For as long as human beings have had the desire to indulge their vices, there has been a movement that runs contrary to those excesses. While normally the purview of religious or conservative circles, one of the more curious rejections of a hedonistic lifestyle is the straight edge culture, born from the hardcore punk music scene of the 1980s. Over the years, the nature of the straight edge movement has changed a lot, but the resistance to drugs, alcohol, and casual sex remains idiosyncratically strong.
The Hardcore Punk Origins
The straight edge culture takes its name and inspiration from a 46-second song by the band Minor Threat. Led by Ian MacKaye, the band only lasted for three years (and released only one official album during that time), but was hugely influential in the hardcore punk sub-genre. Hardcore punk itself came from the larger punk music genre (also known as punk rock), which already had a reputation for eschewing traditional ideas of skilled musicianship and positive aesthetics; it was more of an attitude than a style, which freed punk artists to play whatever they wanted, however they wanted.
But for some, punk rock had grown too stylish, too commercialized. Rejecting the trappings and the glamor of more established punk bands, the hardcore movement emerged. Hardcore punk (which came to be known as simply “hardcore”) was a loud, angry, profane, and violent repudiation of punk rock, the establishment, the mainstream, and popular culture in general.
Violence and Death
To fit the belligerent sound of the music, hardcore punk shows were violent and brutal, played in cramped and dirty clubs. As the bands ripped through song after song in rapid succession (some songs lasting no more than 90 seconds), fans “danced” along by slamming into each other, leaving bruises and blood. Not for nothing did AllMusic call hardcore punk “the most extreme variation” of the punk music tree.
With the extreme variations and adrenaline came drug and alcohol abuse. Spectators and musicians typically celebrated their punk lifestyle by living dangerously, often pushing the limits of their tolerance as a form of rebellion against expectations for healthy living. While this made the music angrier and the shows more volatile, the abuse took their toll; Sid Vicious, bassist and vocalist of the Sex Pistols, fatally overdosed on heroin when he was only 21 years old. Darby Crash of Germs died the same way at the age of 22. Heroin also claimed the life of Dave Rubinstein of Skinny Puppy at 29 years old. A professor of psychology and music at the University of Sydney compiled a statistical report that found that punk musicians had a higher likelihood of accidental deaths by suicide, including drug overdoses, compared to musicians from other genres.
For many in the hardcore punk scene, the early deaths of such young talent were natural consequences of the unrelenting and intense lifestyle of what it meant to be “truly” punk. For Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, the losses were a sign that the sub-genre was going the way of the same indulgent, self-destructive culture that hardcore punk was supposed to rebel against. Much as the deaths of his peers, influences, and fans saddened him, MacKaye objected to what he felt was the “very mainstream activity” of substance abuse, taking place in the most extreme of the punk sub-genres. To MacKaye, such indulgences ran counter to the very spirit of what punk music was meant to represent.
The Straight Edge
From MacKaye’s frustrations came “Straight Edge,” a 46-second song released in 1981. “I’m a person just like you,” he belted out, “But I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and smoke dope / ’cause I know I can cope.” On other songs, MacKaye sang about how his choice not to drink or smoke may put him “out of step with the world,” but gave him a clearer head than those who continued with their habits. The AV Club notes that behind the noise and profanity of Minor Threat’s songs was “a plea for order, sensibility and humanity in a scene full of violence and self-destruction.”
Ian MacKaye wrote his songs as his own personal beliefs on the subject, but the message resonated with others in the hardcore punk world. Some of them agreed that the substance abuse and hedonism had gone too far; others simply liked the idea of a counterculture movement within a counterculture movement. Hardcore punk was supposed to be an intentionally ugly and vitriolic rejection of the mainstream world; refusing to partake in drug and alcohol consumption was the most hardcore punk way to do that.
Soon, the “straight edge” movement – which took its name from the Minor Threat song – became a force within the hardcore punk scene. More and more bands adopted the theme laid out by Ian MacKaye, and fans followed, refusing the drinks and baggies of heroin that were usually a part of every hardcore show. To demonstrate their allegiance to the cause, straight edge musicians and fans drew large X marks on the back of each fist, adopted from how bouncers would mark underage fans to ensure that such fans wouldn’t be served alcohol. The imagery spread; punk bands adopted the “X” on album covers, fans stitched large “X” marks into their clothing, and the more dedicated adherents of the movement got intricate “X” tattoos.
Celebrating Straight Edge
The unique and rabid energy of hardcore punk makes it a simultaneously unlikely yet obvious scene for the straight edge idea to take hold. Exclaim! points out that while other genres of music have notably sober artists, “only punk united it under a name, a scene, a sound and a political ideology.” Since punk music has had a traditionally young audience, straight edge gave fans who wanted to be sober an identity, ensuring that there would be no pressure to conform to unhealthy standards.
Many punk fans found freedom in the straight edge movement. For those who grew up in homes where substance abuse was rampant, being straight edge allowed them to abstain from going down the same route but still enjoy the music and the energy of the music. Straight edge, therefore, was a way to remain cool and accepted. In a 2014 interview, MacKaye said that he “wanted other kids in the world who didn’t want to party” to feel encouraged and empowered to celebrate themselves.
The Subculture War
But in an environment of such extremes, some fans took the straight edge message very seriously, boycotting (and targeting) bands (and other fans) that didn’t accept the message. The belief in the principles of being straight edge became fervent, almost militant, to the point where a rift grew between the straight edge and the non-straight edge communities. The straight edge movement expanded beyond simple abstinence from drugs and alcohol, covering cigarettes, caffeine, prescription medication, casual sex, and even animal rights and anti-fascism (as a response to the growing number of white power groups finding an audience through punk music). In certain circles, the straight edge philosophy became so dogmatic that straight edgers who went back to drug or alcohol abuse after vowing not to (or who “broke edge”) were at best ostracized and at worst physically beaten.
Similarly, some non-straight edge fans objected to the straight edge movement, considering the sanctimoniousness of the idea symptomatic of the popular culture that hardcore punk was fighting so strongly against.
Inevitably, incidents of violence arose; some straight edge fans slapped cigarettes and beers out of people’s mouths while some non-straight edge fans attacked anyone they saw with the distinctive “X” marks. Fights often broke out at concerts, and it was not unheard of for straight edge fans being the ones who threw the first punch. The Fix quoted a writer as saying that straight edgers took their “hatred of drinkers” to very serious degrees. The drinkers were more than happy to respond in kind.
Hardline Straight Edge
In the 1990s, the straight edge subculture evolved beyond the punk music scene, as the anti-drinking mentality extended to other social and political issues that straight edge fans felt were applicable to their creed. In the same way that straight edge went from simply rejecting drug and alcohol consumption to (violently) pushing for total abstinence in punk music (with many straight edge bands making exclusively straight edge-themed music), some bands became more militant about their animal rights, anti-fascist, or anarchistic beliefs; one of them, Vegan Reich, released what was called the “Hardline Manifesto,” which strictly forbade the consumption of food based on animal products (“I was looking to start a militant animal liberation band,” said the lead singer) and sexual intercourse for anything but procreation (thereby adopting an anti-abortion and anti-LGBT platform) while advocating for “deep ecology.”
While previous generations of hardcore punk bands may have been content to have simply sung about the evils of a consumerist, capitalist world, the radical straight edge movement had no issue with using aggression and force to get their message out to the world, sometimes to the point of actively refusing to identify with the straight edge community that birthed them. They accused more “moderate” straight edge bands and fans of abandoning the core of the movement, and focusing more on (or just settling for) individual abstinence.
For this new wave of straight edge, rebelling against the mainstream world could mean raiding a mink farm to let captive animals free; it could also mean bombing stores that sold animal products, like fur coats or fast food.
With the change in focus came a change in locales. While still maintaining the punk image and aesthetic, the new wave of straight edge moved out of the clubs to the point where law enforcement and the media branded them “suburban terrorists.”
Straight Edge Gangs
Militant straight edge presented a unique problem for parents and police officers. Instead of having to worry about teenagers and young adults getting up to the usual troubles of intoxication, drug use, and inappropriate sexual behaviors, there was instead the legitimate concern of vandalism, arson, or even murder. The Denver Post writes of how a 15-year-old boy was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley, a move that led the FBI to classify straight edge bands and clubs as domestic terrorists. Local authorities (both in Salt Lake and Reno, Nevada) consider those groups to be gangs, a legal status that allows for harsher punishments.
Utah is a strange place for the militant straight edge movement to take hold, but the state’s strong conservatism resonates well with straight edge’s anti-drink-and-drug philosophy. For some, the staid conservatism is insufficient; one 19-year-old straight edger told the Los Angeles Times that he didn’t want to be a “good little Mormon boy,” choosing his straight edge beliefs over his parents’ concern that he was falling in line with gangs. The Metro Gang Unit of the Salt Lake City police department said that, like most gangs, the straight edge culture gave disenfranchised youth a sense of community and belonging, a feeling that may have been especially welcoming in a region with a heavy church influence. Under the guise of the straight edge core, the idea of a movement dedicated to doing “good” – fighting against drugs, animal cruelty, and fascism – gave the gangs a feeling of self-righteousness and supremacy, all the better to attack people and institutions who fell short of their standards.
In the mid-2000s, police claimed that a growing number of high school and street brawls, “sometimes directed at suspected drug dealers” or other people who didn’t agree with the straight edge cause, were linked to local straight edge groups. The violence had all the hallmarks of typical gang warfare, including shootings, beatings, and car chases, the latter of which “involved at least 20 straight edge members who used baseball bats and a crowbar to destroy a rival’s car.”
Local police were mystified as to why, of all the places that militant straight edge could have taken hold, it was Salt Lake City. The effects, however, were clear; punk bands from other cities refused to tour Salt Lake City, a decision that seemed justified when a group of straight edge fans attacked non-straight edge bands at two concerts in 2005. A show by Earth Crisis (“one of the most influential bands in the hardcore movement“) had to be stopped five times because of the fights that kept breaking out.
The Backlash to the Backlash
The straight edge scenes in other cities and states disavowed any connection to what was taking place in Utah, as did animal rights organizations, who feared that the violence used by militant straight edgers would tarnish the overall goals of the idea.
Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat himself criticized the fierceness and cruelty that the new generation of straight edge fans demonstrated against people and businesses that were “not edge,” claiming that the “very tiny minority” of straight edge (“a few bad apples,” in the words of Karl Buechner, the frontman of Earth Crisis) who use the philosophy of being straight edge in toxic and violent ways have other problems, and the only way they can express those problems is by using straight edge as a “convenient” vehicle. Most straight edgers, MacKaye said, are comfortable with how they live and see no need to violently make the world bend to their way, something he called “absurd.”
MacKaye has gone to great lengths to distance himself from some elements of the larger straight edge culture, saying in a 2011 interview that it would be hypocritical for him to use his straight edge beliefs to tell other people “you’re not living correctly.” While still espousing his straight edge beliefs (MacKaye refuses to give interviews to publications that make money off alcohol and cigarette advertisements), he objects to the idea that straight edge is a “movement.” As he put it, “a movement would contradict the sentiment.”
Extremism in Defense of Virtue
MacKaye is not alone in his rejection of the more violent side of straight edge culture; many straight edge bands and groups have stated that the gangs don’t speak for them or for the larger straight edge philosophy. The problem, they say, lies more with police and the media misunderstanding how the movement works. Karl Buechner of Earth Crisis told Exclaim! that even though straight edge culture has existed for over two decades, “the only time people come out with their cameras and microphones is when something’s gone wrong.” When violence does happen, it is more often than not perpetuated by non-straight edge fans who object to the abstinence lifestyle.
But there still remains tension within the straight edge subculture on how to stand up for its values in an increasingly commercialized and consumerist world. In a movement based on “extremism in defense of virtue,” some bands (and the fans who follow them) still see the world as their enemy. At a show by Cherem, a band that calls itself “Vegan Straight Edge Hardcore,” the Denver Post noted a fan wearing a t-shirt that read “I believe in the use of violence to achieve animal liberation.” A pioneer of the Salt Lake City straight edge scene praised fans for being “people living a completely healthy [drug-free] lifestyle,” but also for “taking action” and “stepping up to the plate” to do something about the evils and wrongs they saw in the world.
The tension is reflected in there being “two sides of the straight edge culture,” in the words of Boston.com: the fans of punk music who live clean, healthy lives (some who advocate for social justice causes, some who don’t) and the fans of punk music who use violence against every social convention that runs contrary to their lifestyle. Some fans and bands fall in the middle, or so they claim; they reject being called suburban terrorists, but make it clear that they will “defend” themselves and their community from antagonists. Pete Kowalski of the band Remembering Never dismissed the idea that straight edgers start fights, but said that if a non-edger were to be assaulted for smoking, “I can’t feel bad; they shouldn’t be smoking in the first place […] if you’re going to hurt people [because of secondhand smoke], you’re going to get hurt yourself.”
An eighth grader from suburban Boston had the last word in a National Geographic documentary on the straight edge movement, saying that while “we’re not going to go out and kill people,” he (and his straight edge peers) had no tolerance for drug use.
Modern Straight Edge
Despite the conflicts, the straight edge movement still exists today, counting adherents beyond the hardcore punk music world. MMA fighters and Major League Baseball players show off the distinctive X marks on their tattoos or pitching gloves. Even bands that still play hardcore punk have shifted away from the infamously “in-your-face approach,” like the aptly named Good Clean Fun, who are “making a conscious effort to bring it back a bit.” The band Throwdown, who were much more bellicose when they formed in the late 1990s, have since refocused their attention on the problems within the hardcore scene.
Vice magazine’s Germany branch profiled a number of young people who made the individual choice to be sober because of negative experiences with alcohol, a family history of addiction, or simply a personal preference. Like Ian MacKaye noting a disturbing trend, these people also object to how heavy drinking has become an expectation in their social circles (especially in Germany where the right to drink is considered as natural as the right to vote), and base their straight edge lifestyle as a demonstration of self-respect. While this does not take on the form of hardline straight edge, it is a very clear line in the sand. A 24-year-old man told the magazine that his straight edge beliefs determined the compatibility of romantic partners.
In many ways, straight edge has changed, especially as the bands and fans who ushered the culture in have grown older. Facing financial troubles, divorce, and relationship problems, and some struggling with mental health or simply not being angry at the world anymore, many early straight edgers “broke edge” with no consequence. A writer for The AV Club attended a straight edge reunion show and noted that “almost everyone in the crowd was holding a can of beer.”
The Aging Edge
The lead singer for Throwdown opined to Exclaim! that “for many people, straight edge no longer makes sense as they age.” The younger fans are, the more acutely they feel the need to identify with the culture; they wear straight edge shirts every day, listen to nothing but straight edge music, and feel personally insulted when they see someone smoking or having a drink. Having a community “makes those potentially difficult years a little easier.” But when those difficult years are in the past, being straight edge assumes less importance.
Indeed, Vice magazine suggested that with more and more people moving on from the straight edge world, perhaps straight edge is less about supporting the idea of sobriety (or animal rights) and “more about finding an identity.” A former straight edger said that people in their 30s don’t make a point about being straight edge as much as they “just adopt a sober lifestyle.” The difference, he feels, is maturity; the younger a person is, the more that person looks for peers, a place in the world, a value system that they identify with; on the other hand, “you don’t need to do that as an adult.”
Nonetheless, the straight edge message is still very strong in the hardcore punk world, perhaps made even stronger by the old guard’s softening. The now-defunct “vegan straight edge” band Gather released songs that criticized fans (and other bands) for not fighting against the system, angrily condemning the idea that simply being straight edge would accomplish anything. In the announcement of the band’s dissolution, lead singer Eva Genie wrote that “until this entire civilization is in ruins, the struggle continues.”
Despite all the changes and upheavals, straight edge culture has never fully left the building. Substance abuse and issues of animal rights, fascism, and consumerism remain significant concerns in the world, and hardcore punk’s core ideology of rebellion (whether lyrical or violent) will always give the disgruntled a community and philosophy they can believe in. Whether they continue to hold these beliefs as they grow older is a question to which no one has the answer.