Straight Edge/A Subculture dominated by music

Straight edge is a subculture that was headed by intensely sober, hardcore bands such as Minor Threat, Teen Idles, SSD, and Uniform Choice in the early 80s. This genre developed in Washington D.C. and the metropolitan area of New York City. Straight edge not only refers to music, but also refers to its listeners who adopt the straight edge lifestyle in order to better themselves and the world they live in. Since 1980, when the term ‘straight edge’ was coined by Ian MacKaye, the notion of straight edge has been established as a set of values that go against smoking, illicit drugs, and promiscuous sex. Its modern counterparts have added veganism to their diet.

The song, “Straight Edge” written by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, has become an anthem for the straight edge subculture. Minor Threat, the founding fathers of straight edge, was a band that formed in Washington D.C. in 1980. “They forbid drugs and alcohol, advocated anti-establishment politics, and led a call for self-awareness,” ( Their songs were often under a minute and featured raw, thrashing power chords with hostile, sarcastic vocals to compliment its abrasive, yet thought-provoking lyrics. They were much more hardcore and edgier than their previous punk rock counterparts. Due to their purist ethics, their music tended to be uncomplicated, stripped to rock’s most basic chords, and at the height of its edgiest form. Their records attempted to preserve integrity of the live performance in order to display a truth about raw, live music.

The importance of their song, “Straight Edge” was not only that it was the first time the term was used, but also that it epitomized the movement by encompassing many of its philosophies. The first two lines of the first and second verse, “I’m a person just like you/But I’ve got better things to do,” manifests that unlike previous punk ethics which called for a huge revolution, the straight edger emphasized the individual. Instead of a call for a revelation, they preferred to improve on what they already had. The movement’s prominence lied within individual factors and individual choices. The lyrics of “Straight Edge” enforced the self-critical view of the straight edgers and their longing for purity as a human.

The last two lines of the first verse, “I don’t even think about speed/That’s something I just don’t need” embodies the notion of the straight edger as an individual who has very few needs. The last two lines of the second verse, “Always gonna keep in touch/Never want to use a crutch” alludes to the same notion which outlaws the use of chemical substances. However, between the lines lies the doctrine that the straight edger detests the society in which they live in as a collective whole. “Their resistance to the corrupt, consumerist order is the source of their authenticity,” ( This relates to the concept that “existing cultural patterns include our relation to the dominant culture. Hence, there are constant modifications to the dominant ideas as revealed in the straight edge culture.” (Brake, 7).

In the second verse it reads, “’...Cause I know I can cope” referring to the superiority of the straight edger’s authenticity to be human, unlike that of the previous punk bands, who were nihilistic and the antithesis of purity. “Authenticity to the nihilists meant excess and seeking every opportunity there was to consume,” ( Although a lack of money kept the consumer level one-dimensional, excess from all angles were rampant. In contrast, the straight edgers wanted to be an authentic people by seeking control. “They stressed self-contained productions and disdained inauthentic productions even more than the previous punk bands,” ( They were more concerned with giving a sober performance, playing their music rather than playing it to the crowd. In alignment with the notion of sobriety, the view of selling-out once the follower loses their edge was eminent. Thus, the primal focus of the straight edger was to obtain the overall truth about themselves and the world by engaging in puritanical values.

The straight edge subculture consists mostly of young suburban white males of middle class income. The subculture tends to celebrate masculinity as with most punk derived sub-categories. There is only a small number of females, homosexuals, and non-Caucasians represented, thus denouncing the theory that “all subcultures are produced by the dominated class only. Rather, straight edge is an exception because it is a relegated and chosen subculture, receiving consent from the dominated class,” (

The ‘style’ of the subculture, which includes “‘image,’ ‘demeanor,’ and ‘argot’ has varied along the years. Style is usually a predominant defining feature of youthful subcultures,” (Brake, 12-13). For the straight edgers, their style has ranged from wide legged pants, polo shirts, and backpacks to band or straight edge logo shirts. It deliberately changes style to counter the mainstream look. Besides fashion, semiotics also comes to play as “formal syntax becomes transformed by social usage, known as argot,” (13, Brake). Generally, the style of the straight edger is masculine, aggressive, and territorial, not to mention that in some forms, it takes on deviant aspects as well.

Modern counterparts have disassociated itself from the true meaning of “Straight Edge” and have imposed more hardcore doctrines. One variation has been that the straight edger must respect all living things. This has resulted in the high rise of veganism and vegetarianism. There has also been a rise in pro-life believers with the arrival of the “Hardliners” who originated from the straight edgers and their doctrines. Their goal of living in accordance with nature and disdain for artificial substances compliments the straight edger’s desire to find purity. Thus, these notions are rooted out from the lyrics of “Straight Edge” which reads, “Laugh at the thought of eating ludes/Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue.”

One thing that has also been on the rise is deviant behavior among the subculture. For example, “the Hardliners’ aggressive stance for pro-life once resulted in a screaming match during a show,” ( There has been a pipe bomb explosion against farmers who sell mink and another explosion at a McDonalds for selling meat. Reports indicate that the deviance level among the straight edge community is rising rapidly. “Police say it’s one of the fastest growing gangs in the state of Utah, with an estimated 2,000 followers, about 200 to 400 of them considered prone to violence,” ( Deputies have also found that the only difference between gangs and straight edgers is that the straight edger has a set of morals to legitimize their behavior.

Deviant behavior can be traced to the song “Straight Edge” by its extreme content. First, one can construe a superiority in the song’s content; “I’ve got better things to do.” Hence, followers may use the song’s content to appropriate their violent behavior as a matter of teaching the unenlightened. This appropriation contradicts the notion that straight edge is a choice and not something to be imposed upon others. Second, the degree of profanities that are used can also set a violent and destructive tone and can be easily misinterpreted as an outlet for violence. Lastly, the pace of the song and the degree to which it is considered ‘hardcore’ among its genre masculinizes the song and creates a highly macho image, which also increases the likelihood for militant behavior.

This deviance is further escalated in the hardcore scene during straight edge or general punk rock shows. The X symbol which was once a symbol used by bouncers to distinguish minors who weren’t allowed to buy drinks is now a symbol worn deliberately to show pride at shows. This symbol on the straight edger’s fist creates a masculine surrounding during shows. The pride in wearing the X symbol heightens their sense of empowerment and distinction. “Symbolically it indicates which group one belongs to, demarcating that group from the mainstream, and making an appeal to an identity, which in this case is deemed exceptional from all others,” (Brake, 14). Thus, this goes back to the superiority concept of “Straight Edge” and the biting sarcasm of the song itself which can be misinterpreted and led to harmful consequences.

The straight edge subculture led by Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat can be studied as a youth subculture that offers an identity as well as a source for rebellion. The straight-forward beliefs expressed in “Straight Edge” are simple views that should not be further carried out from its intended meaning. The basic beliefs of straight edge simply prohibit smoking, illicit drugs, and promiscuous sex. In no way does this give a leeway for violent behavior. Rather, for those who are unhappy with the society and the ways of the world, they view this subculture an outlet to better their lives at an individual level. Others value the social importance tied to the movement when attending punk rock shows and other gatherings. Recently it is evident that many followers are streaming away from the main idea and gearing it towards violence in an attempt to force the lifestyle on others. When a subculture is no longer self-imposed, a backlash occurs and a question as to whether it can still remain a subculture. This question can only be construed by the theory that a subculture makes a statement about our society. While the stages of the straight edge subculture is still in metamorphosis and bound to change, we can define this evolution as a phenomenon further explaining the society in which we live.


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