The straight edge philosophy and the drug-free alternative it offers.
THE CONCEPT of straight edge, a musically inspired stand against drug use that originated in the US, has been around for almost 30 years. It rose to prominence in Finland in the ‘90s before quickly exiting the stage but continues to inspire numerous people both here and around the world.
The phrase “straight edge” is a relatively well-known one in Finland, at least among its youth. However, many people possess little more than a superficial awareness of it having something to do with not drinking alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol is, to be sure, a big part of what it means to be straight edge, but there’s more to it than simply that.
Defining straight edge isn’t an easy task, as it means different things to different straight edgers. “Basically, straight edge is a label for people who are into punk or hardcore and don’t drink or do other drugs,” thinks Miikka Hietanen, one of the best-known straight edgers in the Finnish hardcore scene.
This is a good definition to begin with, but, as we’ll soon discover, it’s not without its complications, the first of which surrounds the question, “What’s hardcore?”
The story behind the “X”
The “X” is the definitive symbol of straight edge. Straight edgers draw it on their hands and use it in their email addresses and internet usernames, while straight edge bands put it on their t-shirts and quite a number include an “X” in their band’s name. Even the term “straight edge” is often abbreviated as sXe.
While on tour in 1980, MacKaye and Nelson came across the practice of drawing an “X” with a thick marker pen on the hands of underage attendees of their San Francisco shows. If any of them tried to buy alcohol, the bar staff would know not to serve them. MacKaye and Nelson took the idea back with them to their hometown of Washington, DC and over time it became shorthand for being straight edge.
The origins of straight edge
Hardcore began as a reaction to the supposed passing of the era of punk in the late ‘70s. It incorporated the aggression, attitude and DIY nature of punk but took these to extreme levels – shouted lyrics accompanied by hyper-speed chord progressions and drumbeats are its defining characteristics.
One of the leading lights of the early ‘80s hardcore scene were Minor Threat, the band that invented the term straight edge. The story goes that the band’s drummer, Jeff Nelson, while drawing a poster, said his ruler’s straight edge could be a metaphor for the band’s clean living.
Some time afterwards, the band’s singer, Ian MacKaye penned the lyrics to what would become the song Straight Edge, in which he justified his personal eschewal of a number or drugs. More influential, however, were the less specific statements contained in the song – the ones that could be applied to other forms of drug consumption like smoking and drinking – that a number of hardcore fans took to heart.
Soon after the release of Straight Edge, MacKaye built on his anti-drug philosophy in the song Out of Step (with the world). These two songs are the basis of straight edge even if they aren't the final word on the subject.
Finland got its first taste of homegrown straight edge around the late 80s, but it was only in the mid-‘90s that straight edge started to win some Finnish media attention along with new ‘converts’. In spite of this, straight edge has remained a marginal but constant element of the bigger, yet still diminutive, Finnish hardcore scene.
No straight edge without hardcore?
As straight edge originated in the hardcore scene, it annoys many straight edgers when someone takes the term out of context and starts to claim it as their own without fully appreciating what straight edge is all about.
“In Finland, there have been a lot of kids saying ‘I’m straight edge’ because in Wikipedia it says I can call myself that,” says Jani Leskinen, a veteran of Finland’s hardcore scene and still a straight edger after almost two decades. “For me, though, straight edge is 100 per cent from the punk scene.”
Janne Tamminen, the singer of recently disbanded Finnish hardcore legends Endstand and the record label Combat Rock Industry’s “king” agrees. “Those kids in the ‘90s were still listening to Dire Straits. You can be sober and not use drugs, but if you have nothing to do with hardcore music, you’re not really straight edge.” Yet, both accept that possessing a good appreciation of straight edge’s roots can make up for not being into hardcore.
Sociologist Ross Haenfler, one of the leading academic researchers of straight edge, believes that hardcore fans can no longer exercise a monopoly over the philosophy.
“While straight edge was born in the hardcore scene, and the music remains an integral part of many straight edge kids’ lives, straight edge has spread beyond any particular music,” he states.
“There are ‘kids’ who identify themselves as straight edge who have never been to a show and instead found out about it online, and participate primarily online, [as well as] older ‘kids’ who may have once been into hardcore music but are now more involved in their jobs and with their families than in a scene.”
Haenfler also points out that straight edgers are involved in making music other than hardcore. The hip-hop MC Sage Francis is one of these, while Metallica’s James Hetfield also recently claimed edge.
“If you’re a sober kid who feels alienated from his or her peers, and calling yourself ‘straight edge’ empowers you even if you’re not into punk and hardcore, it’s a positive thing if it gets you through the day,” Hietanen insightfully comments.
Minor Threat – Out of Step (with the world)
(I) Don't smoke
At least I can fucking think
I can't keep up,
Can't keep up
Can't keep up
Out of step with the world
©1989 Dischord RecordsLyrics reprinted with permission.
Paths to straight edge
Hietanen, who’s been straight edge for over 15 years, found out about it after being introduced to hardcore.
“I liked the music and the subculture but didn’t want to drink and mess up my head. If you get into punk but don’t want to drink or do drugs I think it’s natural when you hear about straight edge that you identify with it,” he ponders.
It’s also not uncommon for straight edgers to have firsthand experience of alcohol and drug abuse. Leskinen, for example, remembers vowing at the age of four or five never to drink after seeing his uncle’s destructive alcoholism.
Eighteen-year-old Ella Soininen, one of the few active female straight edgers in Finland’s hardcore scene, while also having experienced alcohol abuse in her family, decided to become straight edge less out of concern for her own physical and mental health than to express her rejection of a lifestyle that causes unnecessary misery for many.
“I’ve gone through a lot of bad stuff, so I just wanted to make a statement – I wanted to stop drinking and supporting that kind of culture.”
Where to draw the line
Eschewing alcohol, is the most obvious first step towards becoming a straight edger, as not drinking, generally speaking, raises more eyebrows than refusing to smoke or take hard drugs. However, there is no consensus about whether rejecting other addictive substances and activities, mindless pastimes, and harmful lifestyles – casual sex, caffeine and consuming animals and their produce, for example – should be considered straight edge.
MacKaye raised the issue of casual sex in Out of Step, implying that he considered it, together with drinking and smoking, a part of the consumerist society he wanted as little to do with as possible. Although avoiding casual sex has always been a more low key element of straight edge, it has generally been considered part of the philosophy. So it came as a surprise when none of the straight edgers interviewed for this article thought abstaining from casual sex was part of straight edge.
“I’ve always said that if people know what they’re doing and no one is abused, then go for it! Sex is good, it’s a beautiful thing,” argues Tamminen. “I think that if you asked Ian MacKaye, he might wish he’d written those lyrics differently to avoid being misunderstood.”
Minor Threat – Straight Edge
I'm a person just like you
But I've got better things to do
Than sit around and fuck my head
Hang out with the living dead
Snort white shit 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
I'm a person just like you
But I've got better things to do
Than sit around and smoke dope
‘Cause I know I can cope
Laugh at the thought of eating [Quaa]ludes
Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue
Always gonna keep in touch
Never want to use a crutch
I've got the straight edge
©1989 Dischord Records
Lyrics reprinted with permission.
Leskinen is slightly more sympathetic to the sentiment of Out of Step – “I could imagine that it was a form of rebellion because people were being told at the time to f**k everything they could see, and he rejected all of that.”
Whether caffeine falls into the same category as alcohol, tobacco and hard drugs divides opinion more, although none of the interviewees thought of it as a specifically straight edge issue.
“The original principle of straight edge was to be anti-obsession and to keep yourself in check, it wasn’t ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’,” says Hietanen. “If I’m drinking too much coffee and it’s making me nervous and affecting my sleep, I’ll stop drinking coffee. In my personal straight edge if I notice something in my life that seems like an addiction or is unhealthy, whether it’s playing computer games, sex, coffee or work, I’ll do something about it.”
As for the issue of animal rights, all straight edgers I spoke to were either vegetarian or vegan. At the same time, no one considered this to be a necessary part of straight edge, even if they had been introduced to animal rights through their connection to the scene.
A different kind of rebellion
Maybe because it challenges something so close to many people’s hearts, straight edge is often dismissed as just another form of youthful rebellion. The fact that many younger people who claim edge quickly give it up once they’re old enough to buy alcohol or move out of their parents’ home does little to assuage critics. It’s now become commonplace to caricature the pledge many straight edgers make to be “true ‘till death” as “true ‘till college”.
Even so, to dismiss straight edge as a childish fad ignores the dedication thousands have displayed by remaining straight into their 20s, 30s and beyond while conveniently side-stepping the powerful critique of modern, Western society contained within the straight edge philosophy.