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Michael's Number Ones: "Hands Down" by Dashboard Confessional



October 25, 2003


Emo is not supposed to be happy. It's not on brand for an artist categorized as emo to sing about how great everything is. They're supposed to wear black eyeliner and skinny neckties and scream about how their life is fucked up.

Of course, that's an over-simplification. Artists have been singing about those themes for decades prior to 2003. Go listen to Joe Jackson or The Buzzcocks and tell me that couldn't be considered emo today. Emo, like any other genre or subgenre of popular music, contains multitudes.

A song like "Hands Down", the only number one hit on my chart from Dashboard Confessional, goes against the emo stereotype. It's about a great fucking day in somebody's life. But the only way to appreciate great days in your life is to go through a lot of shitty ones. Dashboard Confessional lead singer Chris Carrabba probably dealt with his share early in his life. So when he had the best day he could ever remember, he turned it around into a pretty great song.

Chris Carrabba was born in 1975 in West Hartford, Connecticut, and his parents divorced when he was three. He eventually became estranged from his father and moved with his mother and stepfamily to Boca Raton, Florida. He became interested in music in high school and studied music at Florida Atlantic University.

Carrabba taught at an elementary school after graduating. He was soon recruiting to sing in the band Further Seems Forever, and sang on their 2001 debut album The Moon Is Down. Further Seems Forever was one of those bands that existed on the periphery of my radar as a teenager; something I'd likely hear once in a while on Music Choice's alternative channel, but not consistently enough to make an impression with me.

Carrabba formed Dashboard Confessional while he was in Further Seems Forever, and released an album under that name called The Swiss Army Romance in 2000. He left Further Seems Forever before their debut was released. (Apparently, Further Seems Forever never managed to hang onto a lead singer longer than one album, and they called it quits in 2006.) Carrabba released Dashboard Confessional's debut on Fiddler Records, and it got released later in the year on Drive-Thru Records, a pretty influential emo label in its time.

A lot of bullshit followed Drive-Thru's re-release of The Swiss Army Romance, and Carrabba balked at signing with the label. He instead followed Fiddler Records founder Amy Fleisher to Vagrant Records. Fleisher convinced her boss to sign Dashboard Confessional, and the label released DC's second album, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (a sneaky great album title) in March 2001. The band toured pretty hard during 2001 behind the record, but it wasn't until a music video was filmed for the song "Screaming Infidelities" that the record got some traction.

The chyron in the YouTube capture of the video says the song was featured in a made-for-MTV movie called Wasted. I have no memory of this movie existing. It starred a baby-faced Aaron Paul as a drug addict six years before his star turn as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. Apparently the movie is available on Youtube, so if you want to watch it and tell me how bad it probably is, please feel free.

The video for "Screaming Infidelities" got a lot of play on MTV2, and actually won the MTV2 Award at the 2002 VMAs, beating out Norah Jones, The Strokes, Musiq Soulchild, The Hives, and Nappy Roots. Early 2000s MTV2 was a wild scene, and it's a shame nothing like it exists on linear television today.

"Screaming Infidelities" is such an outlier in early-2000s alternative rock. The song is spare in its instrumentation, but Carrabba's voice really carries the day. I think it also helped that Chris Carrabba is a pretty handsome dude. Not a lot of emo singers can lay claim to that description. The song got to #22 on my top 40 in the spring of 2002 on the strength of that video and its subsequent radio airplay; it also reached the same peak on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most did decent business as a result, with the album making the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 album chart and moving a few hundred thousand copies.

Carrabba solidified the lineup of the band after he performed an MTV Unplugged set in 2002, and the band got to work on their third album, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. "Hands Down" wound up being the first single from the album. Carrabba claims he wrote the song about the best date he ever went on, and the feelings he felt afterward.

Wikipedia doesn't really indicate just how good the date was, so I guess it's left to your imagination. As the song starts, Carrabba's narrator seems to be nervous with anticipation: "Breathe in for luck, breathe in so deep. This air is blessed, you share with me." It sounds like he's put whoever's he's dating on a pedestal, saying her kiss might kill him, and he wants to die happy. I related with that feeling a lot more than I care to admit, except I never got to the point where the girl I was infatuated with had an opportunity to kiss me.

Reading the lyrics today, it's clear the object of Carrabba's infatuation is more than just a crush; they've taken the next step in their relationship. Carrabba is overjoyed with this fact, and takes pains to remember specific details of the moment. "I'll always remember the sound of the stereo, the dim of the soft lights, the scent of your hair that you twirled in your fingers."

Maybe when I listened to the song, it engaged a sense of wish fulfillment in my mind. During my two years of high school in Washington, I had way too many crushes, and the most frustrating aspect was a rarely ever acted on them. I suppose this song was me realizing the happiness of getting a girlfriend through proxy. Or maybe I just fed off the good vibes of the song without getting the deeper meaning.

Reading back what I just wrote, it feels kind of sad that that was my situation in high school. It's not worth getting into why that was. Ultimately music was what got me through high school. Even though my social life in Washington was closer to normal than in New York, I still had to indulge my romantic feelings for classmates from afar. If a song like "Hands Down" helped me do that, then I'm all the more glad for it.

"Hands Down" helped continue the upward trajectory Dashboard Confessional was on at the time. The album debuted at #2 on the charts, and "Hands Down" eventually peaked at #8 on the Modern Rock chart. You would think this would be the start of a fruitful period on my top 40 for Dashboard Confessional; instead, it's the only time the group made the top 10.

Around the time "Hands Down" was climbing the charts, Carrabba was tapped to write a song for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, and it wound up being arguably his biggest hit. "Vindicated" didn't really vibe with me; it peaked at #30 on my top 40, but it got a ton of alternative airplay, and reached #2 on the alternative chart that summer. I've come around to the notion that it's a pretty damn good song, and I wish I felt similarly in its heyday.

Dashboard's next album Dusk and Summer came out in 2006 and equaled the peak of their previous album. It also produced the group's biggest pop hit: "Don't Wait" reached #44 on the Hot 100 after it was released as a single. It scraped my top 40, peaking at #39. That song still doesn't really vibe with me today, so that #39 peak feels alright with me.

Dashboard released two more albums before the decade ended, and though they sold well, I can't remember a single song from either of them. In 2011, Carrabba reunited with Further Seems Forever and that band released the album Penny Black in 2012. Once again, I don't remember anything about this project.

Carrabba wouldn't release anything with Dashboard Confessional again until 2018, with the album Crooked Shadows. The album produced the last top 40 hit for the group on my chart; "We Fight" peaked at #29 early in 2018. The song did better on alternative radio, reaching #14, likely due to some nostalgia for Dashboard from millennial alternative listeners.

We likely won't see Dashboard Confessional in this column again. Carrabba seems to be an elder statesman for his era of alternative music these days. I remember him being featured in the music episode of CNN's documentary series The 2000s. For a genre that prided itself on saying how things were not okay, Carrabba got a big hit out of saying that, for one day at least, things were really great. It's not easy to distill that feeling into a song, but when it happens it's magical. I'm just glad I was able to appreciate that magic in its moment.


Apparently Melissa Joan Hart has a podcast about things she likes to binge, and she had Chris Carrabba on as a guest in 2022. Here's Carrabba performing "Hands Down" for his appearance on the show.

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