Straight edge is a subculture within the hardcore punk music scene, defined by its adherents' refusal to use drugs or alcohol. Abstinence from nicotine is also a prerequisite for "claiming edge" according to all but the loosest definitions. Those straight edgers who end up partaking of drugs and/or alcohol anyways are referred to as having "broken edge".
History and beliefs
“”"I'm a person just like you / But I've got better things to do / Than sit around and fuck my head / Hang out with the living dead / Snort white shit up my nose / Pass out at the shows / I don't even think about speed / That's something I just don't need / I've got the straight edge.
|—Minor Threat, "Straight Edge"|
The movement started in the early 1980s as a reaction against the drug and alcohol use prevalent in the punk scene, often by people who had turned to punk in the first place as a reaction against the drug and alcohol use prevalent among their Van Halen-addled high school peers and were not at all pleased to find the same self-destructive behaviors in the punk scene. The name comes from the 1981 song "Straight Edge" by the Washington, D.C.-based hardcore band Minor Threat, which denounces drug use. It inevitably produced a backlash in the form of the "bent edge" or "curved edge" scene, which saw straight edgers as rigid and intolerant and openly embraced the "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle. Ian MacKaye, the frontman of Minor Threat and essentially the founding father of straight edge, remarked that his learning about bent edge was the moment that he realized that straight edge had become a movement.
Straight edge took off nationally in the mid-late '80s on the back of the "youth crew" movement, a New York- and California-based hardcore punk scene characterized by optimism and moralism that embraced straight edge. In the '90s, veganism, animal rights, and social justice also emerged as pillars of large swaths of the straight edge movement, while others also added sexual abstinence and the avoidance of coffee and prescription drugs to the list of requirements. The movement is no longer as big as it was in the '90s, but it continues to chug along with a diehard core of followers, experiencing periodic waves of revival and decline in the underground punk scene.
The letter X became a symbol of straight edge. The origin of this was clubs which marked the hands of those who were underage with the letter X, indicating they were too young to be served alcohol. The tradition started in 1980, when the Washington, D.C.-based band The Teen Idles did a tour on the West Coast only to find themselves barred from entering the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco due to all the band's members being under 21; as a compromise, the club management marked their hands with X's, an idea that Ian MacKaye (then a member of the band) brought back to the East Coast. Straight edgers began showing up at clubs with the letter X already on their hands, indicating that they too didn't want any alcohol. A variant on this is sXe (se for straight edge), which does not mean "sexy". Another variant is XXX, which is, ironically, also a well-known symbol of pornography and alcohol (especially moonshine).
Starting in the '90s, there were notable instances of straight edgers taking it upon themselves to take "direct action" against drugs and alcohol in the punk scene. As a result of the rise of militant straight edge, law enforcement in number of cities (most notably in Salt Lake City, Utah, a hotbed of the militant wing) came to treat straight edge as a gang. Bizarre — the police want kids to say no to drugs and alcohol, but when a group of kids comes along who takes the anti-drug message of D.A.R.E. to its logical conclusion, they are treated as a gang anyway. Fear of competition is a powerful force. Oddly, straight edgers are probably the only youth in Utah (Mormons included) who actually follow the Mormon "word of wisdom" concerning alcohol, tobacco, and coffee. You can't win, I guess. On a more serious note, some law enforcement officials also view the more political forms of straight edge as a gateway to ecoterrorism, due to the avowed support of some straight edgers for groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front.
There also exists a subset of neo-Nazis (mainly in Russia and Germany) who have latched onto straight edge, viewing "racial purity" as another component of "clean living". Needless to say, unlike many other straight edgers, they staunchly reject any identification with the left, the only left-wing ideas they'll associate with being of the third positionist sort.
Hardline was a particularly strange offshoot of the vegan branch of straight edge, which tacked on all of the following simultaneously: hard green biocentric views, animal rights, pacifism, a consistent life ethic, and opposition to abortion, homosexuality, cigarette smoking, and any sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Some of them also opposed masturbation and pornography, shunned chocolate and coffee (the latter of which is also frowned on by Mormons) due to them containing caffeine, avoided sugar and tropical fruits out of opposition to Third World agricultural labor practices (which extended to chocolate and coffee), opposed modern medicine, and expressed their across-the-board militancy on everything by wearing camouflage clothing. Hardline claimed both an Abrahamic foundation and syncretic influences from Eastern spiritual disciplines, such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. In effect, hardline synthesized the left-wing social justice politics, environmentalism, and "clean living" mainfesto of "mainline" vegan straight edge with a religious right sexual morality. Some of them took direct action against people they saw drinking, smoking, eating meat, or using drugs at hardcore shows, feeding into negative stereotypes of straight edgers.
Hardline had its origins with Sean Muttaqi, the frontman of a hardcore punk band called Vegan Reich — a name that pretty much sums it up. Vegan Reich were occasionally suspected of being a parody of straight edge along the lines of Crucial Youth, but they were quite serious, and were in fact espousing views more extreme than Crucial Youth in their heyday. In the '90s, Tennessee (particularly Memphis) and Massachusetts became the centers of gravity for hardline, the former mainly due to the influence of the Tennessee-based hardline band Raid, and in 1994 Muttaqi founded the record label Uprising Records to support hardline bands.
Muttaqi eventually converted to Sufism after years of interest in the Islamic faith, causing him to leave the movement while leaving his 'zine Vanguard (the main outlet promoting hardline) in the hands of his followers. Soon after, the movement fell into a purity spiral familiar to any observer of radical politics, and began to spurn the hardcore punk and straight edge scenes for being insufficiently activist. An attempt by a hardline group to establish a commune in Hawaii fell apart when they got into a dispute over whether or not cooking food was in line with the natural order. The movement's growing radicalization culminated in the formation of the "Hardline Central Committee" in 1998 to enforce ideological purity — a move that backfired when those who rejected its more extreme tenets realized that the movement had gone full-blown totalitarian and turned into a political cult, and abandoned hardline altogether for vegan straight edge and other, more moderate environmental and progressive activist movements. This left only a tiny core of hardliners (pun very much intended) who faded into irrelevance soon after; the Central Committee only lasted a year before it decided to vote itself out of existence.
In short, they were pretty much an unintentional parody of contemporary moral guardians and cultural critics on both ends of the spectrum, albeit born from the counterculture rather than railing against it from the outside. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that many of the leaders of the hardline movement eventually left the hardcore punk scene. Most other straight edgers considered "hardline" to be a huge embarrassment.
In the mid-'80s, Larry Pugliese, a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, sponsored a number of concerts in New York aimed at the city's punks and skinheads. As a result, the Hare Krishnas made inroads into the New York straight edge scene (albeit remaining very much a minority), producing an offshoot known as Krishnacore that eventually spread into the broader straight edge culture. (And you thought Christian rock could get insufferable...)
Speaking of, a Christian straight edge scene unsurprisingly emerged alongside the secular one. While many leading lights in the straight edge movement held organized religion in disdain (it's the "opiate of the masses", after all), the straight edge ethos concerning drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex meshed well with Christian morality, albeit rooted in a secular basis. As such, straight edge provided an outlet for many Christian teens in the '80s and '90s to take part in the punk counterculture and rebel against their parents' aesthetic tastes while still upholding their moral values. Straight edge has also become popular among Muslim youth in the US and Europe in the 2000s and '10s for similar reasons, as a way to engage in the counterculture and challenge both Islamophobia and the conservatism of their fellow Muslims without compromising religious morality. This Islamic offshoot of straight edge is known as "taqwacore" (taqwa being the Arabic term for piety).
- Crucial Youth, a 1987 spoof of straight edge bands, who took the fusion of hardcore punk and Boy Scout ethics deep into Poe's Law territory with such songs as "Positive Dental Outlook" (promoting brushing and flossing), "Put Litter In Its Place", and "Be Kind, Rewind" (promoting ethical returning of rental videotapes). Scroll to the middle for lyric sheet, complete with illustration of Mr. T saying no to PCP, and mp3 files, or go here for Crucial Youth comix, featuring safe moshing tips from Safety Squirrel.
- E.g. "Can you believe that Bob broke edge last night?" Cynics in the punk scene would describe this as more or less inevitable.
- "Straight Edge" by Minor Threat
- Kuhn, Gabriel (2010). Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics. PM Press. p. 37. ISBN 1-60486-051-0.
- CBS News' Eye on America covers straight edge and hardline radicalism in Salt Lake City, including an interview with a man who burned down a McDonald's out of sympathy with the ALF.
- Subcultures List: "Militant Straight Edge"
- How's Your Edge: "Nazi Punks... FUCK OFF!"
- The Hardline Manifesto
- Sanneh, Kelefa. "Vegan Jihad: A Conversation with Sean Muttaqi." Bidoun: issue 16.
- Here are some Vegan Reich lyrics, for more stupid than you ever thought imaginable.
- Helb, Colin. "Hare Krishnacore — An introduction to the most improbable punk subculture ever." The Vinyl Factory, 26 June 2015 (recovered 8 July 2016).
- Krueger, David M. "Straight Edge Religion: Hardcore Punk and the Sober Revolution." Marginalia, 17 March 2015 (recovered 8 July 2016).