"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 I don't even think about speed, that's something I just don't need, I've got the straight edge."
Those are the words of Ian Mackaye, frontman of the seminal Washington DC hardcore band Minor Threat, in 1981. The loud, pissed off 46-second track, which appeared on the band's eponymous debut 7", quickly took on a life of its own, and went on to become the anthem of an international movement.
Straight edge — abstinence from alcohol, drugs, nicotine, and in some cases promiscuous sex — is a self-imposed label that alienated young punks, nerds, and other outcasts have chosen for themselves for more than three decades, starting in the early 1980s and continuing through today. Straight edge kids are recognizable by the letter X, which is often emblazoned on their clothing or Sharpied on the backs of their hands. (It's a symbol adapted from the pre-wristband era, when doormen at bars and clubs flagged underage patrons by marking their hands with x's.)
Straight edge kids "x-ed up" with tattoos and marker in the 1990s. (PYMCA/Getty)
Straight edge was in many ways a response to the notoriously substance-addled punk culture of the 1970s. Punk, too, was a resistance movement, but its rebellion was laced with nihilism. And drugs. A lot of drugs. Many punks were angry but cynical, and sometimes indolent, expressing their hostility for mainstream culture through fashion and generalized acts of fuck-it-all recklessness or disobedience.
In a 2013 talk at the Library of Congress, Mackaye said, "[In the '70s] pretty much what I saw were just people getting high. In high school, I loved all my friends, but so many of them were just partying. It was disappointing that that was the only form of rebellion that they could come up with, which was self-destruction."
Many of the kids who started voluntarily "x-ing up" for punk and (mostly) hardcore shows actually were underage: clean-cut, mostly white high schoolers who were eager to cast off the overwhelming pressure from their peers — jocks and rebels alike — to drink themselves into oblivion on the weekends. Those with "the edge" saw their high or drunk classmates' compromised consciousness as unfortunate or stupid, not cool. Some even viewed substance use as a political issue, seeing inebriation as a sad form of unwitting complicity in a capitalist system that sought to control them. (Literal opiates are the opiate of the masses, in other words.)
But straight edge wasn't just an indictment of the sloppy hedonism of the punk scene or a reaction to the hell that is high school. It was also intended as a statement of radical possibility. "Always gonna keep in touch, never want to use a crutch," the Minor Threat song ends. Hundreds of bands, from Scranton to Stockholm, picked up where they left off.
"Drink it down say it's for the best, Bottle in the hand just like all the rest, Still you do it when you know it's wrong, But it's what's accepted so you feel strong" — Uniform Choice, "No Thanks"
Punk's rebellion was laced in substance abuse — a nihilism which straight edge refuted. (Robert Wallis/Getty)
Straight edge was about being awake to the world — both its injustices and the many choices we get to make, if we're lucky, to make it what we want it to be. Straight edge kids were energized not just by disavowing the status quo, but by building something positive, a supportive DIY ecosystem. "Posicore" or "youth crew"-era straightedge hardcore kids of the 1980s and 90s had that "PMA" (positive mental attitude): they were political, community-minded, and had energy to burn. They moshed a lot. They made zines — most local scenes made sure they had a guy at a copy shop willing to steal Xerox copies — started hardcore bands in their parents' garages, and went to high school parties and shows wearing T-shirts with messages like "It's OK Not to Drink." Particularly in its first 20 years, the straight edge scene found overlap with an array of social and political causes, namely environmentalism, animal rights, food justice, human rights, and women's rights.
Though straight edge was arguably born in cities like DC and New York, it grew up mostly in white, middle-class suburbs in regions like Southern California and upstate New York. Those were places where conformist mainstream culture was especially stultifying. They were also places of relative comfort and ease, where teenage boys could get their hands on music lessons, equipment, and mom's station wagon. In spite of passionate exhortations in zines and song lyrics to build an inclusive scene, American straight edge remained the province of the privileged.
As happens with most subcultures and social movements, the fundamentalist-minded among the straight edge youth branched off into various forms of militancy and insanity: "hardline" vegan straight edge kids in the 1990s got into radical animal liberation and deep ecology. A group of them even started a band called Vegan Reich, and advocated, in a gesture of seeming historical confusion, for "vegan jihad." Some preached about the sanctity of all life (like, including zygotes). Some started mini-gangs and brawled with non-straight edge or non-vegan people.
But these activities were peripheral, and controversial to those at the core of the 'core. Of course, like all adherents of clean-living movements, straight edge individuals could — hell, can — be moralizing and self-righteous. Many have criticized the straight edge movement for being puritanical and self-serious, and for serving as a platform for male aggression, violence, and intolerance.
Still, ask anyone who came of age in the straight edge hardcore scene what it did for them, and they're likely to tell you it saved their life. Those who've seen loved ones fall victim to addiction and its attendant miseries feel the scene spared them various forms of regret, anguish, or worse. More than that, it gave them something to believe in.