Straight Edge, the perfect anti-movement

By James Patrick Casey

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On the surface, the Straight Edge movement seems like a parody of itself; a counter-culture that grew out of the extravagance of earlier mainstream groups, and rejected everything from drugs to alcohol to eating meat, until the only thing excessive about members was that they were excessively restrained. But that term ‘members’ is a bit of a mistake, because this anti-everything movement is one of the most personal, internalised forms of self-definition to stem from music; in many ways, Straight Edge is the epitome of an anti-movement, a collection of ideas and values without a single, collective identity.

The movement is rooted in American hardcore punk. While the idea of rejecting drugs wasn’t particularly new in the early 1980s, it was given a name by Minor Threat’s 1981 song Straight Edge. Although the lyrics are aggressively anti-narcotics – ‘I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around, fuck my head, hang out with the living dead’ – they’re also deeply personal, opening with that repetition of ‘I’. This individual focus continues throughout the song, into the repeated line ‘I’ve gone Straight Edge’ that makes up the chorus, a lyrical quirk that unites the movement with the individual.

Even more tellingly, there’s not a direct link tying together Straight Edge bands across generations; after Minor Threat there was the brief Youth Crew scene in the mid-80s, but there hasn’t been a defined ‘Straight Edge scene’ since then. Compare this absence of identity to the breadth of the people affected by the movement – from Metallica frontman James Hetfield to wrestler CM Punk – and it’s clear that the emphasis of Straight Edge is on the individual, not the collective.

Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye said in the 2009 documentary Edge that ‘I should be concerned with what I do’, and this idea is echoed throughout the movement. I spoke briefly with Anti-Flag singer Justin Sane about being Straight Edge, and he said that he didn’t identify as Straight Edge, but he exercises moderation when drinking; there wasn’t any shame in this, or a sense of pleading failure, as if he had upset the other members of the movement by not adhering to their strict criteria. Straight Edge isn’t about fitting into a group, or following a bunch of rules to be admitted into this particular social clique, but improving one’s own life. Not in the sense that eating vegetables is inherently better than eating meat, but in living a life of consideration, and an awareness of one’s own body and what one does with it.

This is why bands like Rise Against have Straight Edge members, but no songs about the movement; it’s a personal choice that is perhaps not appropriate to be blasted through a microphone to a club full of people. Minor Threat were the necessary exception, to the trend they created so as to notify the world that this trend existed at all; and it’s become a beautifully silent trend. I have no Straight Edge friends; the forums on Straight Edge Worldwide are dead; there’s no Straight Edge society at my university, despite the existence of things like the Harry Potter society and the Ultimate Frisbee society.

And there doesn’t need to be. This movement stemmed from a rejection of mainstream decadence and indulgence, and has grown into an idea that is internalised and individual in a society where we’re under pressure to Tweet every thought, action and decision to each other. Straight Edge is the ultimate anti-movement, one that has distanced itself from mainstream idiocy for three decades, and one that paradoxically doesn’t need a following to have followers.

Photo: Nathan Congleton