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I’ve got the straight edge, and excess ain’t rebellion.

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Straight edge has an odd series of myths about it. But what is it, anyway? It really stems back to Teen Idles, the predecessor to Minor Threat. When Teen Idles went on tour, they were all under drinking age, and this meant that they ended up with large x’s marked on the top of their hands to show that they were under 21 (an idea introduced to them by a show in California). On their last show, the band brought the idea up to the manager of the famous 9:30 Club in DC. In exchange for letting them play, they would have the club mark the hands of those under 21 with x’s; kids with the x’s on their hands caught drinking could, Teen Idles said, be banned from the club forever. The club’s management agreed. Perhaps unwittingly, the band made being underage and sober cool. It led to a backlash against the backlash of excess.

Minor Disturbance

Ian MacKaye, Teen Idles’ guitarist and main songwriter, described what motivated him to write lyrics that opposed the party lifestyle: “When I became a punk, my main fight was against the people who were around me — friends. …I said, God, I don’t want to be like these people, man. I don’t fit in at all with them.’ So it was an alternative.”

Feelings like this would inspire MacKaye’s later band, Minor Threat, to expound on the idea of a more chaste and self-disciplined lifestyle. Penning songs like Out of Step (With the World) (“I Don’t smoke / Don’t Drink / Don’t Fuck / At least I can fucking think / I can’t keep up / Can’t keep up”) and the song Straight Edge itself, MacKaye treated Minor Threat almost like a personal journal (he wrote many of Minor Threat’s songs while at work and as commentary on the society he saw around him), expressing his distaste for excess.

Where my opinions start to come in here is with the song Out of Step itself. Out of Step lays out what the first wave of straight edge was (a movement MacKaye has later said he did not intend to start). It has nothing to do with avoiding caffeine or abstaining from all sex, as MacKaye himself was known for drinking Coke frequently and the term “fuck” is being used to speak of promiscious, dishonest sex — not sex itself. Straight edge was not meant to become a fanatical movement, or even a movement at all. It was not meant to become the radical militant vegan straight edge (also known as hardline) that has led to gang violence and fascist ideologies.

As a personal opinion, I adhere to a non-promiscuous sex life and a drug and alcohol free life. I do not, however, treat it like a manifesto (I would not call myself straight edge because of the very negative associations with it). I don’t shove it in people’s faces, and I do not advocate violence in the name of it.

Criticism of straight edge, I think, should be directed more at hardline movements, which openly declare violence in the name of “animal liberation” to be fine, while condemning homosexuality, abortion, and, oddly, masturbation as abhorrent. Straight edge itself, old school straight edge, should be seen more as a mild version of something like a monk’s ascetic values. It should be about self-improvement, not about hassling other people and behaving like a hooligan. If we go back to MacKaye again, part of his rebellion against his friends was because of their hooliganism. I admit I am not unbiased here, but there has been a cult-like status built up around straight edge that needs to be torn down. It just plain wasn’t meant to be a fascist ideology. It was one young guy’s commitment to himself because of the confusion he felt as a teenager. It’s been bastardized and, honestly, murdered, because of hardline groups and misconceptions around it.

I realize there is a very puritanical connotation to straight edge, and that some people are bizarrely fanatical about it, but like with a lot of things related to music, there’s been a massive misunderstanding; a communications breakdown!

So what about the scenester aspect of it? The more pop culture, “hip” side of straight edge that attracts kids into fashioncore and metalcore bands is accused of being done solely for attention, friends, and looking cool. I find this accusation ironic (though often true), because the people making it always fail to mention how binge drinking, pot smoking, and gas huffing (okay, I kid on that last part… maybe?) are done to be cool as well. It is far easier, however, I think, to succumb to what is a larger population of people in the teen world (partiers, druggies, drinkers, and those into hook ups) than it is to actively say no to these things. While I’m normally the last person in the world to defend scenesters, I have to say that it is much more popular and cool to give into drugs, alcohol, and cheap lays than it is to say no, simply because that’s what so many other people are doing. The scene is excess and materialism and consumerism, the scene is not being yourself, because being yourself is individualism and free-thought. Individualism just can’t be a trend due to its inherent nature. As an individual, you may like to have the occasional drink, you may not. But when you indulge in consumerism and excess for the sole purpose of being cool, you sever your ties to the concept of the individual (and of course, the same is true for being straight edge “just to be cool”).

Oddly enough, the music that turned me on to this sort of concept wasn’t by a hardcore band or some fascist skinhead band (ew). The band was Cake, and the song was Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle. At the time I heard it, when I was 14 or so years old, I was unfamiliar with straight edge. I just enjoyed its message of individuality, anti-excess, and anti-consumerism. The line “excess ain’t rebellion” has always spoken to me, for some reason. It doesn’t mean it has to mean anything to anyone else, but to me, it really stuck out because of things that were going on in my life at the time.

So there you have it: my .o2 on straight edge. Hopefully this didn’t appear ridiculously preachy, because that was not how it was intended! Be yourselves; that’s all that matters.

For more information:
alt.punk.straight-edge sXe FAQ
Hardline, on Wikipedia (a good resource for information on ‘8os straight edge, Youth Crew, etc)
National Geographic on straight edge here and here.


Written by M

May 31, 2008 at 6:38 pm

Posted in Commentary

One Response

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  1. Great history lesson.

    Jacob Z

    June 1, 2008 at 1:00 am

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