September 21st, 2010 / 12:55 pm

We used to wait, but now we wait no more

Years ago, scores of indie nerds gathered in slobbery droolfests for the Arcade Fire’s Funeral. I know, I was one of them. The songs are anthems, more remniscent of the days of David Bowie and Queen than anything contemporary. Whereas they’re hardly cutting edge, it’s easy to find yourself singing along, enjoying, pumping your fists high up in solidarity.

A few weeks ago, my friend Susan Cahill (who will probably never read this, but if she Googles herself, she’ll find herself mentioned here, which is always a happy surprise) showed me the new music video for the Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait,” which she argued would revolutionize the way music videos are experienced. The video is personalized. Each person is invited to type in their childhood home address, and using the technology of Google Earth/Maps, you are bombarded with standard images of a person running with panoramic, 360 shots of your childhood home today, as it has morphed with the changing times. The images are seen simultaneously, each screen vying for your attention. It’s interactive. I mean: yes, it’s a pretty cool video.

The irony is that the lyrics of the song—which are haunting, to me at least—speak to the way technology has changed things. The song opens:

I used to write

I used to write letters

I used to sign my name

I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain


It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
We used to wait
We used to waste hours just walkin around
We used to wait
All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

I’ve talked ad nauseum about how old school I am, so I won’t go into it further here, but this song resonates with me. I’ve spent countless hours leafing through Nabokov-Wilson letters, Kafka’s letters, etc, wishing I could write letters so profound, so thoughtful, so consuming—not only personally consuming but also time consuming—but alas!, I am only a product of my times. That is, I live in the age of the instantaneous. I dash out emails, barely reading over the contents, I gmail chat, Facebook, text, all these forms of communication which require no waiting. Any amount of time waiting for a response is too long. I lack patience.

I always tell myself I will write letters. To my friends. To my family. To those I love and adore. And then I don’t. The closest thing to letters are little notes ripped from my Moleskine to accompany a gift or care package, and I rarely send those.

I kept thinking about this song last night. I didn’t sleep at all, maybe an hour. The idea of time and letters and waiting, waiting, wasting, waiting. I came to no epiphany. Now, I am only tired.

But here’s the thing: the lyrics of the song say one thing, and yet, the music video manifests something entire different. Sure, at the end of the video, birds fly into your neighbourhood and drop trees, changing the landscape forever, but that gesture comes too late. The high technology—its preciousness—overshadows both the intention of the lyrics and the final images.

Anyways, you should watch the video, if you haven’t already. It was released in late August, I think. I’m late to the game, always. Share me your thoughts. And write me a letter. I promise to write one in return. Really, if you want to write me a letter, I’ll give you my address, just include yr email in yr response.

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  1. Trey

      Google Earth doesn’t have detailed views of my childhood home, and there are definitely no road-level views since it’s on a dirt road. The music video suggests I try my elementary school instead, but my school sucked. Anyway, I’m just being negative. I bet it’s cool-ish for people who grew up in places Google cares about.

  2. goner

      I once had a girlfriend in the late-90s whom I met while I was in college in a small Texas town and she was living in Houston. One night my friend and I traveled to Houston to go see some bands play and that’s where I met her. We hung out all night and then went our separate ways. But she gave me her address that night and a few weeks later I wrote her a long letter and then a month later she wrote me a long letter back. That started what would be seven or eight months of writing letters back and forth until we finally started living in the same city. (It was the really early days of email and neither one of us even had a computer, much less an email account). It was so exciting to walk out to the mailbox and find a new letter from her. It was a weird rush that’s hard to explain–but the waiting certainly intensified the joy. We have long since broken up and I have moved to a couple of different cities and had many, many different apartments. But I still have all of those letters from her and I feel like I am really lucky to have experienced that. She and I remain really close friends even though we live thousands of miles apart and we both believe that the closeness comes from learning so much about each other in the early days through those letters.

  3. jennyschlief

      this album is fantastic. i hesitate to say so, but the whole thing’s this nice piece of art. they’re from the woodlands, a suburb of houston. which a lot of people say is houston if they are from there, but it’s not. but anyway, there’s this trailing quality that feels like highways, which houston has a lot of. it’s great.

  4. zusya

      really interesting interactive video, still rather much a pretty ok song and album (in my book, anyway).

  5. letters

      Good reminder that I have a stack of letters to reply to.

      The Kafka letters are great. Walter Benjamin’s correspondence with Gershom Scholem about Kafka are amazing.

      In a lot of ways, writing letters is a school for writing – you get an immediate reader and are forced to express yourself clearly. You know you have failed when you do not receive a reply.

  6. letters

      And I will write you a letter.

  7. Hank

      I write letters. I also live in a town so small that it won’t work with that music video. :(

  8. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I wish you could put in a few addresses. I thought it was awesome, but probably would have been even more powerful if I’d ever lived anywhere longer than seven years.

  9. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      oh shit, that means I’ve lived in my current Chicago apartment longer than I lived in ANY of my three childhood homes. Whoah.

  10. Amber

      I like this. I moved a lot throughout my growing-up years, and spent time in Europe in high school, so I ended up writing letters back and forth to lots of different people. Now I look at those letters and I’m sad, because they reveal so much about their writers, and I feel like I’ll never know anyone else like that again. They’re so much more personal and performative than emails, chats, etc.

      This video rules, but I feel the same way as Tim–wish you could put in multiple addresses.

  11. lily hoang

      anyone who wants to write me a letter, shoot me an email: lily[dot]hoang[dot]326[at]gmail[dot]com. i will give you my address. and then i will write you a response. we’re bringing back letter writing like it’s 1910!

  12. lily hoang

      I’ve read those Benjamin letters. Really fab. Yes!

  13. lily hoang

      Win was raised in the Woodlands (an area I know way too much about), but the rest of the band is from Montreal. They met & formed in Montreal. Can’t you tell by how beautifully they’re dressed? Not many people in the Woodlands have such an eye for style.

  14. Jhon

      Great post – I still write letters and send them through the USPS as I have found it really has a profound effect on the receiver – I know that when I get a written response that I’ve made a life connection. All letters are written on an IBM Selectric III as my hand writing is atrocious and the only thing that suffers is spelling a bit, which seems the e-mail writers wouldn’t have an issue with.
      I would be glad to send you a regular letter and craft it as well as I can – WARNING – I may not be brilliant and profound at all times and boring at others or I may even astound myself.
      that said –

  15. ryder

      i also feel feeling things when i listen to this song. i will write you a letter about the letter the guy who broke my heart sent me and then i felt better cos he’s a writer and i’m a writer and i knew he didn’t mean a word he wrote and neither did i.

      is it too performative that i run to this song?

  16. Richard

      awesome post…i totally understand the thrill of getting mail, of getting LETTERS, love or not…i had a long distance relationship in college and we wrote letter back and forth, and got to the point where we sent out a letter every day, and so…every day i’d get a letter from Cady, and it smelled like her, and i liked that, the whole thing, that moment where i took pen to paper, put down my beer for a minute, the six foot tall speakers downstairs blasting The Cure or Depeche Mode or David Bowie or REM or U2…

      we should do some letter writing, and i mean WRITING not typing – lily i’m dropping you an email, anybody else can drop me a note at wickerkat [at] aol [dot] com (i know, AOL, i’m also old school)

  17. lily hoang

      i thought about going running earlier today. this song is on my ipod. it would’ve been possible for me to run while listening to this song. that would not have been performative.

      also, the runner’s gait is very strange. i don’t think i’d like to run like that.

  18. lily hoang

      i love all things hand-written, even if i can’t read a lick of it. it’s the time and thought that goes into writing something by hand. romanticized, sure, but i can admit my faults.

  19. Amber

      I like this. I moved a lot throughout my growing-up years, and spent time in Europe in high school, so I ended up writing letters back and forth to lots of different people. Now I look at those letters and I’m sad, because they reveal so much about their writers, and I feel like I’ll never know anyone else like that again. They’re so much more personal and performative than emails, chats, etc.

      This video rules, but I feel the same way as Tim–wish you could put in multiple addresses.

  20. duane reade panini

      it did my neighbor’s house across the street. oh well.

  21. Tadd Adcox

      I will try to write a letter. I am also bad about it. A friend of mine has been living in an ashram in rural Pennsylvania for like, two months now & I said I would write and I haven’t. I am the worst pen pal. That said: jamestaddadcox [at] gmail

  22. Owen Kaelin

      You’re making me feel bad, man, stop it, stop it!

      Seeing my old home was a little weird (never had any interest to Google Earth my childhood home), though I didn’t recognize the overheads at all. I don’t know what the running boy was all about, but… okay. Cool.

  23. Guest

      I think this song is the last breath of a generation of patience. I’m 28 and as most of us came in just at the tail end of waiting, we used to wait sums it up beautifully!