Straight edge is a lifestyle choice which condones (in varying degrees of intensity and self-righteousness) abstinence from smoking, drinking, drug use, and in some cases poor eating habits and sex. It blossomed in the late 80s with bands like Minor Threat and the youth crew hardcore punk aesthetic, and has carried forward, albeit with diminished popularity, into the new century. But, are the aesthetics and fundamentals of straight edge lifestyles making a comeback?
Until their disbandment in 2009, Boston’s Have Heart was a strong voice in the straight edge scene. With their album’s The Things We Carry and Songs To Scream At The Sun, they maintained the straight edge mentality that was set forth with lyrics such as, “I walk fearless ‘cause I’m armed with a mind…far greater than your fucking fist”. It was more than just about living a clean lifestyle- it was about rebelling against the excess and recklessness that had become synonymous with punk music.
For a while, straight edge became tantamount with militant behavior towards non-edge punks, as well as scene in-fighting, pretension and elitism. However, the main focus of the straight edge lifestyle at its core seems to center around personal betterment. It can be seen as a choice to promote healthy living amongst peers, as well as a framework to organize and purify one’s life, whether temporarily or in the long term.
Zach Weeks is a music production + engineering student at Berklee, bassist for the hardcore/powerviolence band Cerce, and has claimed straight edge since 2009. To Weeks, straight edge is about “being content with myself and my decisions as a human being…Straight edge is more of an individual decision and shouldn’t need to be a title for the purpose of holding it up on a pedestal. I’m not better or cooler than anyone else because I’m straight edge.” Zach’s reason for becoming straight edge was “because I didn’t want to get involved with drug addiction. I was witnessing close friends fade away due to excessive drug use.”
Dave Ivnier’s reasons for claiming edge stem from battles with depression and rage. As he told me, “I would get kicked out of hockey leagues, and couldn’t control myself. When I got to a high school age I hated jock polo kids; their life was easy, mine wasn’t. I wanted to take that different path and not trash out sluts at parties; but work on my fitness and music. After high school it came to the point where I couldn’t trust myself; so why would I drink alcohol or do drugs? To put myself in a deeper hole? To go to jail? Nope; I wanted to help myself. Even though I had no idea why or how, I knew that straight edge was a pretty good start.”
Dave, who has been in numerous hardcore bands and is currently working on his solo project Human Slaughter, claimed straight edge for about 10 years (before quitting 3 months ago). Dave stated, “I don’t even drink now…I just don’t want to be associated with anything or anyone.” To Dave, and others, straight edge isn’t about choosing to be different, it’s about staying different: “Straight edge in general is a common bond between brothers who have to deal with problems dead on; there is no numb.”
Joe Beres, drummer of New Haven-based punk band Take Nothing, Leave Everything, does not claim straight edge. However, he still understands why people choose this lifestyle, “it’s about being clear-headed; to have total control over yourself, to have something to be proud of and a strong community to relate to.” Joe, along with many other non-edge punks, sees straight edge punks with the same amount of respect as he would anyone else.
Dave states the reason straight edge is becoming more faint in some areas is because it isn’t viewed as the “cool” thing to do, and “the only thing that’s relevant is what’s cool.” However, he continued to say, “no one believes in anything because that’s what’s “cool”. If you’re edge, you should believe in that. Wear the X. Don’t preach, but live that life. Not do coke for a year, then claim edge for a week to let everyone know how fucking cool and different you are for 2 weeks.” Straight edge isn’t about telling people you “downloaded a Minor Threat record” or “stopped eating meat.”
Zach does agree that there are trendy reasons behind a lot of kids’ decisions to claim straight edge: “You see kids all over the internet or on Tumblr or whatever hyping up all these bands that are either relatively new or older bands that are experiencing a level of popularity among a younger crowd that they never received before. It’s recognized as being “cool” to like those bands right now. Hardcore has trends and is based on a whole lot of hype and always has been, just right now portion of that hype happens to be with what people view as “ultra-crucial” bands, some of which are straight edge.”
Given Cerce’s popularity, Zach has witnessed transformations in various hardcore/DIY scenes, “There are a lot of newer youth-crew edge bands coming up in the hardcore scene and a lot of kids are getting back into it [straight edge]. Reminds me of when I was younger…there are a lot more edge bands and kids who are proud to be edge playing shows all over the country right now than there were like, two or three years ago.” Zach went on to state that around the time that Have Heart broke up, “straight edge was vapid but now it appears to be coming back, whether it be for trendy reasons or not.”
More recently, possibly due to increases in social visibility, the straight edge “scene” has experienced a rise in popularity and awareness among musicians in various strains of popular music. While straight edge culture has always been a facet of punk and hardcore music, there are many artists within other genres who have acted on “straight edge” values, although not claiming “straight edge” as a character-defining term, abiding by a somewhat straight edge attitude in their personal lives. Artists such as David Bowie, Prince, and more recent artists such as Akon all refrain from the use of alcohol and drugs.
To many it would seem at odds with most of popular culture for an acclaimed rapper in recent years to be outwardly vocal about abstaining from smoking weed or drinking alcohol. After all, the culture of excess championed in much of today’s popular music and does little to deny that debauchery, having “Yolo” as an overriding theme. Regarding straight edge outside the punk culture, Zach stated, “Considering drug and alcohol usage has been pretty commonplace in western music since the 20th century, it’s surely interesting to find non-punk or hardcore artists who hold strong beliefs on sobriety.”
It would seem even more surprising to many that that same rapper would have a chart-topping hit where he raps about diving into a “swimming pool full of liquor.” But rap artist Kendrick Lamar has stated in multiple interviews that he neither drinks nor smokes, “it never gave me the stimulation I needed because I think so fucking much…I just never got the gist of it, of the feeling what everyone else was telling me about. It never hit me. I don’t smoke period.” His song “Swimming Pool (Drank)”, on his most recent album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is about the life-altering experiences he witnessed in Compton that led him to live his presently clean lifestyle. He has also stated that he does not depend on drugs or alcohol to feel a heightened sense of thought. It has never appealed to the rapper, “I never had the thrill to do it…to each his own though.”
This is the same mindset shared by straight edge punks across the country, and the true spirit of straight edge: no negative judgments of others actions and choice, just a personal desire to live without excess chemical stimulation. There is no wrong or right way to approach the deeply personal choices we make when deciding how we want to live our lives. Straight edge is one choice among many to make, but it seems as though its lineage and influence can still be felt today, and will continue to live on through a new generation of “punks”.
photo by Juliana LaVita