'Straight edge' philosophy is fundamentally one of abstinence from a few things which 'the world' professes to find important, but which may actually be hindrances rather than necessities. Its basic principles were outlined in the lyrics below, written by the forefathers of the philosophy, the punk band Minor Threat.
(I) Don't smoke,
At least I can f**king think
Can't keep up
Can't keep up
Can't keep up
Out of step with the world.
- 'Out of Step (With the World)', Minor Threat
In 1980, a Washington DC hardcore punk band called Minor Threat released some music whose message and inspiration would begin a new movement in youth culture.
The punk scene was still taking off, and new bands continued the ideals of what they perceived British band The Sex Pistols to be about - anarchy, outrageousness, and self-destructive nihilism2. Meanwhile, US underground punk bands were busy getting very agitated about the wrongs of society and were literally screaming for change (The Dead Kennedys being a prime example).
This was brought to a new level when, instead of singing about the naughty naughty government and how unpleasant everybody is, Minor Threat's frontman, Ian MacKaye, chose to write songs about the pressures of youth culture. In the underground scene of Washington DC, he watched as kids mindlessly developed drug habits, beat each other up under the influence of excessive alcohol consumption, and sold their lungs to tobacco companies. He wanted out - which was also the general feeling conveyed by his previous band, the Teen Idles, in which he played bass.
I've Got the Helix3
On Minor Threat's first album was a song entitled 'Straight Edge', whose lyrics describe the band's approach to drugs. According to rock legend, the name for the band's choice of lifestyle came to their bass player as they were drawing a local promotional poster. He compared their 'no s**t' attitude to the straight edge of the ruler he was using. And lo, the term 'Straight Edge' was coined.
There is also another, equally uninteresting explanation for the term. Ian MacKaye originally wanted to call Minor Threat 'Straight' because he wanted to show how they were going to 'push' the band as far as possible. Instead, he just wrote a song called 'Straight Edge' which 'championed the individual'.
I'm a person just like you
But i've got better things to do
Than sit around and f**k my head
Hang out with the living dead
Snort white s**t up my nose
Pass out at the shows
I don't even think about speed
That's something I just don't need
I've got the straight edge
'Straight Edge', by Minor Threat
The Basic Idea Behind the Straight Edge Philosophy
In their most simplistic forms, the ideas behind straight edge are summed up in the words of 'Out of Step'. Minor Threat did not do anything they considered addictive or to be bad for them, physically or mentally. They did not require a metaphoric crutch4 in order to get through life.
A common misconception of the band's philosophy is that because they did not 'f**k', Minor Threat were all celibate - which is wrong! 'F**k' simply means that they did not have casual or promiscuous sex, which can often cause a lot of harm.
The straight edge ideals of Minor Threat, and fellow straight edge bands such as Gorilla Biscuits and State of Alert, promoted freedom of thought and the motivation to rebel against the crowd if what the crowd isn't all it's cracked up to be. Some people make these ideals out to be stringent 'anti-fun', but there are no actual rules. The lifestyle is entirely down to the discretion of those who choose it. Ian MacKaye became so agitated with people's misinterpretation of 'Out Of Step' as a list of rules, that Minor Threat re-released it with the words 'this is no set of rules, I'm not telling you what to say or do...' spoken during an instrumental section. It should also be noted that people who make out Minor Threat and associates to have been 'anti-fun' were probably part of the 'crowd' in the first place.
Minor Threat soon developed a cult following of like-minded individuals, who called themselves 'straight edgers' and were distinguished by a black 'X' worn on one hand. The black 'X', now a sign synonymous with straight edge (which is often shortened to 'sXe'), is said to have originated in the Washington club scene. Many punk and rock shows were 'all age', so even children were allowed in. However, to prevent underage kids buying alcohol, they were marked with an 'X' on their hand in permanent marker at the door.
Straight edge people of all ages began marking their hands with a black X, to distinguish themselves from the rest and as a mark of their ideals.
Straight Edge Today
After three years of pure energy, Minor Threat disbanded, leaving behind them a piece of punk history and a section of American youth no longer content with mindless conformity.
sXe in the Media
Since its inception, straight edge has developed into something big. However, what the public sees of it is likely to be negative. Most news relating to it is usually of gangs of straight edge bullies attacking people who smoke. As one person, hopefully in jest, said on the Straight Edge FAQ5
I am a passive sXe... I never want to fight anyone. That is why I always carry a gravity knife with me, so If someone f**ks with me, than I can wipe them out quickly (although I hope I will never have to!).
This is not a reference to punishing those who did not agree with the philosophy, but an example of the violence, which is often associated with the movement. This is a very worrying reflection of people's attitudes, and an example of the reason the members of Minor Threat wish to be disassociated from the movement - they never promoted violence, intolerance or narrow-mindedness. Luckily, these qualities rarely apply to most straight edgers.
Straight Edge Evolved and Deformed
Straight edge has now become, to some people, more than just a way of describing their lifestyle. To them, it is a label - you've either got the edge or you haven't. If you slip up, you're found drinking alcohol for example, then you run the risk of being shunned by an 'elite' group who will no longer accept you as straight edge. Others think that to be straight edge, you must also wear certain types of clothes, and like only one particular type of music. What was once a name for individual thinking and a way to avoid hurting yourself and others has, in some places, become the very thing that the philosophy once challenged.
Another group of people have taken straight edge to their choice of food, too. Vegans are a large section of the straight edge subculture, prompted by bands such as Earth Crisis. While veganism isn't part of the established straight edge lifestyle, it is often associated with it. Straight edge Vegans say that this is because once you begin to study what you put into your body, veganism is a logical progression from the choices you make in being straight edge.
Other people take the 'no drugs' aspect so far that they do not take any medication (arguably a very silly idea, indeed) and others abstain from even moderately addictive substances such as tea and coffee.
The Relevance of Straight Edge Today
Ignoring its unfortunate extremes, the original premise behind the straight edge lifestyle is still inspirational today. Peer pressure to fit in with The Crowd today is just as strong as - if not stronger than - it was in the 1980s. Many teenagers do what they think is 'cool' to become or stay popular without considering the long-term effects of their choices - smoking, for example, is very common among teenagers.
It is likely that straight edgers will 'lose the edge' when they are adult - after all, there is nothing inherently wrong with drinking. But hopefully, by this time some of the pressures of youth will have been lifted, and they will have built up enough confidence to say 'no, this is not how I want to live' when they are put in potentially excessive or compromising situations.
Straight edge offers teenagers an opportunity to break out of the destructive cycle of peer-directed sensibility, and enables them to realise that they have the ability to control their lives and a responsibility to look out for those around them. The ideals of the philosophy have been partly tainted by the narrow-mindedness of a few individuals, but the ideals themselves are still viable.
Straight Edge on the Web
Dischord Records - the record label of Minor Threat, set up by Ian MacKaye
Straight Edge Dot Com - Straight Edge resources