Dashboard Confessional #2 – Chris Carrabba as Michael Scott
This is part 2 of a series of articles on Dashboard Confessional’s frontman Chris Carrabba: an attempt to dissect his public persona in order to understand his inner person. You can read part 1 here.
The Swiss Army Romance is a voyeuristic trip through a 20-something’s diary that feels as naked as it is. Thoroughly sparse compared to the over-produced “big” sounding modern alternative rock that commanded the charts at the time; the album is just acoustic guitars and Carrabba’s strained voice. Like his first release, The Drowning EP, Swiss Army recalls deeply personal and painful experiences: homesickness, break-ups, cheating, being cheated on and death and all the songs are found in major keys. Unlike the first EP, as well as the majority of Elliott Smith’s lyrics which almost always turn inward and blame the singer himself for his pain, the lyrics of Swiss Army Romance are directed outward. Those to blame are ex-girlfriends, the weather, the road, his home town and the singer is somehow daftly unaware why these things are happening to him. Perhaps Carrabba has a knack for always picking the wrong girl, or for saying the wrong things, or maybe he really is the most unlucky guy you could ever meet. If taken literally, the lyrics reveal Carrabba to be not only naive but utterly childish in his simplistic thinking. Though aged 25 during the recording of Swiss Army, Carrabba seems much younger, seeing relationships through teenage eyes. The thought occurred to me that maybe Carrabba really is as naive and simple as he appears. Once the dust cleared from that revelation, I immediately thought of another simple and naive doofus: Michael Scott.
Michael Scott is the name of the boss in NBC’s “mockumentary” comedy The Office. He is played brilliantly by Steve Carrell. Throughout the series, Michael Scott is the socially unaware, arrogant jerk who wears his heart on his sleeve and constantly has it broken mostly because he plays the fool, but unintentionally. With his female employees Scott is inappropriate at best and an outright misogynist at worst. He’s racist, homophobic, and the moment any member of the opposite sex shows him any kindness he immediately imagines their future together as a couple: first comes love, then comes marriage and then comes sex but hopefully not in that order.
In the show’s first season, during the episode “The Hot Girl” a solicitor named Katy (played by the beautiful Amy Adams) visits the office in order to sell hand bags. When the receptionist, Pam, initially asks if Katy could set up her items in the conference room Scott interrupts to denounces the idea saying “No no no. No vendors in the office. That is a distraction.” After Pam convinces Scott to talk to her, he acquiesces and upon seeing Katy his jaw drops to the floor. Scott immediately breaks company policy because of the woman’s “hotness” and later in the episode, after awkwardly offering to give the woman a ride home after work, he begins to fantasize about maybe stopping for coffee, maybe being asked into her apartment, maybe sex and maybe even love. Though he confesses to a co-worker “it’s too early to tell,” how does offering a stranger, whom you met not even 8 hours earlier, a ride home spark thoughts of love? This is the logic of Michael Scott.
In another episode, (season 2, episode 7 “The Client”) Michael and his boss Jan Levinson were caught kissing in the parking lot after making a huge sale earlier in the episode. Michael, unwillingly at first, confesses the whole ordeal to the camera crew and says “I know we have to register as a consensual sexual relationship with HR. My question, do I do it as the man, does she do it as my superior? I don’t know.” Then Michael lets his imagination fabricate an amazing fictional context for his and Jan’s future that simply doesn’t exist by saying “…that leads to other issues that we may have, in our relationship.” Later Jan calls and accuses Michael of intentionally getting her drunk, or slipping something into her drink in order to get her into bed with him. Michael defends himself and says “This is just a fight. This is just a first fight of many fights we’re gonna have” as though their little tryst was the beginning of a life-long romance. You see the look on Michael’s face change from elation when he picked up Jan’s call to shock, disbelief then embarrassment. Michael frantically attempts to get the camera crew to leave so he can talk to Jan alone and spare himself the public debasement but instead hides underneath his desk, desperately trying to convince Jan that they are in love, they are meant to be together and that she just doesn’t know it yet. All that needs to be done is to recreate the circumstances of the previous night and all will be right with the world.
This kind of blind naivety permeates the lyrics on The Swiss Army Romance. They read like Michael Scott’s private journal. On “Again I Go Unnoticed,” Carrabba shrugs off a lover’s indifference with the quip “maybe you’re just feeling tired ’cause if it’s more than that I feel that I might break.” On the bridge of the song, Carrabba furthers this thought that maybe a night’s sleep will do the trick, that he’ll “wait until tomorrow, maybe you’ll feel better then.” Perhaps the same delusion that Scott convinced himself of, the expectation that all that needs to be had are a few drinks, or a few winks of sleep, will rekindle their supposed passion.
The next episode opens with Michael and every member of the office individually deconstructing a voicemail left by Jan about her coming to town for performance reviews. Michael is convinced that Jan not only doesn’t say what she means, but that each word she does say has a hidden meaning that would confirm his conception that Jan is in love with him. Or at least, as Pam says to Michael during their review of the message, the she has mixed feelings about their relationship, that she “feels conflicted.”
Carrabba too seems to think women speak in mysteries. At another point on the record, Carrabba explains he too is unable to understand female logical. As though, like Jan’s voicemail to Michael Scott, they never say what they mean. “Please send me signals that are anything but mixed cause I can’t read your rolling eyes.” The line of thinking, that there is a secret code within a woman’s words, reminds me very distinctly of junior high and high school. Growing up in the age of the internet and the birth of online journals like LiveJournal, DeadJournal, Xanga & Blogger, I recall scouring journals of the girls I “liked” as well as writing entires myself in order to get them to want me, to need me, “to notice me.” If I composed them just right I hoped beyond hope for a comment from that special someone confirming that she understood my secret language. In one particular entry, from my junior year of high school, after describing how I had been playing phone tag with “a friend” throughout the day I ended the entry with
“So I read their live journal, and im like. aww. oh well. to a certain extent, waiting sucks. like, you want to do something but you cant because its not straight yet. and so you have to wait for it to be straight. and im really being cryptic in the entry. well, they’ll know what im talking about. i just hope i dont have to wait forever…”
assuming no one would know except the one I want to know. Carrabba’s lyrics read like these notes. Secret message meant to be decrypted by those females set in his sights. Even the break-up songs sound like blog updates intended to catch the ear of that special, although probably ill-thought of, someone.
“Screaming Infidelities” depicts Carrabba as a doe-eyed, hopeful cuckold who would rather cry himself to sleep knowing his girlfriend is sleeping around then admit to himself that their relationship is over. In “Saints and Sailors” from The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, Carrabba wishes to at least have a fight over the phone with his ex-girlfriend because even a bad relationship is better than none at all. This attitude it much like Scott’s taking Jan Levinson back though their relationship made him feel the worst he’s ever felt.
In other songs he portrays an arrogance that accompanies only people who cannot think about anyone but themselves. “Sharp Hint of New Tears” is Michael Scott after he digitally inserts himself into a family Christmas card of his then girlfriend’s in place of her ex-husband. “Why should I apologize for the things that you’ve done wrong?” he asks as though Carol has always been in love with him, even before she knew him.
Carrabba is not entirely without introspection. On the title track, he displays an awareness that completely escapes Michael Scott. Youth is fleeting, and like the teenage romances he chases, they won’t last forever. Eventually they’ll grow up, mature, and become real relationships based on more than looking cool and saying the right things. Eventually we’ll forget our youthful ignorance and naivety and not understand how it was possible to be so dumb. Maybe that’s true of Carrabba too. Maybe he wrote a lot of those songs well before they were recorded, or perhaps they were old emotions that had been kicking around his heart and his head for years, and recording them got them out.
Yeah, I’m reading your note again, Chris, and there’s not a word that I comprehend either.
Next up, how Chris Carrabba is Llyod Dobler becoming Rob Gordon.
Composed on June 16th, 2010 in the category Culture, Features, Music, TV, Writing. with the tags amy adams, blogger, Chris Carrabba, dashboard confessional, deadjournal, katy, livejournal, Michael Scott, pam, Steve Carrell, swiss army romance, the office, the places you've come to fear the most, TV, xanga