Dashboard Confessional: Youth culture sings along with Chris


by Walt Mueller


Something special always happened when our youth group got in front of a fire. Sometimes we sat around the flames after riding in a hay wagon on a crisp fall night. There were times when we warmed ourselves in front of the big stone fireplace in the lodge. Or maybe it was a late night sitting in a tight circle around a fire pit, our fellow campers' faces illuminated by the glow of the burning logs. Each and every one of my adolescent youth retreat, camping and hayride recollections includes warm fireside memories of what would happen when we'd quiet down, our leader would strap on his acoustic guitar and we'd begin to sing. Whether the songs were silly old favorites or more serious testimonies to faith, all of us sensed the same thing - in that moment we found ourselves swept away from the struggles of everyday life. Together we felt a unity we rarely experienced anywhere else and a sense of transcendence that was beyond description.


While my teenage fires stopped burning 30 years ago (Wow, how time flies!) and the world of youth culture has changed immensely, one thing remains the same - today's emerging generations continue to long for and seek an adolescent experience of unity and transcendence. It's a desire that hasn't flamed out with the passing of time. Instead, it's blazing brighter than ever. But where are today's kids gathering in an effort to satisfy these desires?


One place is at the feet of a musical pied piper who straps on his acoustic guitar and leads a sing along that includes a growing number of kids. They gather together in front of the live stage or alone in their rooms to listen and sing to music they say resonates deeply with who they are and what they feel. Because they reflect the realities of adolescent life and love, the simple and straightforward tunes of Chris Carrabba - a.k.a. Dashboard Confessional - have captured the ears and allegiance of today's youth culture.


Because his personal story and resulting musical message mirror the heart and soul of the kids we know and love, Dashboard Confessional deserves our attention. What is it about Dashboard Confessional that's thrust the quiet and unassuming Carrabba from obscurity into mainstream recognition and fame in just a few short years? What message and world view does his music teach and reflect? Is there anything his music can teach us about the realities young people face as they grow up in today's rapidly changing world? And, can Carrabba teach us anything about how to minister to those children and teens we know and love?


DC-Unplugged.jpgThe Dashboard Confessional story

The stories told in Dashboard Confessional's (DC) music flow from the story and worldview of Chris Carrabba. To fully understand the meaning and power of the music, wise listeners know they must listen and interpret the tunes in the context of the 28-year-old's life story. Carrabba - DC's chief singer and songwriter - was born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut. As with so many of today's artists who have turned to making music for personal solace and therapy, Carrabba's early years were in a broken home. His parents divorced when he was only three. To this day, he isn't close to his biological father. He is, however, very close to his mother - a woman he dearly loves and describes as a "blessing." Even though his father left, Carrabba did grow up in a close and loving home. His mother remarried. Along with a new stepfather came an older stepbrother who Chris grew to idolize. Not long after, the close-knit family circle was completed with the addition of a younger brother and sister.


Carrabba's road to a future in music was fueled early on by the encouragement of his mother, a woman gifted with musical talent herself. While the other kids would play outside, Chris would often stay in to play "band" with his siblings - singing and pounding away on homemade "drums" crafted from popcorn buckets. A sensitive child, Carrabba would participate in school musical activities but struggled with stage fright. His mother recalls how that same sensitive side led young Chris to avoid scuffles with peers by trying to talk his way through disagreements and problems.


Another influence on his future was his growing love for skateboarding. An excellent skateboarder, he was good enough to get sponsorships and considered going pro. After the family relocated to Boca Raton, Florida, when Chris was 16, he often skipped school to skateboard. Not surprisingly, he spent lots of time listening to and being influenced by the punk music that was the skating subculture's soundtrack.


But the forgotten guitar his Uncle Angelo had given to 15-year-old nephew Chris soon supplanted the skateboard as Carrabba's main interest. Upon graduating from high school, he began to teach himself how to play. He practiced hard as he pursued a degree in education at Florida Atlantic University. His studies and love for kids led to an administrative job at the J.C. Mitchell Elementary School in Boca Raton, where he directed an after-school special education program.


But music soon took first place in his life as he joined and fronted the local band, The Vacant Andys. After a short stint with a second band - The Agency - Carrabba hooked up with the punk band Further Seems Forever, which eventually released an album on the Christian Tooth and Nail record label. While it may come as a surprise to many that Carrabba is a man of faith, he says he became a Christian while going through a family tragedy. In his mind, the fact that he had endured the tragedy was testimony to the fact that there was a God. He says he experienced grace and now believed.


The transition from Further Seems Forever to Dashboard Confessional came as the result of three solo songs Carrabba wrote and recorded while still with Further Seems Forever - all in the span of just two hours! Somehow, the tape was copied and got into the hands of many kids. Touched deeply and significantly by the music they heard, they asked Carrabba to write and record more. The response convinced him to start his own band and DC was born. He left Further Seems Forever, donated his belongings to Goodwill and started touring solo as Dashboard Confessional.


Many are curious abut the origin of the band's name. Dashboard Confessional is actually Carrabba's stage name. The strange label is taken from a line in one of those original three songs, "The Sharp Hint Of New Tears." Rather than adopting a solo name (i.e. "Chris Carrabba" or "The Chris Carrabba Band"), the truly humble Carrabba wanted to avoid appearances of vanity while leaving the door open to draw other musicians into the mix at a later time. Sometimes Carrabba stands as Dashboard Confessional on stage alone. At other times, the Dashboard Confessional the audience sees on stage is Carrabba with one or more additional musicians. But Carrabba also forsook the solo moniker because he believes his audience is part of the band. In fact, he calls his fans "band members." The songs are "as much theirs as they are mine," he says (mtv.com).


That fan base has grown quickly due to the connection the music has made with the kids. Not until relatively recently has any DC music been marketed in the mainstream. Rather, it was Carrabba's commitment to playing in lots of small and intimate settings that led to an expanding fan base. Concert-goers would spread the word and share the CDs they had purchased at the shows. By the time DC played their first headlining concert in North Carolina, the show was so sold-out that Carrabba had to go outside and sing to the fans who couldn't get inside.


Carrabba still suffers from horrible stage fright but keeps getting up on stage because he loves playing the music he loves. He's known as a very generous person. He's a creature of habit, eating the same meals everyday. He's never done drugs, but admits to drinking beer every other week.


A very private person, Carrabba chooses to be vulnerable in his music. The personal nature of Carrabba's songs is why they've connected with so many kids. That intimate vulnerability reflects the fact that he sees DC as his "diary." "I don't keep a journal or write a diary, but I find myself writing these songs," says Carrabba. "It's just kind of my way to cope with this world I guess" (decapolis.com).


Dashboard Confessional's music

The songs Carrabba uses as a coping mechanism don't seem - at first listen - like the kind of stuff that would sell in a music climate bent on marketing flash and pizzazz. DC's sound is a stripped down, bare bones package that's heavy on acoustic guitar and vocals. Simply stated, Carrabba sings, plays guitar and hopes "the kids sing back" (decapolis.com). Sometimes he's backed by an additional acoustic guitar, and other times there's a full band. But always the music is simple, uncomplicated and not over-produced.


Although Carrabba doesn't like the tag, his music has been labeled as "emo-punk," a genre that's emotionally vulnerable without the noise and aggression of classic punk music. Lots of former punk lovers have "switched over" to DC's acoustic sound. The "emo" side of the label comes from a sub-genre of punk that came onto the Washington, D.C. area hardcore punk scene of the 1980s. Marked by thoughtful and introspective themes, the sonic bed was far less aggressive. Emo-punk has also been called "slow-core" and "sad-core." Carrabba prefers to see himself as a singer/songwriter in the indie-rock genre. He cites as his influences a broad range including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Pedro the Lion and the Beach Boys - particularly Brian Wilson, the most emotionally and complex member of the '60s era surf band.


When Carrabba begins to sing, one can definitely hear his punk roots, but there's a soft and gentle earnestness to his voice. That voice serves as a perfect communicator of lyrical themes that reflect who he is and how he connects with kids. He uses his music to explore the full range of human emotion. His songs serve as his "personal scrapbook." One overriding theme in that scrapbook is the perils and pains of romance lost. Carrabba claims there are so many things he wants to say that he writes entire albums, not individual songs. Blender's Ann Powers says, "As a lyricist, he artfully mixes near-cliche with startling observation, so each listener feels his words belong to their own brain" (blender.com). Reviewer Gavin Edwards says DC's music is "catharsis for anyone who's ever gone through relationship hell, which is most everybody" (rollingstone.com).


To catch the real power of DC, one must attend and observe the phenomenon of what happens at a DC concert. From start to finish, the kids who've gathered around the "fire" of the stage sing every word and take every breathe right along with their song leader, former camp-counselor Chris Carrabba. It's not a concert as much as it's a sing-along. The emotion on the face of Carrabba is reflected on the face of every attendee. They are the band and they feel his music. Gavin Edwards says, "their live shows are an astonishing phenomenon: intensely personal lyrics about heartbreak turned into a visceral community chorus." (rollingstone.com). Carrabba says that "if you come to one of my shows you're kind of expected to sing as loud as I do and it's just really like a team effort. It's almost organic how much the kids are involved. They are a part of the band. It's great." (altarnative.com).


After the show, the humble Carrabba usually makes himself available to kids. They talk to him about their problems. The entire musical package combines in what MTV's Joe D'Angelo has called "a demon-sharing group therapy session" (mtv.com). If you want to know what's going in the minds, hearts and lives of today's kids, DC's albums are like an extra seat on the therapist's couch - a seat reserved for those who want to eavesdrop into the adolescent world.


Drowning (1999)

This debut EP - released in 1999 and re-released in 2001 - features the three solo songs Carrabba recorded while still with Further Seems Forever. In what's now expected and known as typical DC fare, the album's content addresses the fragility and uncertainty of relationships with others and with the self. Consequently, it's not surprising that once these songs were in the hands of insecure and confused young adolescent listeners who face those same realities on a daily basis, a connection would be made. Then, that audience would spread the word about DC and ask Carrabba for more.


The disc's title cut opens with Carrabba pondering the unsettled status of a delicate relationship: "Am I drowning you out in boasts of defection/If everything was up to me I would be gone at the first sign/The first sign of hope/I'd be packed up and out of my way." He sings, "The things that are keeping you here are not keeping me here/And the things that are keeping you here will keep me away ... don't follow your heart cause it just seems to get in your way."


Carrabba looks longingly for someone to come alongside and walk him through life in "Anyone, Anyone": "I'm not sure of anyone, anyone/But I've got plans/I'm not asking for everything/But sure I could use a hand."


"For Justin" is a memorial piece written to someone who's been dead for over a year. He tells Justin that since he's been gone, "I've been trying to heal inside." The song ends with Carrabba promising to "live a life that you think was sane."


The Swiss Army Romance (2000, 2003)DC-Swiss army romance.jpg

Originally recorded and released in early 2000, then re-released in 2003, this is the DC album that started it all. The all-acoustic disc is Carrabba's first full-length solo effort. In true Carrabba fashion, he wrote the songs as a form of personal therapy after a bad breakup. The album features a full spectrum of emotion that "swings from vulnerable to accusatory" (Jonah Weiner, blender.com). After an initial listen, I realized why so many young girls are so attracted to DC's music. There's an emotional connection and personal-ness that can easily lead many to sit alone in their rooms, pop in the disc and then get lost in imagining that Carrabba's right there singing and playing just for them.


The album's opening cut, "Screaming Infidelities" (See lyrics on page 4.), is DC's first radio and video hit. This song put DC on the pop music map and set the tone for the entire DC lyrical/thematic package. The tune addresses the pain of a past break up. Carrabba laments the loss of the relationship and the fact that his lost love is now with someone else. In the video, Carrabba's sad eyes sing to the camera through a succession of conflicting images that show the couple enjoying each other in happy times and images that show her leaving. It's important to note that the song's visual and lyrical content reveal that the couple has been living together.


The band's name finds its origin in "The Sharp Hint of New Tears." In this lament, the singer cries "new tears" over the loss of relationship: "The hint of these new tears are sharp/I try to hold them back/It's useless/I am useless against them/The are beating me with ease." While driving home alone, Carrabba's tears keep flowing as he "confesses" his pain to the inside of his car.


Carrabba has said that "Living In Your Letters" is "a song about someone I care about a lot." In this tune, his lament is not over a breakup. Instead, he struggles with loving someone who is living somewhere else. The distance hurts him deeply. The lyrical poetry that flows from Carrabba's pen reveals more of his sensitive and romantic side: "And I know that you hope for longer good-byes/Embracing forever and falling in your eyes/Pouring over photographs/I'm living in your letters/Breathe deeply from this envelope/It smells like you and I can't be without this scent/It's filling me with all you mean to me." Carrabba sets the bar of sensitivity high for all males. It's no wonder the girls love his music.


The disc's title cut is a powerful song about the pain of adolescent social development: "Sleep with all the lights on/You're not so happy/You're not secure." Carrabba puts into words the almost-universal adolescent experience of trying to fit in (he addresses a girl who puts on a "plastic" self), along with the accompanying desire to grow up quickly: "Youth's the most unfaithful mistress/Still we forge ahead to miss her/Rushing our moment to shine ... We're not twenty-one, but the sooner we are, the sooner the fun will begin/So get out your fake eyelashes and fake IDs and real disasters ensue/It's cool to take these chances/It's cool to fake romances and grow up fast." This song could serve as a great catalyst for a discussion about the difficulties of growing up.


"Turpentine Chaser" likens a relationship that's breaking down to peeling paint. Not even a fresh coat of paint will heal the brokenness: "New coats of paint will not reacquaint broken hearts to broken homes." Instead, he wants to "not need" her. He feverishly works to remove the old paint with turpentine and says, "as soon as I'm done I'm gone."


Long distance love is revisited on "A Plain Morning." Carrabba laments being away and says, "I'm coming home/It is warmer where you are waiting." He expresses his yearnings using seasonal poetry - he likens being away to the cold air of March. Being home is like the warm air of July.


Carrabba continues on the same topic in "Age Six Racer." At first glance, it seems he laments summer and "sweet slumber." But that allegorical imagery refers to his hurt in the absence of the object of his affection. Without her, it's cold and he hates "the (cold) winter in Lexington."


In "Again I Go Unnoticed," Carrabba reads the writing on the wall about a relationship that's plagued by silence: "So quiet another wasted night/The television steals the conversation ... Please tell me you're just feeling tired ... Close lipped another good night kiss is robbed of all its passion/Your grip, another time, is slack/It leaves me feeling empty." While he hopes that tomorrow will bring the return of her smile and rekindled love, he seems to resign himself to the fact that the relationship is actually dying.


Carrabba longs to get close to a girl who's pushing him away in "Ender Will Save Us All." He begs her to tell him what he can do to re-connect: "I want to give you whatever you need/What is it you need?/Is it what I need? ... Is it within me? ... There's got to be something that would be worthwhile for me to give you. We need a connection but you seem to push me far away from you."


"Shirts and Gloves" laments a relationship interrupted by frequent travel and separation: "I'll call your cellular phone to tell you TV night was lonely without you and so am I ... It seems our day keeps falling on leap year."


Every DC listener will identify with the sentiment of love imagined but never realized in the short "Hold On." The relationship never really got off the ground because she doesn't want it. But he's still stuck on her: "She had a history of killing herself/I had a history of dying/I think she gave me something to love for/I guess I helped her pass her time/I had a vision of seeing things straight/She had the heart of a liar/Well I never saw her leaving me once/She never felt me beside her/And it's cruel, but she's got a good hold on me."


A band steps in to back up Carrabba on "This Is A Forgery," the disc's lone track featuring more than an acoustic guitar. The album's most lyrically cryptic song, the only discernable subject matter is yearning and searching. Listeners could easily identify with "This Is A Forgery" as a reflection of their own spiritual condition. The last line of the song is worth discussing and analyzing with DC listeners: "And we were looking out for some shining light/But it was casket black, so we would search all night."


DC-Places you fear.jpgThe Places You Have Come To Fear The Most (2001)

This full-length follow-up to Carrabba's debut LP picks up its title from what he was personally feeling at the time he wrote the record. DC moves away from the acoustic sound by adding drums, bass and backup vocalists in a combination one reviewer calls "all blistering hurt swathed in jangling guitars" (Mackenzie Wilson, rollingstone.com).


Relational pain takes center stage on the opening track, "The Brilliant Dance." (See lyrics at left.) The poetic and heartfelt tune is classic Carrabba as he bemoans the feeling of losing love for the first time - a universal human experience that further connects Carrabba with his adolescent and heartbroken listeners. The hurt is so bad that the song closes with these words of resolve: "Well, this is the last time."


"Screaming Infidelities" - perhaps DC's signature song - appears as the second cut, this time with additional instrumentation.


"The Best Of Deceptions" looks at relational breakdown from the agony of hearing secondhand that his lover is cheating on him. Carrabba calls this "a song about feeling bad and feeling better." He shares his hurt, his anger and his resolve to bring things to an end: "Don't you see that the charade is over/And all the "Best Deceptions" and "Clever Cover Story" awards go to you/So kiss me hard cause this will be the last time that I let you/You will be back some day/And this awkward kiss that tells of other people's lips will be of service to keeping you away." He then goes on to tell how he's heard - secondhand again - that she wants to make things right. He sticks to his guns and tells her to forget it: "You're calling too late, too late to be gracious/And you do not warrant long goodbyes/You're calling too late/You're calling too late/You're calling too late."


A broken relationship is described as a ruined puzzle "with the pieces face down so the placing goes slowly" in "A Ruined Puzzle." With a sound reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, the song describes the singer's hurt and pain over having to say "goodbye" to a girl who has left. He alternates between brokenness and the resolve to go on, even while hoping things will work out: "But the hours they creep/The patterns repeat/Don't be concerned/You know I'll be fine on my own/I never said 'Don't go'/Does he ever get the girl?"


The girl has left and Carrabba is left alone again on "Saints and Sailors." The song's opening lines are emotionally gut-wrenching: "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/Waiting here with hopes the phone will ring/And I'm thinking awful things/And I'm pretty sure that few would notice." He begs for anything at all to come along and "break the silence." He realizes everything's "broken" and he tells her, "You smile like a saint/But you curse like a sailor/And your eyes say the joke's on me."


"The Good Fight" is certainly not an unusual title for a DC song. In this song about a fight that ended a relationship, Carrabba's brokenness is evidence that he had placed his redemptive hope in his connection with the girl: "I begged you not to go/I begged you/I pleaded/Claimed you as my only hope and watched the floor as you retreated." He asks, "Does it comfort you to know you fought the good fight?/ Basking in your victory, hollow and alone to boast your bitter bragging rights to anyone who'll listen."


"Standard Lines" is another lament over a girl who has left Carrabba behind. He lists the usual lines people use after a break-up: "Which of the standard lines will we use? I've been meaning to call you. I've just been so busy. We'll catch up soon. Let's make it a point to." Yet even though he hurts deeply and he "starves" for her, he will go on.


Another cut off DC's prior album - "Again I Go Unnoticed" - gets treatment with the backup of a band.


A powerful song about the facades we all put on, "The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most" (See lyrics at right.), captures the depth of emptiness experienced by the unredeemed. This could serve as a powerful "diagnostic" song to use with students. After hearing the song, students could be asked to identify where they see themselves in the lyrics.


The album ends with the equally powerful "This Bitter Pill." Perhaps no other song captures the full range of emotion in Carrabba's voice as his cries and agonizing moans over love lost and the resulting pain come to a climax as the song comes to an end.


So Impossible (2001)DC-So impossible.jpg

The first of two EPs to follow The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, this disc features Carrabba combining the sounds of his acoustic guitar with those of Dan Horner. The four songs on the album tell a beginning-to-end story of adolescent love that will resonate with most kids.


Infatuation is the topic of "For You To Notice." Carrabba verbalizes his affection for the one he admires from afar. He works through his fear to "fashion an idea in my head/Where I would impress you." He waits for her to want, need and notice him. Kids too scared to pursue someone they're attracted to will find Carrabba's done a great job of encapsulating their agony.


His dream of the impossible comes true as she notices him and shyly invites him to a party on "So Impossible." The song starts with a conversation in school between the lonely individuals. She asks him and a friend to join her and a friend at a party. They get to know each other by sharing likes and dislikes. In a telling line about how Carrabba sees himself, he asks, "Do you like guys that just don't, quite fit in?"


In "Remember To Breathe" listeners are fast-forwarded to the night of the party as he frets nervously over his preparations for the night. In the midst of his pre-date anguish he resorts to self-consolation by reminding himself that it was she who asked him out. Relieved, he instructs himself to "breathe, and everything will be okay."


The big night arrives on "Hands Down." (See lyrics at right.) The singer tells of the excitement of the first date and the realization that the "so impossible" is coming true. The song lists all the stuff that goes through their young minds including how stupid the post-date question often posed to kids by their friends - "Hey, did you get some?" - really is. Perhaps the most happy and upbeat of all the DC songs, "Hands Down" describes the best day ever - a day that ends with a kiss. It comes as no surprise that Carrabba often introduces this song about young love and connections as a song about the best night of his life.


Summers Kiss (2002)

This Dashboard Confessional EP includes remakes of four of Carrabba's favorite tracks from The Swiss Army Romance, all re-recorded with a full band. Included are "Living In Your Letters," "The Sharp Hint Of New Tears," "Turpentine Chaser" and "Ender Will Save Us All."


Unplugged (2002)

This combination DVD and CD set features the band performing 15 of their songs before a live audience on MTV's popular acoustic studio concert series, Unplugged. As testimony to DC's growing popularity, the set quickly went Platinum - an amazing feat considering the fact that Dashboard Confessional was the first non-platinum act ever to get an episode of Unplugged. Watching Carrabba and his bandmates perform on the DVD offers convincing proof of his amazing ability to connect with his fans and the mutual respect they share. He comes off as a humble and average young man who simply steps on the stage as a friend among friends to lead those friends in a celebratory sing-along. In an astounding display of performer/audience connection, the crowd sings every word to every one of the 15 songs with pinpoint accuracy, hearty volume and sincere emotion.


A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (2003)

Released in August of this year, DC's latest album and first major label release debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Described as "the first true teen folk album ever" (Nick Catucci, The Village Voice, 9/3-9/9/03), this is the first album from the emo genre to ever go platinum. A happier album than DC's previous offerings, Carrabba says "this record is about where I've been, certainly, but it's also about where I'm going and what I'm becoming" (muchmusic.com). It "offers a fuller picture of who I am as a person" (mtv.com).


Carrabba is featured on guitars and vocals. The DC band includes Scott Schoenbeck on bass, John Lefler on guitars, organs, piano and backup vocals, and Mike Marsh playing the drums and providing additional backup vocals.


What about the album's title? Carrabba conceived the title while pondering the evolution and message of Dashboard Confessional on a plane. He says, "Dashboard started out as a mark against me because it wasn't so popular to do that [kind of music] in the scene I was from. Then it was like a mission of mine to just persevere and just get through that. Then it became a [situation] where it felt like I had been branded in a marketing sense. This is what the whole music is, not who I am necessarily. It's what I do. And the scar ... I would have been scarred by that if I had decided to rest my morals and make the same record over and over, which would have been easier for me to do. But it just would have buried me" (mtv.com).


DC-Mark mission brand scar.jpg


The disc opens with a remake of "Hands Down." The cut - which is about the happiest night of Carrabba's life - has been released as a single and video.


"Rapid Hope Loss" is another typical DC tune addressing themes of break-up and loss. Written to someone who dumped him, Carrabba claims she won't get a second chance. Now that he knows who she truly is, he sees through her empty "promises" and "endearing sense of charm." He proclaims, "Cause now that I see you/I don't think you're worth a second glance." His only regret is that he's wasted time on her.


The setting for "As Lovers Go" might be a bar or some other public gathering place. The singer meets a girl and tries to convince her that they are meant for each other. He says she's got "looks," "wits" and "passion." He promises her commitment: "I'll be true, I'll be useful, I'll be cavalier, I'll be yours my dear, I'll belong to you if you just let me through." The song concludes with him asking her, "Are you brave enough to leave with me tonight?"


Visions of Carrabba's hometown of Boca Raton are summoned up in "Carry This Picture." The picture he asks the girl to carry is his detailed description of how they'll spend an evening together on the Boca Raton coast. Salvific language is used to describe his feelings for her: "Color the coast with your smile/It's the most genuine thing I've ever seen/I was so lost, but not, I believe in the coast/Your smile is the most genuine thing I've ever seen/I was so lost, but now I believe." Again, Carrabba finds redemption in relationship.


In "Bend And Not Break," Carrabba fears his relational mistakes will make the girl want to leave. He "walks" gingerly through this difficult time in his relationship, hoping that it won't fall apart: "I'm careful not to wake you, fearing conversation/It's better just to hold you and keep you pacified." He's got hope it will rebound and go on: "I am fairly agile/I can bend and not break/Or I can break and take it with a smile/I am so resilient/I recover quickly/I'll convince you soon that I'm fine."


Fragile and dying relationships continue as the theme in "Ghost Of A Good Thing." In this song, Carrabba works to come to terms with a relationship's impending death: "Maybe it's love but it's like you said ... Love is like a role that we play ... Just bend the pieces 'til they fit/Like they were made for it/But they weren't made for this/No, they weren't made for this."


While it isn't rage-filled, "Am I Missing" is certainly one of Carrabba's angrier songs. Another post-breakup tune, the girl has done everything she can to prove she was in the right and Carrabba was in the wrong. He asks a confusing series of questions that people typically ponder as they're trying to find their way through the wake of brokenness: "It there anything worth looking for?/Worth loving for?/ Worth lying for?/Is there anything worth waiting for?/Worth living for?/Worth dying for?" He then proceeds to end the song with a confusing and cryptic statement: "I'm home." Could he be saying that the fallout from relational pain is where he lives?


Carrabba speaks to himself in "Morning Calls." At the start of the day, he "calls for pain relief." The song seems to be about the struggle he faces regarding who he is, who he is on stage, and what his position as an up-front role model requires: "Don't blink/Everyone's watching/They'll think that you're up to something/They need for you to be everything that they cannot be themselves." Carrabba knows kids look to him for hope and for the words to express how they feel.


In "Carve Your Heart Out Yourself" Carrabba goes back to addressing a girl. In a thematic departure from his own lack of relational confidence, Carrabba speaks to her about her fragile hope as she thinks he's going to leave her. She struggles to trust him. He tells her, "You've been burned more than once/You don't think much of trust." He promises to stay: "You're treating me like I'm already gone/But I'm not/I will stay where you are always." These are words many young girls long to hear.


Carrabba asks a girl caught up in her own vanity how she could be happy without him in "So Beautiful." (See lyrics at right). The girl convinces herself she's the most beautiful one around. While she seems to have everything together on the outside, Carrabba knows she is empty and unfulfilled. He sees through her charade and insecurity. This song raises huge issues regarding those things we use in our attempt to bring satisfaction and peace to our lives.


Young adolescents will identify with "Hey Girl." In the song, he talks to his crush about her stuck-up girlfriends. Her friends think he's crazy but he works to convince her that she should like him in spite of that: "Well so what if your friends think I'm crazy/I wasn't trying to impress those girls anyway/They're all theory, no action." It's not hard to imagine that this song is lived out in middle school hallways and cafeterias every day.


"If You Can't Leave It Be, Might As Well Make It Bleed" is another of DC's more cryptic tunes. Sung to a broken person who didn't see the hurt coming, the final resolve is that if the relationship can't be saved, you might as well just let it die.


The album's final cut is "Several Ways To Die Trying." (See lyrics at right.) This loud and clear cry for redemption is a song about the journey of life. This song - unlike most other DC songs - is not about an individual relationship. Rather, it's about the search for life, meaning, hope and purpose that is common to all people. Carrabba speaks the desire of an entire generation in the song's final four words: "I'm dying to live."


What's the draw?

How can we account for the sudden rise of Dashboard Confessional's popularity? What is it about Chris Carrabba that has endeared him and his music to so many kids? And how can the raw and simple music of the band connect in a music market that elevates those who can make the biggest splash? What's caused the phenomenon of DC's connection with today's youth culture? There are many reasons.


First, this is a musical package that hasn't been marketed. In a pop culture climate where the absence of aggressive marketing is a recipe for quick and certain failure, DC has busted the paradigm and connected with a large and growing number of kids. Chris Carrabba has never become what they (the marketers) want him to become. He's always written what he wants to write and performed as the man he is. He's not a chameleon who's changed with the times or from album to album. Dashboard Confessional stands on its own. It's the followers who have found and embraced Dashboard's music. The music didn't come looking for them. They made the music their own and as a result, have become some of the most dedicated fans in the world of pop music. Constant touring and word-of-mouth endorsement from a committed and enthusiastic underground following have grown the fan base. They listen because they want to - not because an ad agency has told them to.


Second, the music and the man are marked by genuine sincerity. Chris Carrabba wears his feelings on his musical sleeves. What you see and hear is what you get. His message was never created as a scheme to ensure success. Rather, the music flows from his heart and serves as an accurate portrait of who he is. When he steps on stage he doesn't put on a show. Instead, he's just being himself. One young DC fan says, "We can tell he is human after all, not like other artists, you know? His sincerity and his ability to strike a chord in us, that to me makes them an awesome band and gives me enough reason for loving them."


Third, Chris Carrabba is incredibly vulnerable. Every time he sings, he opens wide the window to his heart and mind, exposing the secret hurts, pains, joys and sorrows of his life. One 16-year-old girl told me, "It's amazing that someone would put something so personal and emotional in a song, yet Chris does it with every single one. There is SO much emotion in every song ... it's impossible to NOT fall in love with the music." Today's emerging generations are drawn to honesty and vulnerability.


Fourth, Chris Carrabba is the same whether he's on or off stage. He doesn't slip into a role or character when the lights go up and the music starts. He's a normal guy singing to kids. When the lights go down and he steps off stage, he's the same guy. He's shy, but not arrogant. For this reason, kids see him as "a friend" or a "normal person just like me."


Fifth, Carrabba's been blessed with a natural charisma. Sure it's the combination of vulnerability, sincerity and consistency that's endeared him so to his young audience. But these traits combine with his simple good looks and magnetic personality to draw kids into the DC fold. He's not flamboyant. But his quiet charisma serves as a powerful attraction.


Sixth, Dashboard Confessional feels their pain. Each and every song is a basket full of emotion. Carrabba's emotionally charged lyrics touch on the very feelings and issues kids face every day. When Carrabba began to play in front of live audiences, he soon realized, "it wasn't that they understood how I felt. It occurred to me, they feel this way" (USA Today, 9/27/02). An instant connection was made. What results is that kids then "feel" the music as it mirrors back and puts into words the very feelings they feel. Many shed tears as they listen and sing along. Those who feel disaffected or down embrace the words. They feel like the words could be their own. One young teenage fan said, "When you listen to them, you FEEL the songs. You feel the emotions that go along with them. I swear to God, listening to Dashboard Confessional is a life-altering experience." Another says, "Dashboard is everything - the question, the answer, the feeling that someone else feels just how you feel." Sadly, for many kids, Chris Carrabba may be the only one they see as willing to know, feel and understand their hurt.


Seventh, the girls love a sensitive and romantic guy. Any males who listen to DC's songs know Carrabba's way with words puts them all to shame. His songs serve as a deep - not frothy - emotional scrapbook. Girls easily imagine themselves on the receiving end of Carrabba's sensitivity and hope someone like him will enter their lives someday. It should come as no surprise that Carrabba's largest and most zealous fan base is teenage girls. But their adoration is more mature than one would find in girls screaming over a teen idol. The reason? The attraction to Carrabba is not built on marketed looks. Instead, it's to the person and his message.


Eighth, the music reflects the universal desire to connect, feel intimacy, love and be loved. In a day and age when far too many kids grow up in fractured families, their unmet relational needs pump up the volume on their desire for something better. DC's lyrics put the turmoil of that struggle into words - words that the kids going through it sometimes can't summon themselves.


Ninth, Dashboard Confessional understands the ups and downs of adolescent life and love. Adolescence is like an earthquake. It comes on suddenly, hits hard and turns everything upside down. It can leave those going through it in a state of emotional, relational and spiritual upheaval. Carrabba's not only been there himself, but he goes into the earthquake with kids. In effect, he's walking with them. They know he understands. He helps them express their confusion and make some sense of it all.


Tenth, Chris Carrabba respects kids and doesn't talk down to them. He says, "You should never ever talk to kids like they're kids. You talk to them like people. You think they don't know what's going on? Adults are so jaded by the world that we think we understand it. At least kids get the fact that they don't understand it yet" (spin.com).


Eleventh, the music is steeped in story. The lyrics and themes flow out of Carrabba's own life story and experience. His songs are either mini-stories that stand alone or "chapters" in a larger story. As a result, listeners are apt to see themselves in the music. For a generation longing to hear stories, Chris Carrabba has become a story-teller par excellence.


Twelfth, Chris Carrabba has become a "pastor" to his growing "congregation." By helping and guiding them through the earthquake of adolescence, he is "ministering" to kids. His effectiveness is boosted by his availability and sincerity. Beyond just the music, he goes out of his way to hang out with kids after the shows. "We all spend hours at each show meeting as many kids as possible," he says (Billboard, 8/30/03). As a spiritual leader - either in person or on disc - he's helping them get through life. One 15-year-old boy told me, "I was going through some rough things and his lyrics and soft melodies really helped me out a lot. It made me feel like someone out there was feeling the same way I was. His lyrics really relate to situations I get in sometimes and I really feel like they comfort me." Another young fan posted these words to Carrabba on DC's Web site: "Chris, I'm sure you get tired of hearing this, but as with all the other songs you've crafted, the four that comprise this beautiful story (the So Impossible EP) are masterpieces. I owe you a lot for helping me get through these gut-wrenching teenage years."


Thirteenth, in a departure from what's pop music's ordinary, Dashboard Confessional never objectifies women. The music world is littered with artists and performers who visually and lyrically denigrate women to the level of sexual objects. Absent is a respect for the personhood of individual females created in the image of God. Not so with DC's music. There is a respect for women that is refreshing and much-needed. On a positive note, more and more kids are embracing it!


Fourteenth, the Dashboard Confessional music package and phenomenon provides kids with a place to belong. The lonely and disenfranchised gather together in an intimate and understanding community. They have a shoulder to cry on. The music and the concerts have become like church. To see the mass chorus of kids singing along with heartfelt intensity is a moving sight. Perhaps these words from a teen sum it up best: "I think DC just fit into my life somehow. That music right then, it just changed everything. I had somewhere to go ... it's hard to explain."


And finally, while DC deals with relational hurt, Carrabba never loses his optimism or hope. In a nihilistic postmodern world where hope so easily disappears, Dashboard never lets kids go there. While there's no overt mention made of the only source of true hope, there is still hope. For that, so many young listeners are grateful.


DC-Summers kiss.jpg


How should we respond?

There are great lessons we can learn from an analysis of Chris Carrabba and the music of Dashboard Confessional. The music serves to open our eyes to the realities and ministry needs of kids growing up in today's youth culture. It can help us develop a sensitivity to the children and teens we know and love. And, it can and should shape our response so that our efforts to communicate God's Good News will be more easily heard, understood and, with God's help, embraced. With that in mind, CPYU offers the following analysis and suggestions:


First, we must celebrate the positive nature of the music. No, it's not all upbeat. Like the Psalms, the songs of Dashboard Confessional are full of lament. But nowhere in the music are negative suggestions or dangerous "prescriptive" remedies suggested to listeners. Chris Carrabba's tunes are about real life. And real life in a sinful and fallen world is just that - sinful and fallen. It isn't always pretty. But there's nothing Carrabba proposes that will make life uglier. Overall, the music is music seasoned with hope. Regarding Carrabba's profession of faith, his silence on the matter makes it difficult to really know what's happened in his heart. He's at the very least a spiritual seeker with strong Christian leanings. We should pray that the seed of young faith planted in his heart would take root and grow.


Second, we must understand and ponder the significance of this unique pop music phenomenon. The music industry has been in decline for years. Record executives have been waiting to discover and market "the next big thing." Could the transparency and vulnerability of emo be it? I'm not sure. But the fact that youth culture has embraced DC indicates some sort of change is coming. It's testimony to the fact that elaborate staging, complex choreographed dances and intricate production techniques aren't necessary to connect with today's kids. It also proves that a simple guy who thinks deeply about life and cares about kids can connect without having to pull lots of rabbits out of his hat. Yes, something's happening in the music industry, and Dashboard Confessional's popularity gives us reason to be encouraged.


Third, Dashboard Confessional gives us a crystal-clear mirror into the world of today's youth culture. For too long we haven't listened and we haven't understood. Because kids see themselves so clearly in DC's music, we need to stand over their shoulders and look hard to see what they see. Carrabba makes the looking easy. He helps us see the hopes, dreams, hurts, disappointments and longings of today's adolescents. If we are truly concerned about them, shouldn't we be looking and listening? After all, if we want to give them answers, we've first got to know their questions.


Fourth, don't fall into the temptation of writing Carrabba and his minions off as "whiners." Yes, the music is filled with struggle and lament. But we can't fall into the trap of forfeiting an opportunity to truly hear and answer the cries by telling them to "grow up and suck it up." Dashboard Confessional doesn't use confusion and pain as a way to sell records. Rather, it's the unaddressed confusion and pain of DC's young listeners that's drawn them into the music as it resonates with them. For too long, the older generations in our culture and in the church have been less than patient and understanding with an emerging generation whose cries are genuine.


Fifth, once we've opened our ears and eyes to the cries, we must open our arms. If we truly hope to stop the tears and provide lasting answers, we've got to go into their world and embrace them. Only then can we love them into life. We must know their pain and feel their pain. Then we can embark on the road to healing their pain.


Sixth, our embrace must lead them into a supportive community. The Dashboard Confessional phenomenon is all about community. The concerts serve as a sort of "church" or "worship" service for Carrabba and his fans. Their involvement proves their desire for connections. We must go out of our way to invite and assimilate them into the one community on earth that brings hope and life - the body of Christ. Are we ready to welcome them in? Do we know what it means to live and minister as the hands and feet of Jesus? And if so, will we do it?


Seventh, once we see the wounds, we must do whatever it takes - no matter the cost to us personally - to apply the healing salve of the Gospel. The priest and the Levite both saw the man laying bruised and beaten on the side of the road. It was not that they failed to see his need. Rather, they just kept walking. Like the Samaritan, we must stop what we're doing, stoop down and minister to the need. Carrabba has taken us by the hand and walked us right up to those who hurt. Will we stay and minister, or will we walk away?


Eighth, Chris Carrabba shows us what it takes to connect with kids. Many wonder if kids will respond to our efforts to help. The fact is they will. But we'd do well to look at what's fostered Carrabba's connection. In many ways, he mirrors the incarnational ministry model of Jesus. He goes into their world, he is honest, he is vulnerable, he sticks around to talk and he is sincere. We must pray that God would build those same qualities in us, and that we would use those qualities to His glory as we minister to kids.


Ninth, adolescence comes on hard. We must soften the blow. The teenage years are a difficult and tumultuous time of life. Kids flock to Dashboard because they are looking for guidance, direction and answers. If we go into their world and love them, they will be open to our guidance, direction and answers.


Tenth, we must celebrate Chris Carrabba's humility. In a pop music world full of big egos and the selfishness of materialistic "bling-bling," Chris Carrabba and his Dashboard mates are a breath of fresh air. It's a distinction we should not only celebrate, but point out to our kids.


Eleventh, we must affirm Carrabba's commitment to truthfulness. Carrabba says, "I don't like lies ... particularly in romantic relationships - that's the kiss of death" (Teen People, 11/03). In a postmodern world where standards of absolute truth have disappeared, Chris Carrabba and his desire to tell the truth can serve as a springboard for discussing the reality and importance of transcendent truth with our kids. Carrabba has raised the issue. Let's seize the opportunity and take it to its conclusion.


Twelfth, our students want and can handle depth. Dashboard's music takes us into a world where adolescents are thoughtfully processing difficult issues. We must realize that our kids are much brighter and able to go much deeper than we usually are willing to recognize and admit. Consequently, we can take them deep into the truths of God's Word, as those truths relate to the reality of creation, the ugliness of the fall, and the hope of redemption.


Thirteenth, we must teach the fact that human relationships can never be fully redemptive. Some of DC's music leaves the impression that ultimate hope and healing can be found in a satisfying and healthy romantic relationship. If that's the message our kids are getting from the music, it must be corrected. Yes, human relationships can be satisfying and healthy. In fact, we should work and pray toward that end. But if we're trying to fill the God-shaped hole with anything other than God, the emptiness will continue to gnaw at our being.


Fourteenth, we must decry the trend toward cohabitation and celebrate the biblical model of marriage. Census figures tell us that more and more couples are choosing to live together outside the bounds of marital covenant and commitment. Couple that with the fact that a growing number of kids have never had a model of a healthy/whole marriage, and it's no surprise that the family in our culture continues to break down. While Chris Carrabba has not overtly spoken his views on marriage, his lyrical and visual references to cohabitation leave a strong impression that he has no problem with living together and all that encompasses. If that's the case, he's in error. We must raise the issue with our kids, and point out the errors in Carrabba's thinking.


Fifteenth, boys and men can learn a lot about sensitivity from Dashboard Confessional. Yes, Chris Carrabba makes us all look bad! He treats women with dignity and respect and they've responded. He's truly a breath of fresh air in the misogynistic climate of today's music industry.


And finally, Dashboard Confessional has given us a roadmap for prayer. We should be praying for our kids, that they will experience the joy of healthy relationships with themselves, others and their Creator. And, we should be remembering Chris Carrabba and his bandmates. So far, they've remained humbly true to themselves. Let's pray that they would grow in genuine faith and, by doing so, encourage their listeners to do the same.


Chris Carrabba believes the Dashboard Confessional phenomenon will only be a flash in the pan. While that might be the case, the questions and issues reflected in the music will continue to live on. Perhaps the names of those expressing those concerns through music will change. But the words of Carrabba in "Anyone, Anyone" will still ring loud and clear from the collective mouth of youth culture ... "I could use a hand." Will we extend ours?


For sample Dashboard Confessional lyrics click here

 The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding grants permission for this article to be copied in its entirety, provided the copies are distributed free of charge and the copies indicate the source as the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.


For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.


©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding