Last night, Pantaliamon
and I went to the 9:30 Club
to see the Dashboard Confessional
play. They are one of her favorite bands, and although I wouldn’t rank them in my Top 10 all-time favorites, I would definitely place them in the Top 20. We first encountered them nearly two years ago when they played at a church in College Park, MD
-- we were there to see Hey Mercedes
, a band which contains two thirds of the membership of the now-deceased Braid
(as an aside, Braid places in the Top 5 overall, and ranks number one as my favorite band of the 1990’s). When Dashboard hit the stage I was hot, tired and in a terrible mood from being packed in with five hundred teenagers. Chris, who essentially is Dashboard Confessional, was having trouble with the sound. Hey Mercedes was on next, so I just wanted them to get on with the show and stop fussing with the sound.
But the problems persisted, and my irritation grew. “Who the fuck is this guy?” I said to Pantaliamon and the two friends who came with us. “Can’t he get on with it? Christ, you’d think he was a rock star or something. This is a church show -- the sound is supposed to suck.” Keep in mind that this was before MTV2 put them in heavy rotation. They were -- at the time -- a minor player on the emo-specialized pseudo-indie Vagrant Records, dwarfed by the juggernaut that was the Get Up Kids. I had heard their name, but -- due to my lingering indie elitism and distrust for the sincerity of any band but Hey Mercedes on Vagrant Records -- never gave them a chance.
But then the show started. And with the first chord and the sound of his voice I knew I had been premature in judging them. This was a guy who clearly listened to the same bands I did -- Fugazi, Jawbox, Hoover, Braid, the Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, etc. -- and therefore imbued in his songs the nameless quality, that indescribable trait that makes or breaks a good post-punk band. I can’t quite put it in words, but it’s like the songs are infected with a personal honesty that makes it so you know the words aren’t just bullshit, that they’re in fact informed by experience. When Fugazi sing, you don’t doubt they really feel angry about gentrification, or corporate greed. When Chris from Dashboard Confessional sings, you know his relationships combusted just how he describes them in the songs. And there’s so much reality there that you can listen and say: “This happened to me. I felt like that.” And the words take you back to that emotional space where your first girlfriend went on a date with her ex-boyfriend while you were together. And you know that Chris felt it too -- that other people had the same experience, and that comforts you.
In addition to realizing that this band was actually pretty good, I also became aware of the fact that the kids in the audience were there to see them. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- was singing along. This was a moment I’d dreamed about for years as a participant in the indie rock scene, but never experienced first hand -- to go to a show and see a crowd totally in love with the music, and totally transfixed by it and participating by adding their voice to the song. It was like being surrounded by a huge chorus, and Chris wasn’t the star of the show so much as the director, the instigator. The personal experiences recounted in his songs had effected the audience so that they claimed them as their own. It was amazing.
So last night, when we went to see them at the 9:30 Club, I wondered if we would experience the same sort of reaction from the audience. Or would success and stardom change things? Would a mainstream audience react with the same earnestness and love for the music that a punk rock audience did?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. The entire audience -- which I’ll admit was largely composed of teenage girls, their parents hovering around in the wings -- was even more involved than at the show in College Park. You could see them swell with excitement as the band took the stage, and hear their voices -- chanting in unison -- as Chris sang even the most obscure songs in his repertoire. It was easily the best mainstream show I’ve ever been to. In the early 1990’s, you got the feeling that the kids went to concerts to participate in the great cultural Lollapalooza -- that a show was like a mosh pit theme park ride, and the music was secondary to kids bouncing off each other and crowd surfing. An excuse to imitate the extras in Pearl Jam videos. But here the music was everything -- the audience was completely involved.
This is -- I believe -- a great thing. Even if I didn’t like the band, I would think that. Here you have a guy who is essentially an indie rock singer songwriter who has done the unthinkable -- he’s commanded the attention of the audience in such a way that his songs are more important than his own cult of personality. He’s not a coke sniffing cock rocker with an ego the size of the Pacific ocean -- he’s just a regular guy who writes earnest songs. And what’s more, he’s commanded mainstream attention -- his MTV2 fans are just as devoted and genuine in their adoration as his punk fans (who no doubt jumped ship as his star rose).
This is, I think, as significant a sea change in popular music as when Nirvana first tore the mainstream away from guys like Mr. Big, the New Kids on the Block, and Michael Jackson. It represents a shift in what teenagers expect from music -- a move away from the plastic corporate wasteland of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit towards something that’s a little more meaningful. Granted, the Dashboard Confessional isn't charting number one on Billboard, but their rising success is still significant.
Couple that with the commercial success of the White Stripes, the Strokes, and Jimmy Eat World -- all formerly darlings of the indie world -- and you realize just how exciting popular music is right now. But unlike the alternative boom of the early-1990’s, I’m not sensing the same kind of exploitation I did then. If today’s kids can love other bands as much as they love the Dashboard Confessional -- and if the labels can restrain themselves from creating lame copycats -- then maybe we can see other artists with original voices and genuine artistic integrity enjoy the same success. And although I’m sure my hipster friends would disagree, I think that would be a very good thing indeed.