This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 17, 1999
Straight Edge Kids
It's Saturday night in a downtown Toronto club. The music is throbbing, cigarette smoke fills the air, drinks are being served as quickly as the waitresses can deliver, and singles scan the room for company. In other words, it's another night of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But there's a twist. Tonight's attraction, Vancouver singer Bif Naked - a rising star thanks to her 1998 album, I Bificus, and the hit song Spaceman - takes the stage and shouts, "Live drug-free." Bif, to be sure, is no typical rocker. She has the requisite tattoos and theatrical makeup, but the 28-year-old's repertoire consists mainly of songs about love and life, and she proudly and loudly denounces booze, cigarettes and promiscuous sex.
Her views do not appear to be catching on with the all-ages club crowd. Most of the older fans continue to drink and smoke, and when questioned, some of the more cynical observers regard Bif's puritanical outbursts as publicity stunts. What most don't know is that Bif subscribes to a little-known movement called Straight Edge that espouses, among other things, clean living. "It's a philosophy," she explains later in an interview with Maclean's. "It's a commitment not to do these things for the rest of my life. Every passing year that I have Straight Edge under my belt, I have more conviction about it."
Bif is not alone. There are no hard statistics yet, but the popularity of Straight Edge bands in North America, the sales of albums and the proliferation of related Web sites suggest that thousands of North American teens and twentysomethings have gravitated to the movement. Adherents range from Gap-clad suburban teenagers to tattooed and lip-pierced punk rockers. There are hardliners in the movement who have been linked to a series of violent attacks in Utah, but the vast majority rejects those extreme tactics. For them, Straight Edge is a music genre, a form of hard-core punk rock, that loudly proclaims the merits of life without vices. Bif, though not a punk rocker herself, is a former drug user who first embraced the philosophy two years ago. Straight Edge, she says, helps her stay focused both personally and professionally. "There is a Buddhist saying that when the cloudy pool of water settles, it becomes clear," she says. "That is such a metaphor for my life."
Experts trace the origins of Straight Edge to the late-1970s among teens at punk concerts in New York City and Washington. At first, it had no name, only a symbol. To alert bartenders to underage drinkers, bouncers and doormen would mark teens' hands with an X, and it became a mark of their sobriety and their common cause: when they were legally allowed to drink, many opted not to. The term Straight Edge was coined in 1981 - it was the name of a song written by Ian MacKaye, lead singer of the band Minor Threat. The basic tenets - abstinence from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, casual sex and even meat-eating - gained momentum among kids looking for guidance in a world with few signposts, says Robert Wood, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who has studied and written about the subculture for five years. "It was a reaction to the liberal attitudes towards drinking and promiscuity of the 1980s," says Wood.
Bif fits that description. She straightened out following a string of bad relationships fuelled by alcohol abuse and, earlier, a dangerous, six-month "flirtation" with heroin that nearly killed her. She had heard about Straight Edge from listening to punk-rock music. "I just continued to make bad decisions and have poor judgment when I drank," said Bif. "It became clearer and clearer to me that this is what I needed to do."
Mike Long and Ryan Fukunaga, 18-year-old high-school students in Toronto, opted for Straight Edge after watching their friends get drunk at parties. "These kids were so cool, doing their homework and nice things for mommy and daddy during the week, then on the weekends they would go to parties and get drunk and stoned," said Long, who has abstained for four years. "It's a cop-out." Long and Fukunaga say that by living clean, they are more aware of the bigger issues affecting the world around them. "People aren't paying attention to what is happening in the world," Fukunaga says, then adds: "Staying clean, you can be a more functional member of society."
Except for outspoken musicians like Bif, Straight Edge remains more or less unnoticed and underground. Devotees find out where and when bands are playing through fanzines, flyers posted at alternative music stores and on Straight Edge chat lines and Web sites. Some concerts are held in the basements of suburban homes. Straight Edge bands such as Better than a Thousand and Kill the Man Who Questions often perform alongside other punk-rock bands at community halls and small clubs. "Straight Edge is growing but it's still not a huge movement," said Keeley Nadolny, a 16-year-old Straight Edger from Streetsville, Ont. "So I have to find the music wherever I can."
In some regions, however, Straight Edge is considered to be a dangerous subculture. In Utah, some devotees are being investigated for 40 cases of arson, vandalism and assault, including the torching of a fast-food restaurant. Police have placed Straight Edgers on a list of potentially troublesome groups to watch out for leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. That is in reaction to the fact that a few Edgers are militantly intolerant of non-believers. Andrew Moench, a 19-year-old from Salt Lake City, has been charged with murdering a 15-year-old youth who, police allege, did not respect Moench's Straight Edge point of view. "I've got to die some time," Moench told the U.S. network TV show 20/20. "I might as well be dying standing up for what I believe in. If it resorts to violence, yeah, then I don't have a problem with that."
Some observers blame the violent intolerance on incendiary punk-rock lyrics that rage against the moral decay of society. In My Way, by Judge, includes the lyrics, "Those drugs are gonna kill you if I don't get to you first." And in Words of War, the band Raid issues the warning, "Our war is on, the talk must quit, and all the guilty are gonna get hit." "There is a small minority," says Wood, "who take these beliefs - veganism, living straight - to the extreme of blowing up a lab in the name of animal rights, or beating someone up who doesn't adhere to the same value system." But most of the Straight Edge teens interviewed by Maclean's distanced themselves from the violent factions. Many, in fact, embrace the pacifist teachings of Eastern religions. "I don't like the hardliners who beat up people, and I don't like the kids who just do it because they want to fit in," said Shannon Elliott, a 21-year-old from Victoria. "It's not about that. Straight Edge is about exploring options and more meaning in life."
That sentiment is echoed by Lauren Johnson, a 21-year-old sociology student at McGill University in Montreal. Johnson, originally from Thousand Oaks, Calif., says she smoked and drank until she was 16. She turned to Straight Edge following an incident in which she was sexually assaulted while drunk. Now, Johnson maintains an A average at McGill, writes Regulate, a fanzine about Straight Edge and hard-core music, and plans to attend law school. "I am lucky to find a culture that shares my beliefs and music and other voices that are coming from the same place as me," said Johnson, adding: "I am really interested in making political change in my lifetime, and I can't do that while under the influence of drugs and alcohol."
Maclean's May 17, 1999