Dashboard Confessional, or When It Was Cool to Have Feelings

15 years after 'The Swiss Army Romance,' the band is frequently derided as embarrassing or melodramatic. But its ability to connect with a generation who weren't yet over experiencing emotion should be cherished.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

“You’re going to sing along, right?” asked the guy who showed me to my seat. “Yeah, of course you are. That’s what you do at a fucking Dashboard show!”

I didn’t answer him—I might’ve said “um”—but he was right. I was 15, possibly newly 16, at my first and only Dashboard Confessional concert, and I did sing along. So did everyone else. Like the seat guy said, it’s what you do.

Dashboard Confessional was mostly Chris Carrabba, a pompadoured troubadour who captured troubled teen hearts starting 15 years ago with the release of Dashboard’s first album, The Swiss Army Romance. I still know all the words. The music was solidly “emo”—at its most basic it was just Carrabba, a guitar, and his feelings, although it became more orchestrated on later albums. The vocals range from soft and intimate to Carrabba belting so hard his voice goes ragged. At the concert, fans stuck mostly to belting, yelling along at full volume.

These days, Carrabba fronts the folk band Twin Forks, but it seems he’s still up for a good sing-along. Last week, Taylor Swift had him come to her best friend’s birthday party for a surprise concert, after which she posted videos on Instagram of everyone singing “Hands Down.” This was news because a. Taylor Swift; b. Nostalgia; c. The Internet.

And of course Swift knows all the words to “Hands Down.” As Vulture pointed out, there’s a lyrical overlap between Swift’s music and Dashboard Confessional that makes a certain sense: “The passionate drama, the bitter revenge, the hopeless romance: Tay and Chris have a lot in common.” You know what they really have in common? Emotion. Emo … tion.

Not that Taylor Swift is emo by the musical definition, but her songs are similar to Dashboard's in that both focus on relationships—their melodrama, their intimate details—and explore them with honest, unbridled, over-the-top emotion. And because of it, both are dismissed, in certain circles, as being unserious, and uncool. (Although maybe we’re in the midst of an emo revival these days? Or maybe we’re not.)

Little surprise there. Emotions are categorically uncool. Cool is effortless, cool is not caring too much. If emotion is inside the bar making a heartfelt toast, cool is outside loitering with its shirt untucked, a cigarette in its mouth, and a neutral, sleepy expression on its face. In real life, the rules of cool allow some feelings, sure, but in moderation. Or better yet, in private. Happiness could be cool; glee could not. Sadness could be cool, especially if it takes the form of brooding, but despair, probably not. I'm trying to think of an emotion that, in large quantities, could still be “cool.” Ennui?

One first learns emotions are uncool in middle school, when hormone-driven crushes are locked in eternal struggle with the need to conceal them from others at all costs, lest one be mocked. Adults won't mock you for your feelings (usually) but there's still a certain imperative to keep a lid on it, as grown-ups. Be “chill” in your relationships, be professional at work. When someone asks how you are, the acceptable answers are “good,” “fine,” or if your entire life is falling apart, “OK.”

But there is a brief window of life where it seems earnest emotion can be cool, and it happened to coincide with when I discovered Dashboard: high school.

* * *

High school is terrible in a lot of ways for most people. But in the midst of the bullying, and the stress, and the acne, the bright spot of the struggle is that it’s okay to struggle visibly. There seems to be room for expressing emotion publicly. I cringe now to think of the maudlin blog posts I wrote on my Xanga in 10th grade, but I was hardly alone. This was the norm, and it was true for people at all levels of the popularity hierarchy. To check if this is still the case today, I turned to my number one source on all things teen—my 16-year-old sister Kellie, who is a junior, firmly clenched in the lockjawed maw of high school.

“In high school, people expect you to be emotional,” she texted me. “You’re old enough to be past that pubescent awkwardness, but you’re still a kid in the eyes of adults. You kind of get away with it. On top of that, it’s just the fact that kids are finding out who they are, what they like, what they stand for. It’s all a lot, and certainly calls for these feelings. From kids who maybe aren’t so popular, to those who everyone around the school knows, emotions aren’t really something to be looked down upon. There’s no shame, whether you’re crying in the hallways or calling someone out over Twitter.”

At my high school, in the era of emo, emotional expression often took the form of appropriating song quotes—on AIM away messages, or interspersed with original writing on blogs. Shiny-haired girls wearing Abercrombie would pull out 50-packs of markers and fresh white paper in class, and doodle colorful typographic posters of emo lyrics. These would often end up slipped into the clear plastic covers of math binders. Boys in sports-team sweatshirts might have Sharpie-d onto their backpacks a particularly salient Dashboard quote: “Try to understand/there’s an old mistake/that fools will make/ and I’m the king of them/pushing everything that’s good away.

To my immense shock, Kellie tells me high schoolers don’t write on their backpacks anymore, but they apparently still catalog their quotes digitally, on Instagram, Tumblr, etc. As the young-adult author and modern teen cultural icon John Green says, “Maybe our favorite quotations say more about us than about the stories and people we're quoting.” It’s a common impulse to gather the phrases and sentences that resonate, to hold them close, to use them as part of the piecemeal process of assembling a self.

“The Swiss Army Romance”—the song—explicitly references this process: “Making up a history/it’s nothing from the life you lead/but man, will they buy all your lines.” The whole song is an amazing encapsulation of adolescence—“youth’s the most unfaithful mistress/still we forge ahead to miss her”—but that line in particular sums up the appeal Dashboard Confessional held for me, and many other kids of my generation.

Whatever your romantic situation, Dashboard has a song for you—good relationships, bad ones, long-distance ones, no relationship at all but you really wish your crush would just notice you, etc. But all those songs that weren’t actually relatable in the strictest sense to someone who’d never been on a date still rang true. They didn’t need to reflect any reality I’d actually experienced. So much of teen life is about imagining—what might be, what should be, what could have been, what if, what if, what if. Making up a history.

Dashboard was there for that, and it was that awareness, plus a willingness to be openly, earnestly, rawly emotional, that made songs about the specific life experiences of a man in his mid-twenties so widely appealing to kids 10 years his junior. “By making his problems so public, he encourages others to do the same,” wrote Andy Greenwald of Carrabba in his book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. “He may not lead people to question authority, but he does make them question themselves. Whether that’s enough for some is a different matter.”

Though I didn’t realize it in the heyday of my dashboard confessions, once emo went mainstream, it quickly became a pejorative. Elsewhere in the book, Greenwald writes, “Carrabba has been called both messiah and pariah—he’s the singer/songwriter a generation didn’t even realize they were hungering for, and he’s the milquetoast balladeer about whom thousands of critics are cringing at the thought of covering.”

* * *

In my high school bubble, it was cool, or at least unobjectionable, for Dashboard to be my favorite band. When I got to college, it became quickly apparent that this was something to hide. Emo was narcissistic, whiny, embarrassing. To be referenced ironically or, preferably, not at all. Emotion wasn’t cool. You know what was cool? Pretention.

Okay, that’s overly harsh. But there’s an impulse to sneer at emotion, and particularly teen emotion. Yes, maybe as an adult you realize that your unrequited crush from 9th grade wasn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal at the time. Are feelings less valid if you’re embarrassed by them later? Do your small problems really merit such grand language? Isn’t it all a little ridiculous? Maybe, a little. I guess it depends if you think the greater sin is being melodramatic or being detached.

The debate over the merits of Dashboard and its emo compatriots reminds me of the hand-wringing over self-absorption that blankets the Internet today. Why must people write about themselves (in essays, on Facebook, in songs) when X terrible thing is happening in the world? Isn’t there something better, nobler, more worthy for them to spend their time doing? Yes, probably. But the problem with equating “first-person” and “narcissism” is that it implies the self is not a worthy subject of examination. As Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, “first-person narratives have emerged as markers of authenticity” in modern culture. And Dashboard is nothing if not authentic.

“Emotional” has, in a lot of ways, come to be the unofficial opposite of “reasonable.” My impulse now, in writing and in life, is always to caveat, to qualify, to contextualize. Dashboard Confessional’s music is a relic of an earlier, more earnest self, who would sometimes overshoot, whose emotions sometimes reached the level of unreasonable, unseemly, uncool. But so what? There’s a bravery in just saying how you feel, especially in a culture where norms are put in place to discourage it. Or, as Carrabba might say, “our sidestepping has come to be a brilliant dance where nobody leads at all.” Tell me that doesn’t make you feel something.