Entertainment

Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba on Writing 'Vindicated,' the Best Spider-Man Song Ever

vindicated
Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist

The opening lyrics of the 2004 Dashboard Confessional song "Vindicated," off the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, sure sound like they are about everyone's favorite friendly neighborhood webslinger. "Hope dangles on a string/like slow-spinning redemption/winding in and winding out," sings Chris Carrabba, who swears that he wasn't actually picturing the superhero when he was writing those lyrics. 

Nearly 15 years ago, Spider-Man 2 was released and immediately hailed as one of the best comic book movies ever. In the interim years, its competition has grown, what with the rise of the MCU and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, but Sam Raimi's sequel holds its own decisive spot in the superhero canon as the second-highest grossing Spider-Man movie to date. Spider-Man 2 is equal parts funny and terrifying, an adventure where you feel for nearly everyone on screen flush with eye-popping iconography. You know what also holds up? "Vindicated," the lead single from the movie that starts to thrum as soon as Spidey finishes his final swing through New York. 

Dashboard Confessional holds a special place in the heart of many millennials as lovesick, emo teens during the band's rise in the early 2000s, and you can still find "Vindicated" references all over social media. (The song, by the way, is also my go-to karaoke jam, a fact I disclosed to Carrabba when speaking with him.) The single evokes Raimi's operatic take on Peter Parker, in which he pines for Mary Jane, now engaged to another man; fights his former mentor, Doc Ock; and attempts to give up his suit for good. Carrabba's narrator meanwhile waffles in the chorus, pulled between his own vindication and his self-doubt, all while longing for an unattainable romance.

To mark the 15th anniversary of the movie and the song, I hopped on the phone with Chris Carrabba -- who had just seen Spider-Man: Far From Home as a guest of Marvel, and who still writes music and tours as Dashboard Confessional, by the way -- to hear the story of how "Vindicated" came to be.

Dashboard Confessional's profile was on the rise when Carrabba was approached about contributing to the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack. 

Chris Carrabba: [In 2003, Dashboard Confessional's third full-length record] A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar was starting to do well. It hadn't gotten there yet; it was close though. "Hands Down" was starting to connect with people. One of my earliest fans was a woman whose name is Lia Vollack. Lia is an old school punk rocker. She used to do sound for Richard Hell. She connected with the music. The thing was, she happened to be the head of music for movies for Sony Pictures. 

At some point, Lia approached me about having a song on the [Spider-Man 2] soundtrack. It wouldn't be in the movie or anything like that; it wouldn't be the single, but she said, "I am putting together a record. I love your band so much and I just want a song of yours. Do you have any?" And I had one and I sent it to her and she loved it, which made me happy in and of itself. And she got approval pretty quickly. It's not just her who makes the decisions. But we made it onto the soundtrack. 

I grew up reading comic books. I didn't find them to be pulpy or anything like that. They were all allegories. In the case of Spider-Man, which was one of my favorites, this kid that just doesn't fit in has this talent but nobody sort of gets him -- that resonates with your average nerd like me. Doesn't fit in, has trouble making friends, so Spider-Man was among my favorite comic books. My fandom goes pretty deep, like knowing artists, and inkers, and letterers and colorists. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all that stuff. It's just happenstance that my first crack at having a song in the movie was a character that I had this long-standing relationship with as a fan.

tobey maguire
Tobey Maguire in 'Spider-Man 2.' | Columbia Pictures

That first song he sent to Sony was not 'Vindicated' since Carrabba hadn't written it yet.

Carrabba: The coolest thing was, because Lia was so friendly and kind to me, she invited me to see the movie before it was out, actually before it was finished. I'd be watching the film and I'd see finished graphics that looked totally real and then pencil animation. It was just really kind of weird. I was at Sony Pictures on the lot, just me and Lia watching it. I was really moved by the movie. There were some parallels between what [Tobey Maguire's] character -- not Spider-Man, but Peter Parker -- was going through. Growing pains, maybe unrequited/half-requited love, self doubt -- it just resonated with who I was as a person then and maybe am now. So I left and I was psyched I was going to have a song on a soundtrack for a movie that was a big deal, because who the hell were we in the first place, you know? I got to see a movie that was a big deal [for me] as a total comic book nerd growing up. 

I went about my merry way and went on a world tour. Whirlwind. We had this day planned [in Hawaii]. We were waking up early, we were all going surfing. I opened the curtains. It was glorious. People were already out in the water. I was fired up. I had some coffee. My morning routine is coffee, just play guitar for a minute -- I just have to -- and then I'll get to the fun. Sometimes the guitar can be the fun, but in this case it was the surfing. We don't get to surf much on the road, so we were psyched. But I picked up the guitar and I just wrote "Vindicated." I never got to the beach.

I didn't get to surf on that trip, but it was well worth it. It kind of just, like, spilled out. It wasn't like I wrote the thing with Spider-Man in mind. The song is about me and my life experience. When I finished the song, I realized that the spark of inspiration, some if it, might have come from having seen a story I related to so recently. So when I called Lia, I said, "Lia, look, I've got this other song." You don't want to pull the brakes on anybody. I'm just some kid. This is a big machine. I just said, "Look, I get it, neither of these songs are going to be the single, I get it if you don't want to change it, but I just kind of feel a relationship between this song and that movie. Is there any chance we could switch it out?" She said, "Man, it's really late." I was like, "OK." She was like, "I'll tell you what, could you cut a demo and send it to me?"

We soundchecked and I had the front of house guy, who has produced some stuff for me, he tracked the song. I sent it to her and I got a frantic call from her: "I've played this for [producer Avi] Arad and I've played this for [producer] Amy [Pascal] and this is the single." I was like, "What do you mean this is the single?" She's like, "OK, let me walk you through this, dummy. We're going to take your song out, we'll put this song in, it's going to be in the movie and it will be the single for the movie on the radio." She had to tell me, like, three times. I just couldn't conceive this. And so she said, "Here's the thing. You've got to get in the studio, like, tomorrow." So we did. We flew from Hawaii to LA and we went into the studio with Don Gilmore, who is one of my favorite producers and who I trust implicitly to get this right all the way through. He did an amazing job without question, although there's something I'm really proud of in that demo that when we got to the finished project, the only thing that changed was one chord, one time. 

The subtext was get in there, get it done, and don't fuck this up. We turned it in and shortly thereafter we're filming a video in Brooklyn in a warehouse where they made it look like Doc Ock's lair in the film. Without a doubt, that set had to cost twice as much as my house or anybody's house. It was insane. 

The fact that the lyrics align with the plot of Spider-Man 2 is purely coincidental. 

Carrabba: It's a metaphor, but it's the most literal thing. I had this little trinket that was given to me by someone special, but I couldn't get her. I had this little thing. I didn't have it on a necklace, I had it on a string and I wore it around my neck and I would take it off and like twirl it. So stupid, so literal. And I longed for this girl who was somebody else's and I wanted her to be mine. I wanted to be hers, I guess that's less possessive-sounding. So I'd take it off and like you do when you are holding something like a pendulum, you twist it and you let it wind in and wind out. So I was writing about something unrelated. It wasn't about a spiderweb and Spider-Man, but once I stopped and I listened back to my little digital recorder I was like hey that sort of sounds like Spider-Man, I think Lia would like that

A girl I longed for was with somebody else and it looked like they were going to get hitched and that was going to be that for me. That's why the movie hit home. I wasn't writing this literal interpretation. It just inspired me, subconsciously. I didn't realize that. I thought I was writing about me, and I was, and a lot of that imagery was inspired by what I'd seen. I may have chosen different imagery had I not seen it and wanted to write about the same thing. 

"Vindicated" would reach No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, the highest ranking for the band. 

Carrabba: The song comes out [at the end of May 2004, about a month before the release of Spider-Man 2] and it was huge. We're known for singalongs. This was different. It was like "Hands Down" but with like muscle. When people sing along to all our songs, they sing beautifully, and with "Vindicated" they sing like they're trying to win something. Or they're conquering something. And I was like, "this is special."

The movie comes out, the movie is hugely successful, stayed successful after years. It's always rated as one of the best Marvel movies. And then my song just exists independently from that. It has become something for me and my audience that's unrelated to Spider-Man, though I also say, "This is about Spider-Man." It is, but it really isn't. 

It's interesting, it becomes less about Spider-Man 2 with every year. It's always been my song about me and my life. So while I'm so grateful of both stories, mine and the story in Spider-Man 2, I'm very pleased that it has long legs. It becomes meaningful to the listener. They don't need to go see the movie to have the song connect with their lives, not because of the movie or because of my life experience, which is what I aim to do as a writer. 

spidey 2 premiere
Spidey-fingers. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sadly, Carrabba did not become best buds with the movie's stars.

Carrabba: Nah, I dealt with all the people in the front office. I met them all at the premiere and they were nonplussed. I'm not a famous person and they are. They didn't carry themselves that way, but I don't think they knew who I was or what I had to do with the film, and I don't think they cared then and I doubt they care now. But all the people that worked on the movie did, which is why I'm still getting invited to Marvel stuff because I've become friends with all those folks. I would have very much loved to have met Sam Raimi -- I'm a huge fan. I would have loved to have met Kirsten Dunst -- well, I met her -- but I would have loved to have had a conversation with her. And I would have loved to have a conversation with Tobey Maguire, but some people are out of your league.

Carrabba loves Maguire's "vulnerability" as Spider-Man, but says his favorite is Tom Holland. 

Carrabba: [Spider-Man: Far From Home] is the first Spider-Man that really makes him a high school kid. I think that Tom Holland shows effortlessly that he's like the smartest guy in the room, but he's not tortured with the Spider-Man thing, which has been sort of a theme through the other Spider-Men. The way he plays this character is as if he's conflicted with how to have both lives. I think even as an adult I can understand and feel that. I have this life and job that leads me away from my actual life and I'm conflicted about it.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.