Prof. Ross Haenfler – professor of Sociology at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. Ross is the author of Subcultures books.
When Washington, D.C., hardcore punk band published the song “Straight Edge” in 1981, they could not have anticipated spawning a global subculture that persists forty years later. This 46-second punk song written by an unknown 19-year-old in an obscure band and meant for a tiny scene continues to inspire people to abstain from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and “conquest” sex. Minor Threat did not have (and did not want!) the backing and promotion of a major label; vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson operated Dischord Records out of their house, hardly knowing what they were doing; they were DIY (Do It Yourself) out of necessity as much or more than some ideological commitment. The first pressing was 1000 records, the first four pressings totaling 5000. Radio DJs were not lining up to play “Straight Edge” and even if the band had made a music video for the newly emerging MTV, the channel would not have aired it. The record came out over ten years prior to the widespread adoption of the internet, when punks still wrote each other letters and bought ‘zines, records, and tapes through the mail. And, straight edge dared question drinking, drugs, and sex, the supposed hallmarks of youth rebellion. Yet somehow the music and message spread, resonating and persisting across the world. “Straight edge” has long since transcended its origins as a punk song from a US scene, with participants in Brazil and Argentina, Sweden and Germany, Israel and Russia, Japan and Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and nearly every other country.
Straight edge raises a variety of questions related to subcultural meaning making: How do subcultures emerge and articulate ideas in response to something missing or unsatisfying in their cultural context? After emergence (which is itself a process, not a moment), how do new meanings diverge from initial understandings? In other words, how do participants contest, challenge, and reinterpret early meanings, unsettling the scene’s origin story as they respond to new circumstances? And finally, given divergent meanings across time and place, how do some subcultures persist over time, while others fade into obscurity?
I have studied straight edge in a variety of contexts since 1996 as a participant observer (Haenfler 2006). In that time, I have conducted dozens of in-depth interviews, listened to hundreds of records, scoured lyric sheets, and attended over 100 hardcore shows featuring straight edge bands. Additionally, I conducted a survey of approximately 900 straight edgers and created an archive of social media posts. My approach is thus a multi-sited ethnography, including digital ethnography, through which I seek to understand the emergent meanings and experiences from participants’ point of view. I coded and analyzed data using a grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2014), guided by symbolic interactionist understandings of meaning making. Meaning – the purpose, understanding, or significance of a thing – emerges from how we respond to or make use of that thing (Mead 1934). In other words, the meanings of social objects, practices, and texts are neither inherent nor fixed but created by humans in interaction. Humans act towards things on the basis of their constructed meanings rather than passively perceiving the world “as it is” (Blumer 1969). Likewise, meanings change through an interpretive process; meanings are social, learned, contested, modified, and always plural. As a long-standing global subculture, straight edge provides an ideal case-study in which to study meaning making.
Emergence – Origin stories
If “Straight Edge” gave the subculture its name, the song “Out of Step” (1983) provided its credo: “(I) Don’t smoke, (I) Don’t drink, (I) Don’t Fuck, At least I can fucking think.” MacKaye tired of the incessant social pressures to drink, including from punk peers who opposed “mainstream” society. For MacKaye, being “straight” – abstaining from drugs and alcohol – gave him an “edge” over people who went through life intoxicated; clean-living enabled people to achieve their goals without those distractions. Abstention was a personal choice and an assertion of autonomy. The ‘X’ that would become the movement’s symbol emerged from venue owners’ practice of marking under age kids’ hands with a large X to signal bartenders not to serve them alcohol. Yet, soon punks marked their own hands with the X to signal their defiance to alcohol culture and their allegiance to the straight edge identity. The symbol gained further prominence via the image of a punk with Xs on his hands on a record cover of MacKaye’s previous band the Teen Idles.
Even if MacKaye and his comrades did not intend to generate a subculture, the notion that one could be a punk without intoxicants quickly took hold in scenes across the US (Reno, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, etc.) and soon the world. Boston band SSD and, later, New York’s Youth of Today transformed straight edge from a personal choice into a movement, actively displaying Xs and singing about the virtues of a drug-free life. Over time, straight edgers framed abstinence as resistance to alcohol and tobacco companies that profit from people’s suffering, often deliberately targeting minors. Many straight eders had negative personal or family experiences with alcohol or drug abuse, so they used the identity to highlight the personal and social harms of substance use and abuse. Others believed that alcohol culture blunts broader resistance to the status quo. A deceptively simple slogan, found on t-shirts and in the Uniform Choice song “No Thanks” (1986) professed, “It’s OK not to drink.”
By the mid-1980s, widely-shared meanings of straight edge evolved, with many practitioners believing that the decision to “claim” edge meant a lifetime commitment to abstinence and that any transgression, even one sip of alcohol, forfeited any claim to the identity. Not even a drink to celebrate a birthday or to bring in the new year. Persistent adherents labeled those who began using as “sellouts” who “broke edge.” Staying “true” to the identity preoccupied many straight edgers as some of their forebears moved on. Chain of Strength wondered in the song “True Till Death” (1989), “Has the edge gone dull?” This stark, no-exceptions attitude seemingly provided a shared, clear, uncontested value system, despite MacKaye’s declaration on a re-recording of “Out of Step” that “this [straight edge] is not a set of rules.”
Yet even then straight edge began taking on meanings in addition to abstinence. For many, straight edge became part of a more generalized resistance to perceived dominant norms (Haenfler 2006). This resistance implied meanings shared amongst many subculturists, in many scenes: there are outside forces compelling us to live our lives in ways that are unhealthy, for ourselves and for our communities; and what we do as individuals matters, to ourselves and to our larger social worlds. Our choices can make a difference, as captured in the Insted song “We’ll Make the Difference” (1989).
Straight edge demonstrates that subcultures do not emerge in a singular moment or place, perfectly original and fully formed. While straight edge takes its name from a song published at a specific point in time, the subculture coalesced over a period of years and in several places, drawing upon the previously established punk and hardcore ethos. Moreover, the meanings and practices associated with the identity, while seemingly clear and sacrosanct to many, varied (Wood 2006). As the “youth crew” era of the ‘80s and early ‘90s wound down, those meanings would diverge in many directions, showing that straight edge “unity” was more an aspiration than a reality.
Divergence – Contested meanings
Many contemporary straight edgers insist that the meanings of straight edge are clear, consistent, and even obvious, handed down from a previous generation for whom abstinence was absolute and (ostensibly) a one-chance, lifetime commitment. Yet meanings are always contested, even those that at first glance seem unquestionable and widely-shared. Early straight edgers were often less rigid in their understanding of the identity, less concerned with “selling out” and boundary making. They were punk first, edge second, and many were suspicious of the moralizing undertone of straight edge. However, new subcultural and historical circumstances prompted adjustments, and charismatic subcultural entrepreneurs brought fresh perspectives to the scene, as they do for any subculture that lasts.
In the early ‘90s, straight edge bands increasingly incorporated politics into their music (Peterson 2007). This trend continued into the middle of the decade when a trio of bands on Victory Records – Strife, Snapcase, and Earth Crisis – became immensely popular with a heavy metal-influenced sound. Earth Crisis, especially, gained legendary status, advocating an uncompromising message of veganism and animal liberation packaged in bandanas, camouflage trousers, and sports-team jerseys. Increasing numbers of straight edgers became vegan; by the late 2010s, over half practiced a vegetarian or vegan diet (Haenfler n.d.). However, even as Earth Crisis invigorated a political consciousness, a rift developed between “positive” and so-called “militant” straight edge. The former took a laissez faire attitude, leading by example, while the latter was more confrontational. Militant edge had an undeniably hypermasculine tone, attracting a variety of heavily-muscled “tough guys” who resembled the athletic “jock” stereotype that earlier punks had often despised (Mullaney 2012). “Crews” – groups of mostly male-identifying straight edgers who expressed their loyalty to one another through tattoos and other shared symbols – became known for their intimidating presence at shows and, occasionally, for their violence (Purchla 2011). This crude split between positive and militant straight edgers exposed rifts in the scene, prompting some participants to abandon the identity, if not always the lifestyle, while attracting others drawn to the hypermasculine image.
Yet subcultural meanings are never static, and just as Earth Crisis disbanded (temporarily) in 2001, a new generation of bands made their mark on straight edge. From 2002-2009, Massachusetts band Have Heart brought an introspective and welcoming attitude to straight edge hardcore, making an enormous impact on the global scene. By the 2010s, the ubiquity of social media made the identity more accessible, enabling people to even more easily discover straight edge and connect with likeminded peers. However, these platforms also allowed for renewed debate around the meanings of straight edge.
One point of fierce contention is whether straight edge must be connected to hardcore. Increasingly, participants have adopted the label or have had the label thrust upon them without knowing its roots in punk and hardcore. Debates rage on Facebook and Instagram, between purists who staunchly believe straight edge is inseparable from punk and pragmatists who celebrate that the identity has spread beyond the scene. For example, popular straight edge professional wrestler CM Punk introduced some adherents to the idea.
While hardcore had been and remains the primary gateway into straight edge for most participants, the identity – or at least the term – has long since escaped the confines of punk. “Straight edge” has increasingly become synonymous with “sobriety,” much to the chagrin of adherents more rooted in hardcore. Some people unconnected to hardcore claimed straight edge as part of their recovery from addiction. Nearly all straight edgers celebrate others’ sobriety and recovery, but most also seek a clear delineation between straight edge and being “drug free.” Again, this debate raises questions about the meaning(s) of straight edge; is straight edge simply an adjective describing anyone who does not drink, smoke, or do drugs, or is it a subculture with countercultural motivations? A variety of my participants reported being drug-free prior to claiming straight edge, sometimes before even knowing of the subculture’s existence. Other people may apply the label to them, leading them to research the subculture on their own.
Also up for debate is whether straight edge is a one-chance, lifetime opportunity. Can people slip up, make a mistake, or begin drinking for a while after claiming edge and then “re-claim” edge once they stop again? An old straight edge slogan attests, “If you’re not now, you never were.” But not everyone accepts this. Repeatedly claiming and “breaking” edge may be nearly universally condemned, but some participants can rationalize a one-time “break” while others cannot. Is strict adherence to the code more important than the practical outcome of someone not using and wanting to claim the identity?
The growing legalization of medicinal cannabis in the United States raises further questions. Asked to explain the “no drugs” tenet of straight edge, most participants would qualify that drugs, in this case, constitute illegal drugs used for recreational purposes. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin, MDMA/ecstasy, opioids, and so on. But can one still claim straight edge while using medicinal cannabis products if prescribed by a doctor? Or psilocybin, the hallucinogen component in magic mushrooms, to treat mental illness under the supervision of a mental health professional? Opinions vary.
So what is at stake? While these debates about meaning may seem trivial to outsiders or overly particular to straight edge, they highlight conflicts present in many if not most subcultures. Who belongs? What must one do to belong? Who is an authentic participant, who is a poseur? What are the boundaries around identity? If anything goes and there is no shared definition of the situation, a subculture may not be a subculture. If subcultures become a rigid application of rules, they risk becoming even more exclusive and unwelcoming, mirroring the very institutions they intend to resist. As straight edge has persisted and knowledge of the subculture has spread, these ongoing debates demonstrate how meaning-making in an ongoing process.
Persistence- Enduring meaning
Despite the very real conflicts over the meanings of straight edge, the power of a community that celebrates drug-free living continues speaking to new generations of young people around the world. Moreover, many straight edgers have persisted into their fifties and sixties, showing that participants do not necessarily grow up and out of the scene. Several factors contribute to the persistence of straight edge as a meaning system, factors that may be more or less present in other subcultures.
As I just alluded, straight edge has become an intergenerational subculture. While many, perhaps even most, youthful adherents eventually move away from the identity, enough have persisted to be able to share knowledge, experiences, and resources with newer participants. While these interactions are not without conflict, the bonds forged within and between cohorts, in local, global, and virtual scenes, offer support for subcultural meanings. Older straight edgers run record labels, book venues, moderate social media groups, and in some cases continue to play in bands. All of this contributes to the cultural infrastructure of straight edge as a meaning system.
Straight edge speaks to a powerful countercultural desire, but is also compatible with dominant meanings in important ways. Abstinence and self-control have strong religious roots in many cultures. That straight edgers’ most consistent message questions the more harmful aspects of drugs and alcohol may prompt some authorities to look past the tattoos, abrasive music, and connections to radical politics (Linnemann and McClanahan 2016). While straight edge can mean “radical sobriety” (Kuhn 2019), it may come off as fairly harmless or mundane as compared to more stigmatized subcultures. (Although many straight edgers do report facing stigma for their choices.)
The combination of flexible and rigid meanings I discussed above also contributes to the identity’s longevity. Adherents may incorporate other concerns and interests (e.g. animal rights, activism, anti-fascism, etc.) and tailor straight edge to their local contexts, while still sharing in a collective meaning system. That participants see some degree of clarity about the drug-free meaning of straight edge – even if they overestimate consensus – provides relative stability.
Finally, straight edge, and many other music-based subcultures, provide a powerful combination of music, message, and community. Live shows, especially, create a collective effervescence (Durkheim 1912), power powerful, collective, embodied feeling of togetherness which reminds individuals of their connection to something greater than themselves. Straight edge is embodied, interwoven into everyday life, combining self-actualization with social transformation. It can be a central reference point in adherents’ sense of self, or a peripheral choice that is just “who I am.” Either way, the music and the message bring people together, in embodied, virtual, and imagined community.
In this piece, I have used straight edge to demonstrate the power of subcultures in offering a lens through which participants interpret the world. I have shown that meaning making is an ongoing, interactional process; even when participants’ express certainty about core, or essential subcultural meanings, in practice those meanings are always negotiated and contested. The subcultural lens does not standardize or unify participants’ vision, but does provide some basis for shared meaning.
Accounting for the diversity of meanings in any subculture requires research methods that capture insider (emic) understandings from participants’ points of view. Ethnographic, participant observation has served me well in this regard. Combining interview, observational, and textual data allows for continual cross-checking, as I compare what people say to what they do. When possible, longitudinal study opens a window into how subcultural meanings shift and change, especially as participants age. Social media research will be crucial going forward, as will comparative work studying different locations.
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Durkheim, Émile. 1912 . The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Carol Cosman. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Haenfler, Ross. 2006. Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Kuhn, Gabriel. 2019. X: Straight Edge and Racial Sobriety. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Linnemann, Travis and Bill McClanahan. 2016. “From ‘Filth’ and ‘Insanity’ to ‘Peaceful Moral Watchdogs’: Police, News Media, and the Gang Label.” Crime, Media, Culture 13(3): 1-19.
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Mullaney, Jamie. 2007. “Unity Admirable but not Necessarily Heeded: Going Rates and Gender Boundaries in the Straight Edge Hardcore Music Scene.” Gender & Society 31(3):384-408.
Peterson, Brian. 2007. Burning Fight: The Nineties Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit, and Sound. Huntington Beach, CA: Revelation Records.
Purchla, Jeff. 2011. “The Powers That Be: Processes of Control in ‘Crew Scene Hardcore’.” Ethnography 12(2): 198-223.
Wood, Robert T. 2006. Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.