Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba is the poster boy for music-related meetups. Photo by Richard Agudelo
Meetups alter the political landscape, and show signs of stirring up pop culture

Matt Birnbach moved from New Jersey three weeks ago, and he hardly knows any of the locals yet. But you would never guess that from the way the 17-year-old Churchill High School student holds court outside of a North Side Barnes & Noble, chatting up a group of black-clad kids about everything from Japanese animation to abstract artists who paint with fecal matter.

Birnbach had barely unpacked his bags in San Antonio before he found access to an instant clique. He went online, googled "San Antonio Goth"and discovered something called

An online gathering service that enables like-minded people around the world to form local groups devoted to a particular subject, launched in June 2002 and has already attracted nearly 600,000 signees in 591 cities. Most of the media fascination with meetups centers on the way they are altering the political landscape. The most Internet-savvy of the announced 2004 presidential candidates, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, has a national meetup roster that exceeds 93,000, and is growing rapidly.

Less obvious, but equally intriguing, is the way certain musical and pop culture topics naturally lend themselves to these so-called "smart mobs," while others don't. Here's a question: What television or film star has the biggest meetup following? If you guessed Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, or any cast member of Friends, you're not even close. It's Fox News tele-bully Bill O' Reilly, with 4,900 signed meetup members.

Similarly, in music, the world according to meetups bears little resemblance to the world most of us live in. The meetup charts are not ruled by Beyoncé, Eminem, or Ashanti, but by Dashboard Confessional, with 6,500 signees. The band is followed closely by Insane Clown Posse, Elvis Presley, Tori Amos, and more general topics like punk and ska.

The San Antonio goth group ranks among the city's largest - with 71 members - but as is common among meetups, only a small percentage of those signees turn out for the monthly meetings, which are scheduled at the same time for every goth meetup around the world. At the Barnes & Noble goth gathering, only six people show up, and two of them are an hour late. It doesn't help that goths are a notoriously shy lot. Jennifer Barendt, 17, recalls that at a recent meetup, one girl repeatedly walked by the group, finally coming forward and revealing her worries that she "didn't look goth enough."

Barendt adds: "Last time we came, there were two lesbian chicks here, and all they talked about was politics. We were just sitting here not saying anything. I don't know a shit-ass thing about politics. I just know Bush sucks."

Short and stocky, Barendt has blonde hair with green streaks in it. On this evening, she wears a black Insane Clown Posse T-shirt, cutoff blue jeans, and hiking boots. She recounts the experience of getting kicked out of Clark High School for truancy, but doesn't seem too grief-stricken about it.

"That school is a mind-warping conspiracy,"she says. "They say, 'No gang-related stuff,' and they consider my makeup gang-related. The preppy kids can wear matching clothes, and it's not considered gang-related." Her friend, Jennifer Phillips, currently enrolled at Clark, nods in agreement.

While Barendt gets in a few hyper quips such as "Goths don't come out until it's dark," Birnbach, the new kid in town, does most of the talking. Bright and opinionated, his only overt display of gothdom comes from the black polish that covers his fingernails.

"Goth can make people very beautiful," Birnbach says. "My case in point is Marilyn Manson. He is one ugly motherfucker. His teeth are terrible, and he's all drawn like he's been on heroin for 21 years. Then you see a model shoot of him with his face all plastered with makeup, and it's all smooth and dainty and angelic."

Birnbach's new friends urge him to check out White Rabbit and Sin 13, talking up local bands they have caught at all-ages shows. A discussion of Japanese animation leads to a brief debate on the merits of Japanese pop star Gackt, who dresses like a Victorian dandy, and maintains an image just exotic and ethereal enough to intrigue goths.

The formula for any successful meetup is an impassioned subculture whose members feel driven to bond with each other. It explains why Dashboard Confessional generated more meetup interest than any other musical act, even before the August 12 release of A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart.

Prior to the new CD, Dashboard had never charted higher than 108 on the Billboard 200 or sold more than 424,000 copies of any record. But Dashboard's indie-hunk frontman Chris Carraba stirs his largely female fan base to memorize every bleeding-heart lyric he writes (check out the band's MTV2 Unplugged show for proof), and his combination of dreaminess, fan-friendliness, and crybaby sensitivity makes him a meetup natural.

It's impressive enough that Dashboard's San Antonio meetup group currently numbers 72 members, but consider the group's meetup base in the Rio Grande Valley, hardly a haven for indie-rock. In McAllen, Dashboard is the highest rated meetup, even outstripping non-musical powerhouses like Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich.

While political organizers exploit meetups' ability to organize like-minded voters and create a grassroots chain reaction, an open question is whether music meetups will be able to do the same for recording artists. At this point, the meetup popularity of Dashboard Confessional seems more like a signal of the group's growing commercial clout than a direct cause of it. On the other hand, if Insane Clown Posse's next album goes double-platinum, we'll know who to blame for it. •

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