Hardcore Punk and Straight Edge: A Response to the Sexual Revolution

Bobby Bellen

According to polls conducted annually by Flipside magazine, approximately forty percent of punk fans identified themselves as straight edge between 1983 and 1986. The straight edge movement was born out of the hardcore punk scene in Washington D.C. in the late 70s and early 80s as a response to the hedonistic “free-spirited” values of the Sexual Revolution beginning in the 60s. With the themes of drug use, excess, and promiscuous sex associated with the punk rock scene, straight edge took a stand to refrain from the use of drugs and alcohol, meaningless sex, and later even the consumption of animal products for many. Following off the heels of the hedonistic counterculture of rock and roll, straight edge came to represent a new kind of counterculture centered around sobriety and abstinence. It embodied a discipline of self-control and purity that criticized all of those “sellouts” conforming to the mainstream culture and media. The elements of punk rock that remained within the straight edge subculture are undoubtedly a do-it-yourself ethos, shouted vocals, short song lengths, and mosh pits, but with a more feverish playing style and a clearer political (or rather apolitical) message. While straight edge still garnered criticism from older generations and the media, it was not bogged down by associations with drug use and promiscuity like the Sexual Revolution and the punk that came before were, and it was thus poised to be taken more seriously by outsiders. Instead of the previous punk culture of destruction and anarchy, straightedge focused on more positive aspects of forming a community that can thrive and last, and due to the nature of the scene, it was not troubled as much by police raids or shutdowns at shows due to underage drinking or drug use as it had in the past. The culture of the scene was entirely DIY and anti-commercial, insofar as the bands forwent the entire music industry by independently recording and publishing their own music and by organizing shows themselves in underground “venues” like basement clubs or really anywhere else that would let them play. Straight edge enabled a space for those individuals fed up with the hypocrisy and artificiality perpetuated by American media and society during the Reagan era and for those searching for meaning as opposed to resorting to nihilism like punks before.

Minor Threat — “Straight Edge” (1981)

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 shit up my nose
Pass out at the shows
I don’t even think about speed
That’s just something I 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 that I can cope
Laugh at the thought at eating ludes
Laugh at the the thought of sniffing glue
Always gonna keep in touch
Never gonna use a crutch
I’ve got the Straight Edge!
I’ve got the Straight Edge!
I’ve got the Straight Edge!
I’ve got the Straight Edge!
The term “Straight Edge” was coined by Ian MacKaye, frontman of D.C. hardcore punk outfit Minor Threat, taken from the 1981 song of the same name. MacKaye had not initially written the song in order to begin a movement but rather to embody and promote a lifestyle of self-control as a healthier and more productive means of rebellion against the American status quo of excess in the 80s. Once it gained momentum, the movement effectively took on a mind of its own, expanding to include animal rights and vegan/vegetarian diets among many in the later years. While the lyrics of this song refer explicitly only to drugs, MacKaye uses these references in order to highlight the types of “crutches” people rely on in order to cope with the time in which they live. Instead of following the herd and giving into conformity, MacKaye talks about discipline and self-moderation as, effectively, an “edge” over members of society that buy into the mainstream media and consumerism and also those that wallow in their own nihilism as a result of it. As an alternative to asking “Why should I care?” and distracting oneself with vices, straight edge was attempting to find something that actually mattered to those within the community as it spread nationwide. 
This is a clip from a Minor Threat concert in 1983. This footage in which they perform their song “Betray” comes from one of their scarcely recorded live performances that can be found online, and the fact that these types of videos are so few is due in part to the time period, but more so it is representative of the insular nature of the straight edge community, and it serves as an excellent insight into the visceral experience at the heart of the subculture. As you can see, this is not a clean performance–the sound is even rougher than the records, the vocals are shouted, but this is completely intentional and embodies the DIY ethos and aesthetic of the scene. The venue they’re playing is cramped (likely the basement of a club or bar) and the production value is minimal, and while it’s surely all they could afford, it’s all they needed. These people weren’t rich rock stars, nor did they want to be. They appeared completely accessible to the fans, they were people these kids could identify with. The physical aspect of the shows, or mosh pits, are integral to the experience; no place is off limits, not even the stage, and no person is off limits, not even the band members. Hardcore’s sped-up version of punk lends itself nicely to the running, pushing, and dives offstage, and it served as an emotional outlet for those teens and young adults that felt jilted from society and the values perpetuated by it.

Minor Threat — “In My Eyes” (1981)

You tell me that nothing matters
You’re just fucking scared
You tell me that I’m better
You just hate yourself
You tell me that you like her
You just wish you did
You tell me that I make no difference
At least I’m fuckin’ trying
What the fuck have you done?

In the lyrics of the song “In My Eyes” specifically, MacKaye makes it clear that the straight edge lifestyle is not merely about sobriety or abstinence but about doing something to make a difference, whatever it is, as long as it isn’t succumbing to the nihilistic pitfalls of the previous generation. In the second verse cited here, MacKaye is having a conversation with someone with an apathetic attitude toward the societal problems he (and straight edge) is attempting to address. MacKaye is berating him for essentially admitting defeat and choosing not to do anything, and he ends with the refrain: “What the f**k have you done?” Here in its early stages, straight edge did not really have much of a clear political ideology but rather embodied the sentiment of those jaded from society and Reagan era conservative ideals. This is not to say that straight edge was necessarily a leftist movement (although it was very socially liberal) but rather to say that these people sought to simply express their discontent and call for change directly instead of avoiding the issue altogether.

Resultado de imagen para teen idles minor disturbance"
X Symbol
Drawing a black “X” on the back of one’s hands at hardcore shows became a symbol of sobriety and self-control associated with the straight edge lifestyle. The X originated from the Teen Idles’ 1980 west coast tour. As all of the members were under the legal drinking age at the time, the management of San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens marked all of their hands with X’s and told the bar not to serve them alcohol, for otherwise they would not have been able to even enter the club. When the band returned to Washington D.C., they brought this practice back to the local clubs so that teenagers would be able to attend their shows. This symbol eventually came to be a way for bars and clubs everywhere to allow underage people to attend shows without being able to consume alcohol and is still in practice today. With the release of their 1980 EP Minor Disturbance, the symbol became directly associated with the straight edge scene, as the cover for the record featured an image with the same black X’s marked on the back of two hands.
This footage from an ABC newscast is an example of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the straight edge movement, in which they interview kids within the scene and a policeman. Due to their sobriety and abstinence from promiscuous sex, one kid asks, “What’s so bad about us?” The media’s answer is violence. While the bands and the community as a whole do not condone violence, a large issue within this male-dominated and testosterone-fueled scene was the tendency for certain members to demonstrate their commitment to a straight edge lifestyle through violent acts of retaliation against individuals who held opposing values or tried to tempt them with drugs. During the interview with a policeman who had responded to these kinds of incidents, straight edge kids are referred to as “violent gang members” and “politically correct terrorists” who are “every bit as dangerous” as gangs like the Bloods or Crips. While it seems harsh how the media demonizes the movement as a whole for the acts of a militant minority that identifies as straight edge, it is completely indicative of the way in which the momentum of the movement altered and distorted MacKaye’s vision. Due to the absence of a clear ideology outside of notions of discipline and self-moderation, members of the community took straight edge into their own hands and thus it developed in a manner that was uncontrollable.

Closing Remarks

While it cannot be characterized as having been coherent or without flaw, the straight edge movement was the product of a time where American society was consumed by excess, hypocrisy, and artificiality. Many young people sought to escape and rebel against a modern world in which they could find no meaning, no purpose, no authenticity. Not only did they resist all pressures to conform to mainstream culture, they also resisted the urge to conform to the nihilistic counterculture of hedonism born out of the Sexual Revolution. For a short period of time, straight edgers carved out a niche within the music scene where they could comfortably express themselves without any desire to rely on drugs, sex, or any other distraction from the world as an emotional crutch. Despite the deterioration of the subculture’s purity through its departure from its original purpose, straight edge defined an updated form of counterculture that sought to distance itself from the pitfalls of the rock and roll that came before. As a result, it formed a new value system for those outsiders who were frustrated with the will imposed upon them by older generations, and it gave them a voice whose judgement was unclouded by substance abuse and harmful deviance.