In a day when study after study suggests that young people are drinking and using drugs more than ever, there is a growing sub-culture of youths who swear off not only drugs and booze, but also smoking, meat and sex.
Straight edge, also known as “sXe,” is a popular youth movement closely aligned with the worlds of hard rock music known as hardcore and aggressive whose followers don't drink, smoke or use illicit drugs. A number of area teens say they are a part of the trend.
But as is the case with any movement, there are extremes. Extreme straight edgers, called “hardliners,” abstain from drugs, alcohol and tobacco products, but also don't use prescription and over-the-counter drugs and caffeine, refrain from engaging in promiscuous sex and are vegan or vegetarian.
While the movement is intended to be positive and geared toward self-improvement, the violent actions of some hardliners have sparked concern and divided the movement itself.
In Utah, groups of straight edge teens have been blamed for firebombing a McDonald's restaurant, beating up smokers and drinkers at random and carving “ X” s with razor blades into the backs of those who go against their philosophy.
In Boston, many clubs have banned hardcore and all-ages shows due to violence, which some blame on straight edgers fighting with drinkers. Others, however, claim clubs refuse to book straight edge shows because promoters know they won't make a lot of money without large bar tabs.
Despite the controversy, local straight edgers say the movement is nothing more than a personal lifestyle choice for those disenchanted with society's ills. They say the actions of hardliners, such as the Utah group, have cast the whole movement in a bad light.
“The general stereotype of a straight edger is a kid who listens to hardcore, has a tough-guy attitude and is kind of militant,” says Attleboro High School student Matt Wilding, who is straight edge. “There's so many different types of straight edge kids but what the general public tends to see is the angry, tattooed, spiky-haired, generally (expletive)-off guy.”
Wilding, 17, has been straight edge for about two years. A former casual drinker and marijuana user, he says he adopted the philosophy after coming to a realization that he was wasting his time and brain cells on petty drug use.
“Drugs weren't my life. I didn't have a serious problem and never had to go to rehab or anything,” he explains. “It just got old quick.”
Wilding, singer for Foxboro-based “scre “I don't see a point to bitching at anyone about doing drugs,” he says. “They know it's bad for them. I hang out with a lot of kids who do drugs, sometimes while they're doing drugs. I'm not going to cut out my social life just because there's drugs or alcohol around.”
Locally, there are some “youth crews” — groups of hardliners — but Wilding says they are typically not violent and largely inactive.
“I've seen some violence and heard stories but many of them just have tough-guy attitudes,” he says. “Some kids have the idea that if you're straight edge, you shouldn't deal with kids who aren't. But I don't understand that because if you're straight edge, you should be able to deal with the atmosphere and be strong-willed enough to say no.”
The movement started as an off-shoot of punk rock in the early 1980s and is believed to have derived from a song called “Straight Edge” by Washington, D.C. punk band, Minor Threat. In the song, vocalist Ian Mackaye, lashing out at the era's drug- and alcohol-fueled punk rock scene, sings the now-accepted straight edge mantra, “don't drink, don't smoke, don't (expletive).”
The movement grew throughout the Northeast, especially in Boston and Syracuse, N.Y., and word was spread through underground fan magazines and hardcore and punk music. The music, often not available at mainstream record stores, was, and still is, mainly bought through mail order catalogs and at shows.
During the mid- to late-'80s, Boston became a fertile breeding ground for straight edge bands, including legendary Boston hardcore outfits S.S.D. (Society Systems Decontrol) and Slapshot. Angry bands such as these took the movement to heart and violence was common at shows — sometimes straight edge-related and other times not.
It was at these types of underground hardcore shows where body slamming and the now-common concert phenomenon known as the mosh pit were born.
Today, straight edgers, who sometimes draw large “ X” s on their hands and clothing in black marker, host and promote their own underground hardcore shows, renting out halls and small clubs. Even some mainstream bands have straight edge members, including Belly, Rage Against the Machine and the Foo Fighters, while sXe bands such as Strife, Snapcase and Dillinger Escape Plan are gaining in popularity.
Jacob Bannon, guitarist for Boston-based straight edge band, Converge, started going to underground all ages shows at age 11 in Cambridge, “in search of something,” and quickly grasped onto metal and hardcore. As he grew older and watched his brother and friends have problems with alcohol and drugs, he immersed himself in the local hardcore scene and adopted the straight edge philosophy.
“ I was just an ultra-young, fresh-faced kid, looking for something,” Bannon, 23, says. “ I was really intrigued by the music.”
He formed a band, emulating the styles of groups like Slapshot, Gorilla Biscuits and Sheer Terror. Today, Converge are on the cutting edge of the modern hardcore/aggressive music scene and are at the center of the current straight edge movement.
The band, signed to Boston's Hydrahead Records, has appeared on more than 20 albums and tours incessantly across the globe. They recently returned from Europe and signed a deal to release their newest record on Pennsylvania's Relapse Records, which is considered the world's premier aggressive music label.
“We don't really take any stances,” Bannon explains. “We're just a band. We're all straight edge guys but it's not a big message. It's just our lifestyle choice.”
While some hardliners scorn and refuse to interact with non-straight edgers, Bannon says his band routinely plays shows with bands who drink and do drugs.
“We're not exclusionary in any way,” he says. “We have our opinions but there's no need to force them on anyone else. No good comes out of preaching.”
For Bannon, a part-time Leslie College art teacher who also runs his own graphic design firm, keeping his body free of harmful substances is a natural choice that allows him to thrive in an increasingly competitive world.
“People assume because we're straight that we're dull or not fun,” he says. “But there's so many things in this world that work against us every day. Why would I want to slow myself down and dull my senses when they should be as sharp as possible at all times?”