Stop me if you’ve heard this one: For decades now, there has existed a global community of men and women whose primary shared value is a commitment to abstinence from all intoxicating substances. The group consists of self-organizing cells and is primarily an oral tradition. A founding text exists, as do countless supplementary documents, but the soul of the group and the personality of its local cells derives from fellowship. Certain cells are more open minded, others are more fanatical. A few are downright hostile toward those who don’t look or talk like them, and are intolerant of anyone who struggles to maintain total abstinence. It’s up to the individual to make the commitment to sobriety, but frequent meetings with the group and communal discussions of its values are what help members toe the line. Well, that, and the mosh pits.
The community I’m referring to isn’t AA, but straight edge. Straight edge (sXe) is a global movement with a 40-year history and an umbilical link to hardcore punk music. The movement originally grew out of the US punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. What the original straight edge bands borrowed from early punk was the idea that you didn’t need music chops to express yourself—anyone with some gear and a few friends could form a band. What they rejected was the nihilism—the idea that the only thing worth celebrating in life was debasement.
Similar to AA, sXe has an origin story and even a mythic progenitor, Ian McKaye, a founding member of seminal D.C. hardcore band Minor Threat, who in 1981 released the song that would give the movement its name. As urtexts go, “Straight Edge” is comically short. It lasts just 47 seconds and contains only about 100 words. Nevertheless, here we are: In the 40 years since the release “Straight Edge,” thousands of bands have shaped scenes in dozens of countries—from Brazil to the Netherlands, Chile to Norway.
McKaye’s song is dead simple: “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.” Note that the song is not prescribing this lifestyle to others, merely capturing its narrator’s personal POV. That one’s sobriety can be a source or pride rather than shame might have sounded revolutionary at the time, but it’s a testament to just how perverted such a simple idea can become that these days, and for decades now, McKaye has judiciously distanced himself from the role of sXe spokesman. To wit, here’s the very polite note he sent me when I reached out to discuss this piece with him:
“As you may be aware, the ‘straight edge movement’ is a widely interpreted (and therefore widely misinterpreted, in the eyes of some) concept, and though I coined the phrase for the song of the same name, [it’s] a movement from which I’ve always maintained some distance.
I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking on behalf of the ‘movement,’ partially because it’s largely undefinable and partially because I don’t advocate for ‘straight edge’ as a code of conduct. The lyrics of the song reflected my belief in the idea that an individual has the right to choose how to live his or her life, hence the disconnect when the idea is packaged and pressed on people.”
What McKaye’s statement reflects is just how completely warped, fucked, bastardized, etc. sXe has become as it has expanded from small local scene into widespread global ideology. While the DNA of straightedge—abstinence + community building—is inarguably good, a number of malevolent mutations have cast an inescapable shadow on the movement.
Most notoriously, there’s that old bugaboo white nationalism. Over the years, sXe has been embraced by racists and xenophobes of all shapes and sizes, from the chubby meatheads in Cleveland’s notorious One Life Crew (for real, one of them is nicknamed “Chubby Fresh”), whose song “Pure Disgust” refers to immigrants as “dirty fucking leeches,” to EU movements like National Socialist Straight Edge, about which the less said the better. There have also been instances of violence bordering on domestic terrorism, such a spate of bombings and arson attacks carried out by militant straight edge vegans in Salt Lake in the late ‘90s. Even the straight edge scenes that aren’t overtly racist or violent tend to be made up of mean white dudes who’re hostile toward the types of people who in AA circles are referred to as “normies.”
“They are literally the worst, most judgmental, most unsupportive, hateful, and cruel of people when it comes to people still struggling,” says Dan SW, proprietor of StraightEdgeWorldwide.com, when asked how members of certain sXe scenes tend to view addicts. “It’s like a pack of wild dogs. Everything is hunky dory as long as you show no signs of weakness. But at the first sign of weakness, the pack will turn on you and eat you.”
Dan SW’s site is one of the more comprehensive and refreshingly progressive online resources for sXe news and community. There, next to interviews and event listings, you can find such posts as “How to Be Straight Edge,” which Dan wrote and published in February. Clocking in at about 2,500 words, it’s one of the only pieces of its kind that I was able to find that speaks directly to prospective adherents about some basic things to keep in mind when contemplating sXe. “Recognize That You Are Identifying As a Member of A Community That Has Had Issues with Neo-Nazis,” and “Recognize That Addiction Is a Real Issue,” are a few representative section headers. That the scene is still even having these kinds of conversations with itself gives you a good sense of how evolved, or not, its politics are.
“Straight edge is still a heterosexual, cisgender, male-dominated movement,” notes Ross Haenfler, author of Straight Edge: Clean-living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change and one of sXe culture’s preeminent scholars. “And that’s something that, from my point of view, the scene still needs to wrestle with.”
However, Haenfler adds, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful that the scene is diversifying. He points to African-American trailblazers like Battery’s Ken Olden and Good Clean Fun’s Issa Diao, and to more recent Pacific Northwest progressives like feminist sXe band Lowest Priority and Olympia’s G.L.O.S.S., a group of queer and transgender musicians whose name stands for “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit.”
“We can’t sugarcoat the fact that this is a white-male dominated movement,” says Haenfler. “But it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s all there is to it.”
Depending on where you live, it’s entirely possible there are cool, progressive sXe folks who make up a supportive local scene. If you’re really lucky, they might even be open-minded about the realities of addiction — the genetic underpinnings, the mental-health connections, etc. Then again, it’s also possible that your local sXe scene is three bald white dudes with jackboot tattoos.
Whether or not sXe is a scene you want to get involved with as someone in or contemplating recovery is entirely up to you, of course, but my personal advice is to proceed with extreme caution. While I’m no authority, I identified as straight edge for about a year in high school, and even though that was a long time ago I still recall the fundamentalist tendencies of my local scene, how there was this ongoing paranoid accounting of everyone in the scene by everyone else — rumors about who was fucking who and what that meant, gossip about who might have “broken edge” (sXe’s equivalent to AA’s “going out”), a veil of insecurity presiding over everything (which, granted, probably has as much to do with sXe’s appeal to adolescents in particular as anything else). Inasmuch as my local sXe scene opened my eyes to a community of young people who’d found alternatives to getting fucked up, it also showed me that character traits like paranoia, hostility, judgement, and various insecurities are not limited to people who enjoy getting wasted.
Still, though, there’s nothing like a good mosh pit, and in its better moments straight edge music has a brutal positivity you can’t find anywhere else. I once saw Good Clean Fun in the basement of a library in D.C. circa 2000. They performed a song called “Who Shares Wins,” which is about what its title says it is. Beneath the low ceilings of that musty space, Mr. Issa implored the circle pit of sweaty congregants: “Go to shows, trust your friends/ And the fun just never ends.” On its best days, that’s what sXe can be about.
What’s ultimately kind of odd to me is how little AA and sXe have ever interacted over the years. A story I heard repeated more than once in my research for this piece is that many sXe adherents came from families where addiction was prevalent, where it had sometimes taken the lives of family members. These people saw the scene as the welcome alternative to the destructive patterns they’d be surrounded by growing up. In that sense, sXe is a remarkable movement, serving as a rare bulwark against a culture that has woven intoxication into the fabric of daily life. That’s why it’s a shame the scene can’t reconcile its better angels with its tendencies toward fundamentalism. I suspect this has mostly to do with its roots. Like the progressive punk scene it descends from, SXE primarily sees itself through the lens of activism. Members tend to view abstinence as a means to some political end, be it white nationalism or LGBTQ rights. Recovery culture, and especially AA, is just the opposite — bringing politics into it is forbidden. This is probably why programs like sXe and AA are like distant cousins who’ve never met and live in different countries: One is about the trappings of society, the other is about the trappings of the self.