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In 1981, a hardcore punk band called Minor Threat released a 46-second song entitled “Straight Edge,” where vocalist Ian MacKaye delivered a blistering rebuke to the hedonism and substance abuse that pervaded the punk music culture of the time. Minor Threat’s aggressive celebration of sobriety was the unlikely origin of the straight edge subculture, a movement that has defied convention and sparked controversy in the punk scene and far beyond.
To define where the straight edge subculture came from, it is necessary to look at the hardcore punk music scene itself. An offshoot of the larger punk music genre, hardcore punk came into its own in the late 1970s, with music that was far more pugnacious, faster, and louder than any other style of music under the punk music umbrella. The songs themselves were simple and short yet sloppily played. Punk musicians were (and are) less interested in perfection or technical proficiency, and more interested in making as much noise in as little time as possible. A writer, musician and festival promoter opined to The Guardianthat punk is less about the music and more about an attitude of independence and revolution against convention.1
AllMusic called hardcore punk “the most extreme variation” of punk music, borne out of frustration with the stagnation of both popular music, and the overall punk genre.2 The shows to promote the music were violent, claustrophobic, and chaotic events, with fans and musicians themselves often leaving bruised and bloodied by the energetic dancing (more akin to people simply pushing and slamming into one another).
In such an adrenaline-fueled environment, substance abuse reigns supreme. The Annals of Emergency Medicine journal noted that use of illegal drugs and alcohol was common among spectators at rock music concert events, and many punk musicians (especially of the hardcore punk variety) abused hard drugs to drive the vitriol of their songs, the energy of their performances, and their rebellion against consumer and mainstream culture.3, 4
In any environment, drug use takes its toll; in the frantic and blistering world of hardcore punk, the excesses were deadly. The Vinyl Factory writes of how such notable icons such as the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious overdosed on heroin at the age of 21 in 1979, and the Germs’ Darby Crash died the same way the following year.5 In 1981, documentary maker Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization profiled the punk music scene in Los Angeles; the official film poster depicted Crash during a performance on his back, with his eyes closed, gripping a microphone.6 Punk music made no effort to hide its penchant for overindulgence, but Spheeris’s documentary cast a harsh light on how the self-destructive nature of drug abuse was killing off a number of promising musicians, many of whom died (or came close to dying) before the age of 25.
Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat took note, while also lamenting that many of his friends and fans of his bands were falling prey to the pervasive substance abuse of the scene. In true punk style though, MacKaye’s other issue with drug abuse was that the practice is a “very mainstream activity,” and punk’s entire ethos is to do the opposite of the mainstream.7
MacKaye’s dislike of partying also set him apart from his peers, and inspired him to write the song “Straight Edge.” Only 46 seconds long, the lyrics speak of having “better things to do that sit around and smoke dope,” while also decrying the other hedonistic practices that were commonplace in the punk scene, such as sexual promiscuity and smoking.
MacKaye never intended for his song to start a movement that would last for more than three decades, but many punk fans (and some musicians) gravitated toward the idea of the rebellion within the rebellion. If hardcore punk music was an angry statement against popular culture, then proudly eschewing drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and sex was, in and of itself, a very punk thing to do.
For some punk fans, however, being straight edge wasn’t just about sticking it to traditional hardcore punk; it was about freedom. A writer and former member of the straight edge scene told The Fix that growing up in “a household of smokers, with alcoholism in [her] extended family” caused her to agree that the free-spirited idea of resisting the pressure to drink, even within a punk music context, became “cool.”
An associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, himself an old member of the straight edge movement, agreed that the message started by Minor Threat in their 46-second song was incredibly liberating: It was possible to abstain from alcohol in an acceptable way, one that spoke to the very aesthetics of punk music.
As with any social movement, straight edge devotees came up with a visual way of identifying themselves: a large X drawn on the back of each fist, derived from the way bouncers would mark underage fans as being too young to drink. Eventually, fans started to adopt the straight edge symbolism in more visible ways; the X became prominent on jackets and shirts, even being tattooed directly onto the skin to show the dedication to remaining clean in the face of pressure and hostility.
Sometimes, however, the hostility went both ways. Certain groups of fans interpreted straight edge to be a form of purity, keeping themselves clean from the taint of drugs and alcohol. Others took this a step further, becoming vegetarian (or vegan) as a form of advocating animal rights, rejecting the exploitation and cruelty to animals, and believing that cutting out meat from their diet made them healthier and “cleaner” than meat-eaters. Yet others felt that the sexual promiscuity that was part of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle was another form of debasement, and the best form of rebellion (even in a style of music based on rebellion) was to draw a distinct line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
The idea of purity resonated so strongly with some members of the straight edge movement that they became increasingly antagonistic toward other punk fans who still used drugs or drank. A writer for The AV Club notes of how militant straight edgers would “go around slapping cigarettes out of people’s mouths.”9 Straight edgers who “broke (the) edge” (i.e., drank or used drugs after vowing not to) were victims of violence and assault. Punishments were mercilessly dealt to straight edge fans who went back on their pledge and even to punk fans who never identified as straight edge. It was not uncommon for fights to break out at concerts between straight edge fans and non-straight edge fans, with the straight edge contingent being the initial aggressors. Another writer speaking to The Fix noted that straight edge fans “could be borderline militant about their hatred of drinkers.”
The Los Angeles Times referred to such fans as “suburban terrorists” because of how the ethos of anti-drinking spread to the other social causes that punk music championed: animal rights, anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, anarchy, and a number of other movements that identified with the overall antiestablishment theme that punk fans loved and hardcore punk fans religiously believed in.
Some straight edge fans believed that being violent was the only way to get their message out, accusing more placid straight edge movements of being too complacent. The more virulent members of the straight edge subculture even took to bombing stores that sold animal-based products, such as leather clothing accessories and fast food stands. In 1996, a 21-year-old who swore off alcohol, drugs, smoking, and sex (but still had tattoos of assault rifles on the back of his head) was sentenced to two years in jail for raiding a mink farm in Utah.
Utah is a strange place for the forceful straight edge subculture to spread, let alone punk music in general, but the unique culture of the state speaks to young, white, and middleclass straight edgers who see themselves as brave warriors of sobriety in a world given over to its most hedonistic and primal impulses. The only way to react is loudly in the music, and violently in the form of brass knuckles, knives, baseball bats, and homemade explosives.
The problem became such that several high schools struggled to deal with pro-abstinence vandalism in a state that (ironically) emphasizes a very strong message of not doing drugs, alcohol, smoking, or engaging in promiscuous sex. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, one 19-year-old straight edge fan said that his involvement in the movement was a form of rebellion against the stereotype of being thought of as a “good little Mormon boy” by the rest of the world, refusing to “compromise” on his beliefs for the sake of his parents.10
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Law enforcement adopted a much less forgiving view of the crimes carried out by straight edgers, sending dozens to jail on serious criminal charges of vandalism, arson, and violence. The straight edge subculture became so infamous that even animal rights activists have distanced themselves from the straight edge movement despite their similar worldviews. The Salt Lake City representative for the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade once boasted that 35 percent of the city’s members were straight edgers, and promotional materials were widely passed around at local concerts. However, after a stabbing at a concert, the coalition refused to acknowledge the support offered by the local straight edge scene.
The hostility has threatened to sour the positive intentions and outlook of the straight edge movement, with Ian MacKaye himself criticizing the savagery practiced against individuals and businesses that run counter to the straight edge message. Local groups and fans in other cities, aghast at the spate of crimes and arrests in Salt Lake City, have been forced to defend the straight edge lifestyle as not being inherently violent, going so far as to blacklist venues in the Utah capital for fear of being tainted by association.11 Law enforcement in Utah have officially declared straight edge-related crimes to be a form of gang activity, which qualifies arrestees for harsher penalties and jail time.
But the members of the movement are baffled at the negative response to their straight edge beliefs. The police and media often exaggerate the reports of violence, they say; when violence does occur, it is usually a form of self-defense against attacks by non-straight edge individuals.
The militant nature of the hardcore element of the straight edge movement is a welcoming one to people who either have had drug and alcohol struggles in their past or who are looking for a larger cause to identify with. Even as they pierce their eyebrows and lips, and have tattoos that span their necks, no amount of body modification or aggressive music can make up for the crimes they see in mainstream society: animal cruelty, substance abuse, rampant consumerism, and hate speech as legally protected speech. A t-shirt at a concert for a Salt Lake City band (that describes itself as “Vegan Straight Edge Hardcore”) stated, “I believe in the use of violence to achieve animal liberation.”
A member of Utah’s hardcore punk scene praised the straight edge fans for “living a completely healthy lifestyle,” but also for not being apathetic and lazy about important causes worth fighting for. While law enforcement would consider firebombing a McDonald’s restaurant a crime, the militant straight edge view is that the perpetrators “took action” and “stepped up to the plate.”
The dichotomy is at the core of “the two sides of straight edge culture,” wrote Boston.com; the idea of teenagers proudly turning away from drugs, alcohol, and other forms of risky behavior is a blessing (and taking up social justice causes a potential perk), but the justification for violence toward other punk fans and musicians who engage in substance abuse and sexual promiscuity has left many both within and without the scene on edge.12 A National Geographic documentary on the subject concluded with an 8th grader living in suburban Boston who warned that he (and his peers) had no intention of killing anyone, “but I’m not going to tolerate drugs around me.”
Straight edge still exists in the 21st century, in some cases moving far beyond the scope of the hardcore punk scene. Professional wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter Phil Brooks’s public persona as a “straight edge superstar” is based on his straight edge beliefs (replete with tattoos and the trademark Xs on the back of his wrists).13 Musicians in other genres have adopted elements of the straight edge lifestyle, sometimes as a form of maintaining sobriety after struggling with substance abuse. CJ Wilson, former Major League Baseball pitcher, showed his straight edge beliefs with three Xs stitched onto his pitching glove.14
Even outside the celebrity and entertainment world, the spirit of straight edge has resonated with people looking for the right kind of aesthetic with which to refuse drugs and alcohol. Harking back to the zeitgeist that initially spawned Ian MacKaye’s song, a new generation of young people are fed up with the firm entrenchment of alcohol in everyday life. A 24-year-old woman’s decision to become straight edge was influenced by alcoholism in her family and a drinking problem in her own past. Now, she sees being part of the straight edge subculture as a sign of respect for herself and others, especially with regard to sexual relationships.15
For some modern straight edge fans, there remains a hard line that runs through their beliefs. A 24-year old man tells Vice Germany that being straight edge to him is “[living] your life knowing that you’re going to follow through with refusing substances,” to the point that it dictates his romantic interests: if a hypothetical potential partner were to smoke, “then it’s over before we’ve even met.”16
The straight edge scene still exists in punk music today, although the controversies of the more militant strains of the movement, as well as better education and understanding of the dangers of substance abuse, have tempered the ferocity of the overall movement. The AV Club writer notes that after the crusade rose to infamous prominence , an influx of newer, younger fans diluted the initial novelty of the philosophy; the music suffered (it became “dour, brooding and nauseatingly macho”), and with it, the enthusiasm dulled. Additionally, as the first generation of straight edge fans matured into their 30s and 40s, the challenges of adulthood (mental health issues, relationship problems, and simply growing older) caused a number of the early adopters of the movement to “break the edge,” with no reprisals to be found from their peers who were similarly older and battling the same issues. At a straight edge reunion show, the writer notes that “almost everyone in the crowd was holding a can of beer.”
For the contemporary bands who still fly the straight edge flag, the passage of time has made them more self-critical of the straight edge philosophy even while proudly espousing those same beliefs. The band Gather, for example, describing itself as “vegan straight edge” – with a female lead singer as a sign of how the overall punk culture has opened itself up to women – chided fans (and maybe previous generations of the straight edge movement) for being content with simply being drug-free, instead of “[acting] most effectively against this system we’re fighting.”17 The Dallas-based Modern Pain eschew the positivity and liberation that Ian MacKaye infused into the 46-second “Straight Edge,” and instead focus on “the harrowing realities of drug use” with their lyrics focusing on “overdoses, relapse, and isolation.”18
Today. the interpretations of what it means to be straight edge are varied and unique. For some, it is still an intrinsic part of the hardcore punk scene; for many other people, straight edge is a philosophy that exists beyond the music. It can mean abstaining from alcohol, drugs, casual sex, animal products, tobacco, or even caffeine, without ever listening to a punk song or going to a show. In the 21st century, the movement has changed enough where some straight edgers might “responsibly” drink or engage in sexual behavior, making the distinction that as long as they remain in control (i.e., no intoxication or promiscuous sexual activity), they are remaining true to the straight edge ideals.
However the lifestyle is acted out, what remains at the heart of being straight edge is a form of rebellion – rebelling against the idea that the only way to have fun is by getting drunk, getting high, or sleeping around.
Straight edge remains a brand of individuality, one that allows likeminded people to find solidarity amid a cacophony of consumerist compulsions. In that way, no matter how much it has changed, straight edge remains inherently hardcore punk, more than three decades after Ian MacKaye wrote his 46-second song.19