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Chris Carrabba: Inspiration for an emo generation

January 17, 2011 |  6:56 pm

Carrabba's Dashboard Confessionals brought a slicker, softer side to the post-hardcore-influenced emo. His followers include Owl City and Say Anything. And judging by her 2010 album, maybe even Taylor Swift.


Wednesday night at the Troubadour, Chris Carrabba is scheduled to play the first of three sold-out shows commemorating the 10th anniversary of “The Swiss Army Romance,” his debut album as Dashboard Confessional. The gigs are billed as solo appearances, but Carrabba will almost certainly enjoy the robust accompaniment of his fans, who are famous for singing along with their tattooed hero as though he were a counselor at Camp Emo. Hit up YouTube for clips from Dashboard’s 2002 “MTV Unplugged” and you might find yourself paying less attention to the headliner than to the earnest-looking kids pitching in from their cross-legged positions on the studio floor.

As it happens, his listeners’ voices aren’t the only ones Carrabba has inspired over the last decade. Originally the post-hardcore province of brainy Washington, D.C., bands such as Rites of Spring and Embrace, emo softened and slickened throughout the ’00s thanks in large part to Dashboard Confessional’s mainstream-scraping influence. Here’s a look at what the Pied Piper of Pain hath wrought.

Acoustic alchemy

In the old days, emo guys demonstrated their emotional intensity just like non-emo guys: with volume. Yet for “The Swiss Army Romance,” which Carrabba recorded during a break from his band Further Seems Forever, the musician ditched the electric guitars and went acoustic, utilizing folky, no-frills arrangements to underscore the sensitive sincerity of his heartbroken story-songs. After Dashboard’s “Screaming Infidelities” became a hit on MTV, a generation of capo-clutching copycats was born.

Some have transcended those humble roots and discovered voices of their own: Missouri’s Never Shout Never, for instance, brightens Dashboard’s moody emo-folk sound with a touch of old-school Everly Brothers pop; others, such as the turgid (and aptly named) Secondhand Serenade, make Carrabba sound like the Good Humor man.

Carrabba’s acoustic style gave rise to a deal of freelance busking, as well: In 2009, the frontmen of several successful emo groups (including Orange County’s Thrice) inaugurated an “Unplugged”-style tour called “Where’s the Band?,” while members of Avail and Hot Water Music have released stripped-down solo albums in Dashboard’s wake.

Sweetheart deal

When Owl City scored a No. 1 hit in 2009 with “Fireflies,” most observers commented on the song’s similarity to stuff by the Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard’s electro-pop side project. And, sure enough, the resemblance is undeniable. But “Fireflies” — in which Owl City mastermind Adam Young proudly describes getting “a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs” — also seems to owe something to Carrabba’s pioneering work in the field of Self-Lionizing Wimpology. Consider this line from Dashboard’s “So Impossible”: “Do you like making out and long drives and brown eyes and guys that just don’t quite fit in?” Under Carrabba’s watch, emo became the place where those guys not only fit in but also ruled the roost, giving a real-life nerd like Young (whose looks score somewhat lower on the matinee-idol scale than Carrabba’s) the confidence to get onstage and sing his little heart out.

X-ACTO life

By leaving behind “I love you” generalities in favor of more precise observations — in “Screaming Infidelities,” Carrabba notices an ex’s hair all over his bedding — he inspired future emo lyricists to indulge their inner novelists. That’s how we ended up with Max Bemis of L.A.’s cult-fave drama kings Say Anything, whose wonderfully over-the-top recordings have outlined the frontman’s romantic travails as well as his struggles with mental illness in often excruciating detail.

Emo with a twang

There’s no telling whether Taylor Swift has ever heard Carrabba’s music. But with its crisp acoustic arrangements, yearning vocal melodies and hyper-real diary-entry melodrama, the country star’s 2010 blockbuster “Speak Now” could in many ways be a female version of a Dashboard Confessional record.

Like Carrabba, Swift writes from the perspective of the heroic outsider; she’s standing in the corner cataloging everybody else’s moral failings while occasionally acknowledging one of her own. But the self-deprecation is just a trick meant to inspire an air of relatability. We think we know her, so we’ll follow her anywhere. It’s celebrity-culture emo in the Age of Twitter.

-- Mikael Wood

Photo credit: James Minchin