011, the CDC reported that one in three Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night (seven hours is the minimum recommended for adults; teens are supposed to get 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night).
The report added that over the past 20 years, the amount of time the average American spends sleeping has been gradually declining, and mentioned long work days and late nights on the computer as possible sources of the problem.
We're guessing the Arcade Fire didn't consult any statistics on this one, but they may have noticed that it's getting harder and harder to sleep in our buzzing technological age. What do you think? Are "the flashing lights" of technology to blame for keeping people up at night?
So when the lights cut out
I was left standing in the wilderness downtown
Even though Arcade Fire tends to be a little bit melancholy in their reminiscences about the past, they are also firmly planted in the present—or is it the future?
The Wilderness Downtown isn't just a cool sounding name that reminds us of various urban gardening projects—it's also the name of Arcade Fire's interactive music video based on "We Used to Wait."
The website uses the Google Maps satellite system to construct a personalized music video for listeners that includes the chance to write yourself a postcard and watch your hometown get planted with fake trees (not plastic ones, though: virtual ones—fake plastic trees are so 1990s).
So, what is "The Wilderness Downtown"? Is it an imagined place in the past, before people built buildings and technology took over our brains? Is it an imagined place in the future, when—as in the interactive video—trees take over human developments and create new wilderness where the suburbs used to stand? Or is it a metaphor for the present? If "the wilderness downtown," the thing you see when all the lights go out, is a metaphor, what could it be a metaphor for?
We used to wait for it
Now we're screaming sing the chorus again
The song shifts its commentary from the topic of communication to the topic of music, maybe even criticizing impatient fans with this line.
In some ways, this song (and the whole Arcade Fire album) flies in the face of the iTunes/iPad/Amazon culture of immediate gratification. Waiting has its benefits, it says, and there's a certain romance to it. In the music world these days, it's easy and quick to get a single song at a time—and, if you don't like the whole song, it's easy to just skip to the part you want to hear. Just the act of purchasing and listening to a whole album sometimes seems like a retro practice.
But with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire insists that its fans do just that. None of the songs on the album really stand alone, and some even come in pairs ("Half Light I" and "Half Light II" along with "Sprawl I" and "Sprawl II," and lastly, "The Suburbs" and "The Suburbs (Continued)"). The music and the concepts within each song work in tandem with the other songs, making the album itself the primary work of art with the song forming only a part of the picture. To get the whole picture, you have to wait for it, maybe even listen to it several times through.
But in today's culture, this line suggests, people can't even wait through one song. They want to get back to the chorus, the catchy, memorable part of the song. They don't have any time to waste and instant gratification rules.
Do you agree? Do people living in technologically advanced societies know how to wait for things? Or is the art of waiting a fading art, just like the art of the concept album and the art of shoe repair? If waiting is a dying art, is that a problem or does it just mean that our society is becoming more efficient?
By the way, apparently computer programming, cursive writing, hangar flying and ballet are also being considered for the label of "dying art." We're seeing the future, and in the future there is a concept album about the days when we used to program computers, in cursive, while doing pliés in hangars. Ah, those were the days.