Local Current Blog

What do Bob Dylan’s Christmas lights mean?

Christmas lights in The Current's studio, arranged to resemble Bob Dylan's (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Humans measure time in unique ways. Some trace time via presidential elections. Many publications run expansive year-in-review features. Emmy-award winning comedy writer Merrill Markoe uses Bob Dylan’s Christmas lights.

Markoe has closely followed the spartan holiday decorating patterns of Dylan’s home in Malibu, Calif. since she first noticed Dylan’s decorations in 2008. Since 2014 her detailed explorations of the “erratically shaped curvilinear lines” of Dylan’s lights have been published in Vice.

At first, it may seem like a non-starter to analyze Dylan’s lackluster luminescence — but Markoe claims to have discovered a different masterpiece every year. You say potato, she says “subtle to the point of being invisible, deeply disguised by a faux-naïve approach that recalls Matisse or Chagall.” If she is to be taken seriously (she would rather not be), Dylan’s single haphazardly-cast strand of lighting graphs his experiences with life, death, politics, and this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

The past two winters have brought no shortage of riches to study for Markoe. In 2014, she noted “a more painterly, almost abstract expressionist vision, still full of characteristic touches of personal symbolism.” Later, 2015 saw a “painstakingly hung recreation of both the slowing of the GDP and the dramatic dip in nonfarm employment growth in Minnesota.”

According to Markoe, this winter’s strand of lights — which, to be sure, is virtually identical to those of prior years as it lazily snakes over a fence and some shrubbery in no distinct pattern — is the most elaborate yet. After low points attributed to the deaths of David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner and Eagles lead singer Glenn Frey, “the arc reaches upward, offering a cautious optimism, not unlike bubbles in champagne rising in a toast to a better future.”

Beyond “colliding with the forces of the election,” Markoe finds in this year’s decorations a reflection of Dylan’s halfhearted response to the Nobel Committee and his decision to not attend the ceremony in his honor. Closely inspecting the lights, she charts reactions from “PRETENDING NOT TO NOTICE” to “Heard Nobel Gift Shop SUCKS, compared to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” to “WROTE SPEECH. NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?????”

Markoe ends on an optimistic note, finding a “modest cryptic boast” in a pattern mirroring the distribution of Nobel Prizes over the ages of the winners. How will Dylan follow a work of this magnitude? Just wait till next year.

Ibad Jafri studies International Relations and Cinema & Media Studies at Carleton College. His holiday decorations are not worth analyzing.