Monday, October 13, 2014

In Defense Of: Dashboard Confessional

This In Defense Of was contributed by Alexandra Smyth, a Brooklyn-based writer, poet, and Swiss Army Romantic.

I'm cringing, just a little, as I write this.
Chris Carrabba. Photo: CC, freschwill.

Now, don't get me wrong — I am one thousand percent here to defend Dashboard Confessional to you, dear reader. But the very essence of what I think makes Dashboard Confessional worth defending — their earnestness — is the very thing making me cringe right now. I'm betting deep down that earnestness is what makes you bag on them too.

Think back to when you were 16. For the sake of this essay, I'm going to talk about myself, but I want you to think about who you were at that tender age as well. At 16, I was chubby and excruciatingly awkward girl growing out an ill-advised pixie haircut. I made my own T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like "geek rock" and took photos of decaying things for my photography class. I had a terrible crush on a boy with a hot pink mohawk who in turn was in love with the prettiest punk girl in our neighborhood. My entire existence that year was that of a perpetually skinned knee — raw and obvious and oozing. Everything felt painful all the time, and it makes me squirm just to think about it. Maybe you're wincing too, thinking about your former self.

I was already listening to emo — of course I was — the usual Vagrant Records and Saddle Creek suspects, but when I heard The Swiss Army Romance for the first time it felt like I had made a tremendous discovery. Here was a man completely exposed and unafraid to tell the world how he was really feeling: Chris Carrabba was practically drowning in his own vulnerability. I had never heard anything like it. Dashboard Confessional was a band that embraced the feelings I had trouble expressing, who wrote songs that even seemed to celebrate these unpleasant feelings, in their own odd way.

With lyrics like "as for now I'm gonna hear the saddest songs / and sit alone and wonder how you're making out," and "close lipped / another good night kiss / is robbed of all its passion," I finally felt like someone got it. Now, I'm not here to defend the quality of these lyrics. This is not good writing, by any means, but I do think there's a real, if misguided, bravery present here. For many people, and more specifically, for many awkward 16 year old girls, it's not easy to say how you really feel, especially when the feelings are this jagged. It takes a certain level of courage to make declarations like “this is where I say I’ve had enough / and no one should ever feel the way that I feel now / a walking open wound / a trophy display of bruises / and I don’t believe that I’m getting any better." At 16, I ate it up. At 28, I want to give Carrabba a hug and ask him if he needs help finding a therapist. The lyrics are borderline histrionic, but he’s obviously feeling these feelings, and at 16 I felt them too. It’s hard to listen to, and it’s painful to remember.

Dashboard Confessional had happy songs that capture specific moments for me too. I remember driving down the George Washington Parkway blaring 
"Hands Down" from my beat-up Delta 88’s shitty sound system after a very successful first date with the shaggy-haired, olive-skinned boy who would become my first long-term boyfriend. I giddily shrieked along with the song, particularly the final lines, "and you kissed me like you meant it / and i knew that you meant it / that you meant it," absolutely shocked that I'd had the balls to kiss him — and that it had worked! Again, what the lyrics lacked in sophistication was more than made up for in the combination of jangly guitar chords and the open emotion in Chris Carrabba's voice. I put the song on a mix tape that I made this boy for his birthday a couple of months later, and it went on to become one of many songs that we considered to be "ours." Twelve years later, I can't listen to "Hands Down" without recalling the details of that first date.

Almost 15 years after discovering Dashboard Confessional, I have a vague sense of mortification whenever I hear one of their songs, much like whenever I see pictures of myself from that era. There is a level of sincerity to both that causes an almost offensive level of secondhand embarrassment. As adults, earnestness, sentimentality, and emotional vulnerability are things to be avoided like the plague. Dashboard Confessional possesses all of these traits to an exponential level. No one I have met has ever wanted to re-live their teenage years, with all the discomfort and messy feelings that go along with it, and that is precisely why I think Dashboard Confessional receives an unfair amount of our ire. You can't help but be reminded of a painful former self when listening to them.

Because of this, I think we all can relate to, and maybe even appreciate many of Dashboard Confessional's unvarnished sentiments. I've even seen it demonstrated in the private karaoke rooms of Saint Mark's Place and Koreatown in New York City. In a roomful of hip young adults, not one of them needs to look at the karaoke marquee because they still know every single word to "Screaming Infidelities," and every single one of them is singing right along. Maybe Chris Carrabba was right. Perhaps, as in "Vindicated," we are all "flawed," but we are also "cleaning up so well." Maybe it’s time we let ourselves have those earnest feelings, from time to time, no matter how indulgent they may feel.

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