This may just be one of those things I dreamt, but I don’t think so. In the earlier part of this past decade, in 2003 or so, J. showed me a VHS documentary on the Athens, Georgia music scene from the late 1980s. It was a very good film and I remember quite a bit about it — there was a scene where Howard Finster was playing guitar with Dexter Romweber — but specifically, I clearly remember a scene where Michael Stipe looks at the camera and claims that he was the first person ever to use Christmas lights as everyday art-punk indoor house decoration. The first person, ever. In the late 1970s, he claimed. Before that, no one had ever strung up Christmas lights for decoration off-season. I may be misremembering this. But the reason I think I remember it so clearly is that I think J. and I watched the movie on that tiny TV-VCR I had in my bedroom on Gaulbert Avenue — a bedroom that was itself decorated with Christmas lights. I remember looking at Michael Stipe onscreen, and then looking at the Christmas lights, and then thinking, “wow, there is a direct correlation here.”
Flickr user Neys.
What a bold statement, Michael Stipe. If indeed he did make this statement, is it true? I had Christmas lights up in every apartment I lived in between 2000 and 2005. Around the windows, strung across the ceiling, over doors, around the perimeters of the ceiling. White ones, mostly, but I had a few blinking ones at various points, as well as the tube-style lights. I even once had purple Halloween-themed Christmas lights (I guess they would be called “Halloween lights”) that cast a ghostly purple light over the tiny one-bedroom apartment I had at Highland and Bardstown. It made everything that happened in that space seem important and cinematic and a little bit surreal.
Flickr user Magnus D.
Fifteen years after Michael Stipe first strung up Christmas lights in his Athens, Georgia art-punk house, it was still de rigeur to decorate your art-punk house Christmas lights. As far as I know, it still is, ten years after that.
Flickr user noncongrunt (1995).
I tried to confirm this with a Google Books search, but it’s not very helpful. There is no record I can find of Michael Stipe making such a claim. References to “Christmas lights” on Google Books first appear in print in the 1950s, from what I can tell. Wikipedia backs that up: “It would take until the mid 1950s for the use of such lights to be adopted by average households…Over a period of time, strings of Christmas lights found their way into use in places other than Christmas trees. Soon, strings of lights adorned mantles and doorways inside homes, and ran along the rafters, roof lines, and porch railings of homes and businesses.” It makes sense that it might take two decades for someone to figure out that they could be used to adorn mantles and doorways during the off-season. It makes sense that the person to figure that out might be Michael Stipe. Young, twenty-year-old Michael Stipe, in Athens, Georgia. Here I guess one could point out that Christmas lights create, in a room, an abstract sense of that room, not fully illuminated but filtered through a blur, in a similar way to how Stipe mumbles the lyrics to his songs, how he abstracts and blurs the words. One could point that out, but come on, let’s not get carried away.