Parents have been searching for decades for ways to encourage their teenage children to keep from smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Thousands of tactics, organizations, and therapeutic resources have been tried, but perhaps the answer to a substance-free life has been in a place they never thought to look.
Punk rock isn’t always associated wit clean lifestyles, but a widespread national movement over the last three decades has changed the face of punk rock forever. One song inspired a movement for punk rockers across the country in the 1980s, and is continuing to inspire listeners today.
Minor Threat front man Ian MacKaye never expected to inspire a revolution when he wrote the song “Straight Edge,” but even now hundreds of Straight Edge kids walk the streets with an “X” on their hand, marking their commitment to the Straight Edge way of life.
For the purpose of this article I will use the term “Straight Edge kids” to refer to followers of Straight Edge; however, followers are of all ages.
Each Straight Edge kid has a different reason for deciding to make the lifelong commitment to Straight Edge.
“It just seemed like exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” Trey Gaylord said. “It was cool and relieving to know that there was a large community that felt the same way I did.”
Gaylord said that he saw people he knew including friends in school who used drugs and alcohol; they looked awful and these behaviors had terrible effects on their life.
“They made stupid decisions, and were leading lifestyles that seemed pretty detrimental,” Gaylord said. “Then a friend of mine introduced me to metal and hardcore music, and along with it, Straight Edge.”
Straight Edge began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also known as the Old School era of punk rock, in Washington D.C. The kids saw the people around them suffering from self-hatred, taking that upon themselves as part of the common punk mentality, and getting addicted to drugs.
The song that made this movement proclaimed such lyrics as, “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, Snort white shit up my nose, Pass out at the shows, I don’t even think about speed, That’s something I just don’t need, I’ve got the straight edge…”
Instead of adopting the common culture of self-affliction, they began marking their hands with X’s. They took a symbol commonly used to identify them as underage to bartenders, and made it their own.
During this scene many other bands in the Washington D.C. area began popping up, writing music with similar messages. Soon the movement spread over the East Coast, up to New York, and into Canada.
By the 1980s, Straight Edge had spread across the United States and acquired fans across the West Coast. At this point Straight Edge had climaxed and reached its all-time high.
The band Youth of Today contributed to the Straight Edge lifestyle in the 1980s. Their song “Youth Crew” gave a name to this era of punk and another generation of Straight Edge fans. The song says, “To the positive youth my heart I pledge, X on my hand now take the oath, To positive youths to positive growth, to positive minds, to pure clean souls…”
With each new decade of Straight Edge’s success, the group redefined itself a little more. During the Youth Crew era, fans began to associate different meanings with the movement. Although Straight Edge is not directly tied to any religious or dietary beliefs, many Edge kids began to associate their own beliefs with the lifestyle. Vegetarianism and vegan diets became a common lyrical theme in Straight Edge bands’ songs.
The scene became much more violent in the 1990s. As militant punk made its way into rock and roll, Straight Edge kids were no exception. Militant Straight Edge kids often used violence to promote clean living. Edge kids began to grow more proud of their beliefs than ever, not only willing to fight for them, but to feel they were part of an exclusive group. It was common for Edge kids to be judgmental and harsh to those who believed differently than them.
Musically, this decade of Straight Edge music had more metal influences. In the past, the music was directly associated with hardcore punk rock. Also, animal rights and vegan diet themed songs became even more prevalent in the 1990s.
The 1990s were perhaps the most detrimental time for the movement. The media covered Straight Edge kids like they would a gang, mostly due to the militant influence that had been adopted. Outsiders also often associated the political messages written by a few bands with the entire group.
“We are not a gang, or a cult, but that is how the media likes to portray us,” Gaylord said.
Straight Edge has lost its momentum since the new millennium began. Although Straight Edge bands still exist, they are hardly distinctive anymore. They often play in concerts with non-Straight Edge bands, with both Straight Edge kids and non-Straight Edge kids in attendance. The number of Straight Edge kids has also had its up and downs since 2000. Although there aren’t as many bands as there once were promoting a clean lifestyle, several bands and Edge kids still exist to engender a new generation of Straight Edge kids.
“There are still Straight Edge kids out there,” Gaylord said. “The biggest problem is that people will claim Edge but won’t stay it. It is a lifetime commitment.”
Trey Gaylord has lived according to the Straight Edge for six years now.
“When I decided to become a Straight Edge kid I knew it was a life-long commitment, and I put a lot of thought into that,” Gaylord said.
As for the future, Gaylord says he would like to see people take Straight Edge seriously, and that he wants the people who decide to become Straight Edge kids to commit to what it really means, and for the media to see the kids for what they really are.
“It’s not a game,” Gaylord said. “It’s not a religion. It’s just a group of people trying to better themselves, their community, and the world.”