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Straight Edge refers to a lifestyle that started within the hardcore punk subculture whose adherents make a commitment to abstain from using alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, and sometimes engaging in promiscuous sex. The term was coined by the 1980s hardcore punk band Minor Threat in the song “Straight Edge”. Since its inception there has been considerable debate over what constitutes a straight edge lifestyle. Adherents’ main objective is to not “poison” the body in any way.
The letter “X” is the most prevalent symbol of straight edge, commonly worn as a marking, symbol or tattoo on the back of one or both hands, though it can be displayed on other body parts as well. Some followers are known as “hardcore kids”. Some followers of straight edge have also incorporated the symbol into clothing and pins. According to a series of interviews by journalist Michael Azerrad, the straight edge “X” can be traced to the Teen Idles’ brief U.S. West Coast tour in 1980. The Teen Idles were scheduled to play at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, but when the band arrived, club management discovered that the entire band was under the legal drinking age and therefore should be denied entry to the club. As a compromise, management marked each of the Idles’ hands with a large black “X” as a warning to the club’s staff not to serve alcohol to the band. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., the band suggested this same system to local clubs as a means to allow teenagers in to see musical performances without being served alcohol. While the practice was never widely adopted by D.C.-area music venues, the mark soon became associated with the straight edge lifestyle. Recently, however, after a slow pickup, more and more music venues have been employing this system.
Sometimes the number 24 is used to represent straight edge, because X is the twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet. A variation involving a trio of Xs (xXx) originated in artwork created by Minor Threat’s drummer, Jeff Nelson, in which he replaced the three stars in the band’s hometown Washington, DC flag with Xs. The term is sometimes abbreviated by including an X with the abbreviation of the term “straight edge” to give “sXe”. By analogy, hardcore punk is sometimes abbreviated to “hXc”.
William Tsitsos writes that straight edge has gone through three different eras since its creation in 1980. Associated with punk rock, the early years of the straight edge subculture are now called the old school era.
Old school (1970s and early 1980s)
Straight edge ideas can be found in songs by the early-1970s band The Modern Lovers, particularly their songs “I’m Straight” and “She Cracked”. However, straight edge was most closely associated with punk rock, particularly the faster subgenre of hardcore punk that developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was partly characterized by shouting rather than sung vocals. Straight edge people of this early “old school” era often associated with the original punk ideals such as individualism, disdain for work and school, and live-for-the-moment attitudes.
Although straight edge started on the east coast of the United States in Washington D.C. and New York, it quickly spread through the US and Canada. By the 1980s, bands on the west coast of the United States, such as America’s Hardcore (A.H.C.), Stalag 13, Justice League and Uniform Choice, were gaining popularity. In the early stages of this subculture’s history, concerts often consisted of non-straight edge punk bands along with straight edge bands. However, circumstances soon changed and the old school era would eventually be viewed as the time “before the two scenes separated”. Old school straight edge bands included: the Washington D.C. bands Minor Threat, State of Alert (S.O.A.), Government Issue and Teen Idles, Reno, Nevada’s 7 Seconds, Boston’s SSD, DYS and Negative FX, California bands as mentioned above, and New York City bands such as Cause for Alarm.
Youth crew (Mid 1980s)
During the youth crew era, which started in the mid 1980s, the influence of music on the straight edge scene seemed to be at an all-time high. The new branches of straight edge that came about during this era seemed to originate from ideas presented in songs. Notable youth crew bands included: 7 Seconds, Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, Bold, Youth of Today, Chain Of Strength and Slapshot.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the band Youth of Today became associated with the straight edge movement, and their song “Youth Crew” expressed a desire to unite the scene into a movement. The most identifiable theme that arose during the youth crew era was an association of straight edge with vegetarianism. In 1988, Youth of Today released the song “No More”, which initiated this new theme within the subculture. Lead singer Ray Cappo displayed his vegan views in the lyrics: “Meat-eating, flesh-eating, think about it. So callous this crime we commit”. This however isn’t required and is optional.
By the end of the 1980s, straight edge bands all over the United States and Canada sang about animal cruelty. During the late 1980s, not all people who claimed to be straight edge identified with animal rights issues, although bands such as Earth Crisis had continued the animal rights trend.
By the early 1990s, militant straight edge was a well-known presence in the scene, and the term militant described someone who was dedicated and outspoken, but who was also believed to be narrow-minded, judgmental, and potentially violent. The militant straight edger was characterized by the following: less tolerance for non-straight edge people, more outward pride in being straight edge, more outspokenness, and the willingness to resort to violence in order to promote clean living.
In the mid-1990s, a number of bands advocating social justice, animal liberation, veganism, and straight edge practices displayed a stronger metal influence. Bands from this era include Culture, Earth Crisis, Chorus of Disapproval, Undertow, and Strife.
After the 1990s, some of the more controversial aspects that surrounded straight edge began to disappear, partly in response to media reports portraying the movement as a type of gang. In the 2000s, straight edge and non-straight edge bands have played concerts together regularly. Some of these new era straight edge bands include xAFBx, Allegiance, Black My Heart, Casey Jones, Champion, The First Step, Have Heart, Throwdown, Ten Yard Fight, and Verse.