We watch two burly customers in tank tops and aerodynamic Oakleys take aim, snicker, and reload. The average paintball rifle has a muzzle velocity between 200 and 300 feet per second; the Freak’s protective suit resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas. Do the math. Feel the contusions. From behind a pair of state-trooper sunglasses, Carrabba takes it all in. It would please me to report that he then stepped up, threw the barker a wadded Benjamin, shouldered a rifle, and unleashed hell, pinning the Freak to the wall with round after colorful round–while shouting, “Who’s emo now, bitch? Who’s emo now?“–but that would be a lie.

Instead, he just winces. “That guy,” he says, sighing, “has the worst job in the world.”

In a few weeks, Vagrant Records (with a little help from Interscope, one of the most major of the major labels) will release A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, Dashboard Confessional’s third studio album. If the record succeeds, it could do for emo what Nevermind did for grunge. It will make 28-year-old Carrabba a media personality, a brand name, a rock star. It could also alienate the hordes of young fans who already see Carrabba as big brother, spiritual leader, and therapist rolled into one. Up until now, these fans have made the Dashboard experience into a communal phenomenon more or less on their own terms, passing around MP3s of his songs like sacred scrolls and turning his shows into lovelorn choir practices. Carrabba is not exactly their Bob Dylan–the capital they’ve invested in him is personal, not political. But his ascension to the big leagues is their Bob-Dylan-going-electric, a stylistic transition that stings (for some) like a betrayal. On the Dashtabs.com message board, fans scan the news for signs that their hero has been compromised. After the official Dashboard website announced that a limited-edition picture disc of two Mission tracks would be sold exclusively at the mallternative store Hot Topic, one fan groused: “This is just another tally mark in the ‘selling out’column. I can understand how it may be the large powerful record company’s doing (Interscope), but at some point, Chris should at least keep things that are associated with him in check.”

As one iconic, controversial Intercope artist once put it, things are about to get heavy.

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