Straight edge, sometimes stylized as XXX, is a subculture of hardcore punk whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco and other recreational drugs, in reaction to the excesses of punk subculture. For some, this extends to refraining from engaging in promiscuous sex, following a vegetarian or vegan diet or not using caffeine or prescription drugs. The term straight edge was adopted from the 1981 song "Straight Edge" by the hardcore punk band Minor Threat.
Straight edge emerged amid the early-1980s hardcore punk scene. Since then, a wide variety of beliefs and ideas have been associated with the movement, including vegetarianism and animal rights. While the commonly expressed aspects of the straight edge subculture have been abstinence from alcohol, nicotine, and illegal drugs, there have been considerable variations. Disagreements often arise as to the primary reasons for living straight edge. Although Straight Edge politics vary, from explicitly revolutionary to conservative, the latter has mostly dominated. Left-leaning activists have often approached Straight Edge with skepticism, ridicule or even outright hostility in part due to what they perceived as the Straight Edge movement's self-righteous militancy.
In 1999, William Tsitsos wrote that straight edge had gone through three eras since its founding in the early 1980s. During the youth crew era, which started in the mid-1980s, the influence of music on the straight edge scene was at an all-time high. By the early 1990s, militant straight edge was a well-known part of the wider punk scene. In the early to mid-1990s, straight edge spread from the United States to Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South America. By the beginning of the 2000s, militant straight edge punks had largely left the broader straight edge culture and movement.
1970s and early 1980s
, pictured in 1981, coined the term straight edge
In the 1970s, the punk subculture was associated with the use of intoxicative inhalants, substances such as model airplane glue that were inhaled for the intoxicating effect. In 1999, William Tsitsos wrote that straight edge had gone through three eras since its founding in the early 1980s. Straight edge grew out of hardcore punk in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was partly characterized by shouted rather than sung vocals. Straight edge individuals of this early era often associated with the original punk ideals such as individualism, disdain for work and school, and live-for-the-moment attitudes. The movement was influenced by the political and social climate of its origin, around the time of the "Just Say No" campaign and a rise in conservative viewpoints. The discipline of the subculture came from a mix of leftist radicalism and conservative influences.
Straight edge sentiments can be found in songs by the early 1980s band Minor Threat. This anti-inebriation movement had been developing in punk prior to Minor Threat, but their song "Straight Edge" was influential in giving the scene a name, and something of a (somewhat unwilling) figurehead. Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye is often credited with birthing the Straight edge name and movement and in later years has often spoken out about how he never intended it to be a movement.
Straight edge sentiments can also be found in the song "Keep it Clean" by English punk band The Vibrators, and the 1970s Modern Lovers song "I'm Straight" (which rejected drug use). As one of the few prominent 1970s hard rock icons to explicitly eschew alcohol and other drug use, Ted Nugent was also a key influence on the straight edge ideology.
Straight edge started on the East Coast of the United States in Washington D.C., and quickly spread throughout the United States and Canada. By the 1980s, bands on the West Coast, such as America's Hardcore, Stalag 13, Justice League, and Uniform Choice, were gaining popularity. In the early stages of this subculture's history, concerts often consisted of both punk bands and straight edge bands. Circumstances soon changed and the early 1980s would eventually be viewed as the time "before the two scenes separated".
Bent edge originated as a counter-movement to straight edge among members of the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene who were frustrated by the rigidity and intolerance of the scene. This idea spread, and on Minor Threat's first tour in 1982, people would come up to the band to identify themselves as bent, crooked, or curved edge. The counter-movement was short lived and it faded away by the end of the 1990s.
Youth crew (mid-1980s)
, Youth Crew pioneers During the youth crew era, which started in the mid-1980s, the influence of music on the straight edge scene seemed to be at an all-time high. The new branches of straight edge that came about during this era seemed to originate from ideas presented in songs, and many youth crew bands had a strong heavy metal influence. Notable youth crew bands included: Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, Bold, Chain of Strength, Turning Point, Uniform Choice, and Slapshot.
In the mid-1980s, the band Youth of Today became associated with the straight edge movement, and their song "Youth Crew" expressed a desire to unite the scene into a movement. Vegetarianism became an important theme in straight edge during this era, starting with Youth of Today's 1988 song "No More", which contained lyrics condemning the consumption of meat. This catalyzed a trend towards animal rights and veganism within the straight edge movement that would reach its peak in the 1990s.
By the early 1990s, straight edge became a well-known part of the wider punk and DIY scene and underwent musical and political shifts. In the early part of the decade, a number of straight edge punks and their bands picked up on the vegetarian and other social justice politics of the mid-1980s and began more comprehensively advocating for social justice, animal liberation, veganism, and straight edge, itself. During this period, the straight edge scene birthed two major offshoots: the more conservative hardline and the religiously influenced Krishna Consciousness. While the majority of straight edge punks and Hare Krishna converts were pacifists, those influenced by hardline showed a willingness to resort to violence in order to promote their subculture. Musically, the straight edge scene was increasingly drawing from heavy metal and was a founding influence on metalcore.
Outside the United States
In the late 1980s a vegetarian straight edge scene emerged in Durham, England. Heavily inspired by the sound of U.S. youth crew and straight edge bands, groups in the scene included Steadfast, False Face, No Way Out, Long Cold Stare, Know Your Enemy, The MacDonalds and Northern Wolfpack. Members of multiple of these bands would eventually form Voorhees.
In the early to mid-1990s, straight edge spread from the United States to Northern Europe,
had the highest attendance of any hardcore show in history
By the beginning of the 2000s, only small groups of militant straight edge individuals remained. Contrary to news reports that portrayed straight edge as a gang, several studies have shown that straight edge individuals as a whole are mostly peaceful people. In the 2000s, there was a growing amount of tolerance of people who do not follow the straight edge lifestyle by straight edge individuals. In this incarnation of straight edge, the musical styles of the bands involved are more varied, ranging from a youth crew revival style to metalcore to posicore. Straight edge bands from the 2000s include Champion, Down to Nothing, Embrace Today, Have Heart, and Throwdown.
In the early stages of straight edge, its philosophy was to rebel through self-control. With the ability to control one’s actions, a Straight edge participant would be better suited to stand up against the mainstream. The first wave of straight edge did not impose rules on others, rather participants chose to follow the ways of self-control. With the second wave of straight edge these rules were used to control others. In addition the second wave experienced a change in music style. Where the first wave was influenced by hardcore punk, the second wave brought in aspects of heavy metal music which further pushed for power and control over others. The slowing down of the music reflected the focus of individuals in their journey to self control.
While some straight edge groups are treated as a "gang" by law enforcement officials, a 2006 study found the vast majority of people who identify as straight edge are nonviolent. While the early Washington, D.C. hardcore punk scene is often praised for its commitment to positive social change, both the youth crew movement of the 1980s and the vegan movement of the 1990s have drawn criticism. Straight edge has often been approached with skepticism and hostility, despite the ideologically less dogmatic and more multifaceted character of contemporary straight edge.
The letter X is the most known symbol of straight edge, and is sometimes worn as a marking on the back of both hands, though it can be displayed on other body parts as well. Some followers of straight edge have also incorporated the symbol into clothing and pins. According to a series of interviews by journalist Michael Azerrad, the straight edge X can be traced to the Teen Idles' brief West Coast tour in 1980. The band's members were scheduled to play at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, but when they arrived, club management discovered that they were all under the legal drinking age and would be denied entry to the club. As a compromise, management marked each of the members' hands with a large black X as a warning to the club's staff not to serve alcohol to the band.
Upon returning to Washington, D.C., the band suggested this same system to local clubs as a means to allow teenagers in to see musical performances without being served alcohol. The Teen Idles released a record in 1980 called Minor Disturbance with the cover shot being two hands with black Xs on the back. The mark soon became associated with the straight edge lifestyle. It can also be used by drinking establishments to note a patron as under the drinking age, regardless of their views towards drugs such as alcohol.
Later bands used the X symbol on album covers and other paraphernalia in a variety of ways. The cover of No Apologies by Judge shows two crossed gavels in the X formation. Other objects that have been used include shovels, baseball bats, and hockey sticks. The term is sometimes abbreviated by including an X with the abbreviation of the term "straight edge" to give "sXe". By analogy, hardcore punk is sometimes abbreviated to "hXc".
By the late 1990s, many straight edge participants gave veganism the same degree of importance as abstinence from intoxicants, and some groups styled themselves "vegan straight edge", sometimes abbreviated "xVx". Bands such as Earth Crisis and Vegan Reich emphasized animal rights and environmentalism as social justice issues. Perhaps owing to the "DIY" ethic of the punk subculture, some advocated direct action, and became associated with the radical groups Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. The California band Vegan Reich is most associated with the "Hardline" subculture, which espouses the sanctity of life, and draws connections between animal rights and anti-abortion activism. Members of the Hardline movement have been described as espousing Old Testament-style spirituality, militancy, and violence. Violent activism has been described as an "extreme minority" within the vegan straight edge movement.
Haenfler writes that straight edge participants see veganism as an extension of the movement's emphasis on positivity, much like its preference to reserve sex for emotionally meaningful relationships. They tend to focus more on personal responsibility and focus less on confronting systemic issues in society. However, veganism is not seen as a matter of personal purity, rather, it is rooted in a strong belief in animal rights, and it is also a means of personally rejecting the exploitation of animals. Some hold that veganism is "true straight edge", and their promotion of veganism and animal liberation has been described as evangelistic.