No Drugs, No Drink, No Problem—Straight Edge Then and Now

No Drugs, No Drink, No Problem—Straight Edge Then and Now

By Laura Barcella 07/09/14

The 80's hardcore scene devoted to clean living is alive and well. And loud.

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“I see substance abuse as a very mainstream activity,” says Ian MacKaye, DC’s legendary frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi. We’re talking about the birth of the straight edge scene, and he’s explaining why he decided to start speaking—er, singing? barking?—out against the notion that punk rock must always be drug-addled and debaucherous. It doesn’t, of course—nothing does—hence the straight edge subculture.

Too young (or cool) to remember it? Here’s a primer: Straight edge is a clean-living youth movement that evolved from punk rock’s hardcore scene in the early ‘80s (if you’re into this stuff, it might be helpful to know that MacKaye founded Dischord Records way back in 1980). Through records, shows, zines, documentaries, books, and more, the slowly growing straight edge (or “sXe”) masses encouraged their fans—and friends—to adopt the “straight” lifestyle that was at the heart of the movement: no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, and, for many, no promiscuous sex.

Of course, like any group where young men are overrepresented – think the military, professional sports, fraternities – straight edge did (and still does) sometimes include dudes behaving badly.

Nearly every ethos promoted and adopted by the sXe scene was in direct opposition to its usual treatment in the punk world; in some ways, straight edge was a direct middle-finger to the idea that “real” punk must be dark and hedonistic. Ian MacKaye remembers being surrounded by that lifestyle growing up as a teenager in the ‘70s: “There was a pervasive amount of substance abuse - very public substance abuse,” he says.

A disappointed MacKaye watched his friends turn to dope and drinking by age 13. “As a high school kid, I remember thinking that if the only [path] to rebellion was self-destruction, then that’s a wash for them,” he says, noting that part of what he loved most about punk was the delight it took in deviating from the mainstream.

MacKaye’s lack of interest in “partying”—indeed, his belief that partying was generally self-destructive—was one of the themes that sparked the influential Minor Threat song he wrote, called Straight Edge (“I'm a person just like you/but I've got better things to do/than sit around and smoke dope/because I know that I can cope/Always gotta keep in touch/never wanna use a crutch/I’ve got the straight edge.”) In the song, MacKaye spoke out against substances as well as what he calls conquest-ual sex, aka “boys trying to fuck every girl they could because they had issues.” He continues, “I still think that a huge amount of substance abuse is directly connected to [people’s] sexual inhibitions, but using alcohol and drugs to make intimate connections can lead to destructive relationships or interactions.”

Despite MacKaye having officially coined the term “straight edge,” he doesn’t—and never has—identified as part of that scene. “I stand behind the song, but it wasn't intended to be a movement,” he says. Whatever it was intended to convey, though, the song neatly encapsulated many of the ideals that began to drive the burgeoning sXe scene.

And soon it wasn’t just MacKaye decrying the use of brain-foggers. Eschewing substances was, for many straightedge bands (see Youth of Today, Insted, Chorus of Disapproval, and Judge) and their fans, the ultimate act of resistance to the rampant consumerism that defined—and still defines—American culture.

Shawna Kenney, an LA-based writer and former straight edge devotee, still chooses to forgo alcohol and drugs today. Kenney grew up in the DC area and began to embrace the movement in high school. “I grew up in a household of smokers, with alcoholism in my extended family,” she remembers. And, like MacKaye, she says, “The idea that rebelling against [that stuff could be] a ‘punk thing,’ was so cool to me.”

But didn’t she miss getting messed up? Isn’t high school kind of considered a free-for-all “let’s go overboard with rabid experimentation” age? Not for Kenney, who says, “I had other straight edge friends and we kind of made fun of the ‘checking out/getting fucked up’ mentality. Sometimes I’d get a little jealous of how quickly people seemed to bond [when] high or drunk, but I knew that just wasn’t me.”

Ross Haenfler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi and author of Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean Living Youth, and Social Change, got heavily involved with the sXe scene beginning around 1988-1989, and he echoes Kenney’s sentiment. “Realizing that I could be ‘cool’ and not drink, that I could have a community that rejected most measures of popularity, was a life-changing moment,” he says.

Also life-changing for many kids was straight edge’s focus on activism and social justice. As Haenfler recalls, “Straight edge not only turned me on to the exploitive cigarette and alcohol companies ... It also turned me on to animal rights and honed the interests I already had in women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and DIY culture.”

Speaking of women’s rights, it’s well-documented that not many women participated in the straight edge scene—or at least attended its shows—in the early days. Whether that was because they just weren’t into it or because they felt unwelcome is anyone’s guess. But Shawna Kenney, for one, says she never felt like an outsider. “There were definitely not a lot of women at shows in the ‘80s,” she admits. But “[I] had many male friends and played an active role in our scene, so I never felt unwelcomed - maybe just underrepresented in some ways.” And she’s quick to note that many sXe bands had feminist lyrics and politics - “it just took a while for people to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

Like Kenney, Ross Haenfler wasn’t alone in his sXe-fueled celebration of more politically progressive beliefs, especially when it came to the animal front. Vegetarianism and veganism grew into a fairly major theme throughout the scene in the ‘90s (some folks name Youth of Today's 1988 song "No More" as the catalyst for that). But did all sXe kids automatically go vegan? Was someone considered “fake-edge” if they decided to keep eating meat? Nope, just a misconception—and one of many.

Another popular myth? That straight edge is a violent movement (one confused user helpfully explained on Yahoo Answers: “Straight edge was a movement based around fitness and beating up drug addicts and drunks”). Of course, like any group where young men are overrepresented—think the military, professional sports, fraternities—straight edge did (and still does) sometimes include dudes behaving badly. Haenfler recalls a radio interview in which the DJ “asked me during an on-air interview if I had ever ‘curbed’ someone—stomped on someone’s head on a street curb. I was like, ‘Really?’”

Though Haenfler’s research has shown that the vast majority of straight edgers have no penchant for violence, there are smaller, more aggro, more intolerant (think abundant sexism, homophobia, and racism) sXe subsections. One of the more disturbing offshoots is a straight edge branch of racist skinheads. As one user calling himself “Aryan_Pride_88” wrote on the white-supremacist Web forum Stormfront.org, “I am ... a proud straightedge skinhead. There are more of us around than you think. The mainstream straight edge scene isn’t very vegan or spiritual-friendly either, it’s mainly based around hardcore shows and fist fights.”

But Jason Heller, a writer in Denver who loved straight edge bands as a teenager, agrees with Haenfler’s assertion that it is is usually harmless ... to a point. “For the most part, the straight edge scene is and always has been made up of very cool, decent people who are attracted to that lifestyle for their own reasons,” Heller concedes. But he does remember witnessing sXe kids who could get intense—even wrathful—when other members of the movement decided to “break edge” (i.e., began drinking or using). They could be “borderline militant about their hatred of drinkers,” he says, “I know former straight edge people who have gotten beaten up, even put in the hospital, for breaking their edge.”

And naturally a significant number of people did eventually “break edge”—like most youth-driven cultural scenes, not everyone who subscribed to straightedge back then stayed involved, especially as they grew older. Heller, who hadn’t had a drink since age 15, decided to try drinking at age 27. At first, the feeling of discovery was “exhilarating,” he recalls. “I felt like I’d been walking around holding [my] breath for twelve years, and finally I had given myself permission to breathe.”

But alcoholism runs in Heller’s family, and soon his experience with booze began to go sour. “I’d always battled anxiety and depression, and [drinking only] made things worse, while [simultaneously] giving me the impression ... that it was helping,” he says. He went on to give up drinking for a second time before eventually allowing himself to drink moderately in his late thirties. He’s no longer involved with straight edge, though he’s still vocal about his love for some of the bands of yore.

So what happens when, like Heller, sXers grow out of it? Do they grow out of it? Sure, some of them. Though there’s still a straight edge scene today, it doesn’t look much like the movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Haenfler, for one, claims the culture is still thriving, though, especially in other parts of the world. “Right now, I’d say straight edge is a vibrant global subculture,” he says. “Germany’s WOLFxDOWN are very popular—with a woman vocalist no less ... a rarity.”

And just like any other underground music culture, the movement goes through both growth spurts and patches of stagnation. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what the future of sXe will hold. We just hope it keeps proving that sobriety doesn’t have to suck, that you can be a freak and have fun without picking up or “selling out.”

Laura Barcella has been a regular contributor since 2011. She recently wrote about love addiction and secret sober pot smokers.