This week, we are talking Straight Edge and the Hardcore music scene with not one but two special guests! Colin Eager is a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo who studies youth culture and political radicalization in the Reagan era, and Mark Miller is the host of HMNI Fanzine podcast, a hardcore podcast inspired from his earlier work on hardcore fanzines. Join Marissa, Averill, Colin, and Mark as they discuss music, the Straight Edge scene, activism, and youth culture. It’s a crossover episode you won’t want to miss!
Read the complete transcript.
Hardcore and Straight Edge
Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Averill Earls in conjunction with Colin Eager and Mark Miller
Edited by Marissa Rhodes
Transcribed by Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Averill: In today’s episode we’ll be showcasing the work of our colleague, Colin Eager, a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo and the Tutor coordinator at D’youville College. We’ll also be collaborating with another podcast, Mark Miller and his podcast is HMNI, a 90s hardcore fanzine-turned-podcast. We’ve brought them here to talk about Straight-Edge and it’s very interesting history.
The idea behind this episode was to talk to two people who approach this topic from completely different viewpoints. Colin, a historian studying alcohol abuse in the late twentieth-century U.S. from whose brilliant mind we shamelessly stole the following background. And Mark Miller, is a straight-edge professional photographer and amateur podcaster who’s been a part of the Buffalo hardcore scene for decades. Does amateur mean that you don’t get paid? So we’re amateurs too?
Marissa: Yeah, we’re also amateurs. We don’t mean amateurs like, oh you don’t know what you’re doing.
Mark: I don’t have a studio.
Marissa: Neither do we.
Averill: So we willl hear their thoughts onsxe, youth, race and class, 80s and 90s punk and hardcore, the conservative drug panic, and much much more.
I am Averill
And we are the History Buffs…
Welcome to the History Buffs podcast, where history matters. After today’s show go to iTunes, rate us, and leave a review. We hope you enjoy the episode!
Averill: So today’s episode will be mostly discussion but before we get started let’s set the scene. Again, this is based on Colin’s forthcoming dissertation chapter:
Marissa: In 1981 the term “straight edge” was coined by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat. The song “straight edge” described his life philosophy. He rejected drugs, smoking, drinking and promiscuous sex. Even though straight edge was coined by MacKaye,it was never meant to be a movement but it took off. In an era steeped in sex, drugs and rock n roll, Straight Edge kids (SXe) saw drugs as something that had become mainstream and frat boy party kids were the opposite of what they wanted to be.
Colin: At the same time, amidst a drug panic and AIDS epidemic, a much more conservative movement was brewing. Between the years of 1984 and 1988, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) successfully lobbied the federal government to raise the drinking age to 21. They did so by arguing that 18/19/20 year olds, who had previously been understood to be adults, were actually still kids who needed to be protected, if only from themselves. This era marked a transition in the way that parents viewed and protected their children, which lengthened the period that was traditionally considered to be “childhood.”
Averill: Without intending to, punk kids organized themselves around a regime of clean living that was right in line with the cultural program of the “just say no” Reagan 80s, even as they opposed Reagan and his politics in just about every other way. At the same time, they fit right in as an example of the desire to preserve and extend childhood and youth that drove MADD’s activism. These folks didn’t just decide not to drink/smoke/bang — they made a lifetime commitment to maintaining their innocence, and marked that commitment by adopting the X (which denoted being underage) [aside] oh, when you went into clubs or parties. Oh man, it’s all coming together!
Marissa: Mind blown.
Averill: And tattooing it on their bodies.
Colin: That youth branding was also reflected in band names (Minor Threat, Teen idles, Youth of Today), lyrics, the name given to an entire era of straight edge (the mid-80s “Youth Crew”) and the ubiquitous tendency to refer to people in the scene as “kids” regardless of age. The sociological literature on subcultures suggests that straight edge is different from other youth subcultures, where kids adopt an identity (punk, goth, etc.), wear it for a while and then drop it to assimilate into the adult world. By contrast, straight edge is based on remaining constantly faithful to commitments made in one’s youth, with the key phrase being “true till death.” If the 60s generation proclaimed “hope I die before I get old,” straight edge kids might counter “hope I don’t get old before I die.”
Marissa: On that note….
Averill: Is it question time?
Marissa: Well Mark, can you tell us a little bit about your podcast first?
Mark: Well I used to do a fanzine in the 1990s and it revolved around hardcore and everything. I, like in the recent years, haven’t really been that involved in hardcore. I have been but not as much as I’d like to be. So I guess I use my podcast to kind of keep in touch with hardcore, spread the word for bands and stuff, and just talk to people who are interesting. That’s the main reason why I do it.
Marissa: Awesome. So I guess just very basically, what is sXe to you? How did you get into it?
Mark: Well I think when I was a kid I saw people around me who drank and you know, they weren’t themselves when they drank. So I guess for me sXe has always been about maintaining control. If I experience something I want to remember it. When I was in college I’d see all kinds of people go out and get drunk and they wouldn’t remember what they did. And I was like, why wouldn’t I want to remember what I do? Even in high school, I don’t want to do that. So, I want to you know, keep a clear mind and all that stuff. And I felt, a part of me felt like that if I ever got into drinking it wouldn’t be a good idea. Because it’s just- because of my personality, it would be over. It wouldn’t be good I think. There’s so many times in life where you don’t control what you want, what you can do in life and this is one thing that you can control in life and I want to maintain as much control in life and that’s….
Marissa: Right, but your commitment to kind of a substance-free life, is that kind of connected to your taste in music?
Mark: Definitely. I was always kind of straight edge. I was, when I was little I would take like a sip of my dad’s beer and stuff like that. But uh, growing up I decided that that wasn’t for me because you know, I saw things things that I didn’t really want to see. Um, and straight edge put a label on what I was and um, because of that label there was camaraderie and stuff. As a kid I didn’t have many friends and stuff but once I discovered hardcore sXe I had friends and I kind of had family. That’s always been very important to me. I’ve had friends who have been sXe and we’ve been friends for like 25 years and stuff. That’s you know, it’s just another brand of family that you can have. And the music kind of connects us more. You know we’re friends and stuff but the music connects us even more, than the way we are. When you go to a hardcore show people sing along, they dance and stuff, it’s all together. It’s a whole communal-type thing which I guess is cool.
Mark: It’s what has always drawn me to it.
Averill: Did you answer how you think it’s changed in your time- like what year did you discover sXe…
Marissa: When did you discover- because you said that it gave you a label to something that you already were. When did you start feeling like you were part of a scene?
Mark: I think like in 1992, 1993 is when I actually started going to smaller shows and stuff and became part of a scene. Shortly after I started going to shows I did a fanzine, I would take pictures at shows, that’s how I got into photography, by taking pictures of the bands that I’d go to go see. Because when you grow up you think that only rockstar photographers go to shows and shoot bands and stuff. But in hardcore, you go right up there, get on the stage and take pictures. It was cool. So it was very inclusive to me and that’s why it was- it appealed to me I guess.
Marissa: Yeah no, that makes sense. Do you, is there that same sort of scene today? I know this is a hot topic probably…
Mark: It’s diminished a lot. But I think it always diminishes when you, when you become older. Because you have family, you have a job, you have all that stuff. But I think even for younger kids today, I talk to some younger kids because of my podcast and it’s a lot smaller than it was. But I still think the tight knit community is still there. Even though it’s smaller, there’s still a sense of community, which I think is really cool.
Averill: Colin, speaking as a historian, what about the 1980s do you think really, what do you think inspired the sxe movement? From that zoomed out, this is the 1980s and this is what I see influencing the formation of this?
Colin: So when you, when you get testimonies from the folks who started the movement, they sound, they sound a lot from what we just heard from Mark. They wanted to remain in control, I saw these examples of people who were out of control because of substances and what-have-you, um, I wanted a space where I could belong, I wanted a sense of community, I wanted that, that tribal sense of belonging. Right? Um, so I think that’s kind of the classic answer. When you’re talking about the late 70s and early 80s you’re talking about people who are responding to really well publicized examples of substance abuse, not just in the punk scene but in the wider rock’n’roll scene. You know? The 70s are not known as a time of, you know uh, self-control and demure self possession right?
Colin: We’re talking about Led Zeppelin violating groupies with a shark. There’s all sorts of horrible stories…
Averill: With a live shark?
Colin: With a dead shark I hope. For the shark’s sake at least.
Marissa: Oh my God…
Colln: Look it up.
Colin: So that sense of desiring control in a situation that seemed out of control and a situation where young people had relatively little control over their lives, they could control some things. They could control what they put in their bodies. And you see that in other areas as well. For politically minded young people, a lot of the time the first real step into politics is becoming vegetarian. Right? Because that is something that they can control. Right. They can’t actually create world peace themselves, but they can, they are in charge of that.
Colin: So straightedge gave young people a space that they could actually be in control of.
Marissa: I want to ask, we have this questions sort of marked for Mark but do you think that being sXe sort of politicized you in other ways when it came to animal rights and vegetarianism. Or um, or even um, race and gender equality and things like that. I’ve done some reading about it and some people have said that being a part of straight edge and being a hardcore kid kind of politicized them in a certain way.
Mark: I would that it is because I mean, I found vegetarianism through hardcore. There’s [indecipherable] more, which is about vegetarianism. And that, you hear that, and it makes sense to you. And then you, well this makes sense because hardcore and sXe are full of ideas so, you are thrown all these ideas at you and some of them stick and they stay with you and vegetarianism was one of those ideas. I mean, at hardcore shows back when I started going there was all sorts of politics. There was tables with all sorts of information- you know anti-racist action, vegetarianism, everything. Everything was out there. I learned about a lot of stuff through sXe and hardcore. When you start caring about animal rights- I never even thought about animal rights until I got into hardcore. And uh, it turned me onto that and there are a lot of ideas in hardcore that I at least looked at because people have talked about them and stuff like that so…
Marissa: Right, like isn’t there some connection with Hare Krishnas? Or something like that?
Mark: Definitely, I knew nothing about that except what I say in movies about Hare Krishna. But there’s bands and there was bands in the mid 90s, like Shelter, who that was their whole thing- Hare Krishna. And not, I didn’t like become a devotee or anything but I saw the ideas and I read about them, which was cool. There’s not many types of music where you see ideas and then you actually pursue them. Because a lot of records have, you know, addresses that you can write to, books you can read, stuff like that, which will further educate you. It’s kinda cool. When you go see a show people are always- not so much today- but people are always talking about different topics at hardcore shows, which is always kinda cool.
Colin: And it was a really broad range, right? I mean, you had folks going into the Krishna consciousness movement. You had people who were militant animal rights people. You had people who took a step from that and became hardcore pro-lifers.
Colin: You had right-wing folks, you had racists folks, you had a whole- it’s a very weird rainbow there that we’re talking about.
Mark: And you have even, not necessarily related- I mean they’re in hardcore and punk, but there was the right-wing people, there’s working-class, skinheads and stuff. There’s all different kinds of people who goes to shows and come together to be a part of it. Everyone’s got different views and stuff and you know, it’s like a clash of ideas. I’ve been to shows where people have had debates, pro-choice and pro-life. You know, bands have been talking about stuff and people in the crowd have been yelling back and forth. It’s cool because there’s a dialogue and like, you may think it completely like a liberal-type thing, hardcore and punk, but there are bands are on the other side. People see those bands talking about things, they don’t feel so alone.
Marissa: Right, wasn’t there like a big, sort of, a big deal about some show that happened a couple of years ago where there was a member of the audience who was transgender and was offended by something and the band said…
Mark: Yeah, this band Chokehold, they’re from like the mid-90s and they were like a vegan straight-edge band and like a lot of them don’t really have those ideas anymore. But um, there was a transgendered person at the show and one of the guys in the band said something that offended her? Him? I don’t know. Either way he was offended and I think one of the guys in the band got pissed off or something and punched the person.
Mark: So that led to a bunch of stuff on the internet.
Marissa: It’s interesting because my husband is like a hardcore kid and he, and I heard about this through him, there is this network still of people like dealing with these current issues, like with each other. So like Mark was talking about, there’s still this coming together of really different people and all these really important issues are coming up, um, still. Which is really interesting to me. I think there was one about All Lives Matter too, right?
Mark: Yeah, a singer of a band said something about all lives matter, this was at like the big hardcore fest that they have every year in Philadelphia and you know, there was some debate by what he meant by saying all lives matter- I don’t think he meant all lives matter in like, you know, in anti-black lives matter. He was just talking about things- you know if we said that in the mid-90s it wouldn’t be taken that way but because the landscape has changed, you know you say certain things now and it’s taken the wrong way. And it led to a bunch of blogging and vlogging and people are going back and forth about, you know, about talking about the topic. Which is cool, people are putting their ideas out there and that’s what hardcore is all about. Exchanging ideas, whether they’re on the left, right, top, bottom, whatever. It’s all good.
Averill: Because I, well I’m from Vermont so the hardcore scene exists but I doubt that it’s as diverse or interesting as even the western New York one. I had friends who were a part of it and they were straight edge, and this was like the early 2000s, but they were only straight edge until we got out of high school. And they’re still in a hardcore band, I think they’re band was called Fall to Ashes, or something. I went to a few shows just because I wanted to support them but I- not my scene at all. Um, but do you see that sort of, the kids that got into it in the 2000s as a different sort of breed, from when you got in?
Mark: I think basically it’s the same but the world has changed. So how you found hardcore now is different from it was then. You find it through the internet now and before you found it through fanzines and you know, writing letters to people and being pen pals, and just coming across stuff, Thrasher magazine, like, that’s how you found hardcore. Today you can just go on your computer and find hardcore and back then someone had to bring you in. I think the kids still have the same ideals today, it’s just different how, it’s executed I guess.
Marissa: Yeah, and I wonder if there are divisions sometimes, because I’ve heard of younger sXe kids being referred to as “newjacks” may or may not have been by my husband.
Averill: What does it mean?
Mark: You’re just new. You’re new, Jack.
Marissa: You’re a newb. That sort of thing. You like, say like oh yeah, I know a guy who’s in the hardcore scene, his name is Sean. Oh he’s just a newjack. Whatever. [laughter] But I think that that’s just to show how complex the scene really is and not to say that the generations don’t get along, but it’s….
Mark: I think you have to pay your dues with anything like that. You can’t just come in a be included. I mean, you are but to be taken seriously you have to be around and show that you’re really committed to what you’re doing.
Marissa: And be straight-edge for a while and not just date some guy and be straight edge for a year and then when you break up, drink whatever you want.
Colin: And also like, 18 and 21 are significant boundaries in terms of how people think about who’s straight-edge and who isn’t.
Mark: Right, because you can’t really drink until you’re 21.
Colin: Right, so it doesn’t count.
Mark: No true till 21, or true till college and all that stuff. There’s all sorts of that stuff going around, but you know…
Averill: So that actually is a better segway into my next question Colin. Do you think the sXe kids are this, as a youth movement, or if it still is a youth movement when the threshold is 21, is it different that other youth movements?
Colin: I think there’s a significant difference because there are these chronological age-based markers. So 18 is really important. 21 is really important. And there are questions about whether it counts to be straight edge as a 15 year old, or a 16 year old that there aren’t when it comes to goth. Right? A 15 or a 16 year old is probably the best goth you know, right? But that 16 year old straight-edge kid legally can’t do the things that he’s claiming to reject permanently. And the other thing that is a difference, as far as I understand it, sXe is a life-long committment. It’s not, while I’m an angsty kid I’m gonna paint my face and listen to The Cure or whatever.
Marissa: Like Colin.
Colin: Listen, we talk about The Cure, we can talk about how I never painted my face. We can talk about Morrissey vs Robert Smith. We can talk about that.
Averill: We’ll get to that in another episode.
Colin: But, there are real questions about what this lifetime commitment means when it’s taken by people who are 15 or 16 years old. And that complicates the question, are you still a part of the scene or are you not? And lots of people within the scene will tell you that if you break edge, you’ve invalidated the entire, your entire life as a straight edge person up to that point. So it isn’t simply that you’re done. It’s that…
Marissa: Let’s have Mark weigh in on that.
Mark: There’s a saying “If you’re not now, you never were.” So if you’re committed to straightedge, it’s for life and if you break edge you never really were because you weren’t committed for life. It’s like a gang thing really.
Mark: I mean, I of course, if you were you obviously were. But I know that if you break, you were straight edge at the time. You get shunned and stuff if you break edge. It happens. I’ve had friends who have broken edge and you make fun of them for awhile I guess and that’s just what you do. It’s just part of the whole thing.
Marissa: And they take it and that’s their punishment.
Mark: Yeah, and then you’re friends again. It’s not…
Averill: You don’t cut them off. It’s not like the, what’s the- Scientology?
Marissa: No, it’s not like Scientology.
Mark: I think when people break edge though I think a lot of them go away, and that’s what happens. That’s more of a thing. Most of the friends I’ve had, we haven’t really pushed people away because they broke edge, the people get embarrassed and stuff and they move on to the next portion of their life and that’s what happens. I think people move on rather than people pushing them out of the scene.
Marissa: Right yeah, and I think it’s a lot of pressure to live up to an ideal that you’ve projected for yourself as a youth because you’re young, you don’t have like a job, or like kids to take to take care of. You don’t have the sort of jadedness that you do as an adult.
Colin: There’s much less reason to drink.
Marissa: Yeah. Not as many – you think you have many reasons to drink but then the challenges you face as an adult are so different and I see that struggle with my husband too. Because people will be like, well why don’t you drink? And he doesn’t want to get into the whole thing. And they’re like, well you drank on your wedding right and he’s like no because I don’t drink. It’s not like I don’t drink except for my wedding. It’s I don’t drink and um, I think he asks himself sometimes, wait, why am I doing this again? Oh yeah, you know it’s sort of- he constantly has to go back to that promise he made to himself.
Averill: He’s a thirty-five year old kid.
Mark: It’s like one of the only promises that I’ve maintained to myself that I’ve maintained for forever. It’s like a rock for me, so that’s why it’s very important to me. There’s a lot of things that I’ve done in life that I haven’t like, you know done, stuck with, and that’s one of the things I have so it’s very important to me.
Marissa: Right, so it’s not necessarily a negative thing that you have to, the commitment.
Mark: No. It’s life. It’s how I live my life and that’s just it at this point. I don’t like feel the need to drink. I don’t feel pressure. A lot of people will feel pressure to drink and stuff. I just don’t feel that anymore. It’s just, it’s my life. I don’t even think about it.
Marissa: I think Pat just doesn’t want people to ask him questions about it anymore. He doesn’t feel pressure to drink he just wants people to leave him alone. We’re kind of subjecting you to the questions I guess.
Mark: Yeah, people are like you don’t drink like ever? And I’m like no. I don’t drink. And they’re like are you a recovering alcoholic and all sorts of questions get asked of you and it’s weird like, for people to ask you all these questions. I just don’t drink and that should be it, like why do I have to be grilled because I don’t drink.
Colin: Well because alcohol is absolutely central to adult socializing in America. It’s the default. The default is you have people over and you have a drink. And that’s unquestioned by almost everybody except recovering alcoholics and straightedge people.
Marissa: And Averill, who doesn’t drink but isn’t straightedge or whatever.
Averill: I had one summer. I drank some drinks and that was it. They were too expensive and I was like f*&% this.
Marissa: So I have another question and it’s sort of along the lines of our context question that we asked um, Colin. But I want to know, why do you think, and I think both of you can answer this question in different ways, why did straightedge resonate with 80s/90s punk and hardcore kids? What about these music scenes was conducive to clean living? What is it about that particular music. There’s not like a bevy of like R&B straightedge kids who like listen to R. Kelly and are super straightedge. You know what I mean?
Averill: But the mosh pit, as a concept which is so integral to the shows seems like the perfect place to be completely wasted because you’re just thrashing around and whacking people with drum sticks.
Marissa: No, there’s moves. There’s moves. Like the windmill. [laughter] No, I’m just f&%#ing with you now.
Mark: Yeah, there are moves.
Marissa: There are real moves. I’ve seen them. There are things you do.
Mark: There’s a video by this band called Sick Of It All called Stepdown. Just watch that video, it’s got all the 90s dance moves.
Averill: We’ll link to it in the shownotes.
Marissa: Yeah, we’ll link to it in the shownotes. Can either of you answer that?
Mark: So why I think, in the 80s….
Marissa: Why the marriage of that particular kind of music and straightedge. Is it just because of Minor Threat?
Mark: I think everything comes, because Minor Threat kind of started and then like everything is kind of connected to Minor Threat. And the D.C. hardcore scene, I think everything kind of branched off from that. Even bands like Earth Crisis, like you go back, every like hardcore kid there’s like certain bands that you love and you go back to and like Minor Threat’s one of them. Youth of today, like Sick Of It All, you go back to those bands and it all branches out from those old bands and that’s how it’s connected. You start in one place and it all branched out from there, and that’s why I think it’s still around. Um, but say the question again?
Marissa: So in some ways it just comes back to the person, Ian MacKaye then? Right? Of, he’s the one who chose to live his life that way and wrote a song about it and it just so happened to resonate with people?
Mark: Yeah and it resonated with people but it’s not like, he didn’t mean for it to be a movement and he didn’t make it a movement. You know bands after him picked up the torch. Like Youth of Today made straightedge a movement, they made straight edge like an in your face thing because when they came around the scene was like, waning, and they reenergized it and that’s uh, that’s really where it kind of picked up steam and kind of became like you know, commitment for life didn’t’ start until like Youth of Today and that second wave of hardcore and straightedge and stuff. I don’t think Minor Threat like actually made it that way. Because I guess technically Minor Threat wasn’t even a straightedge band. Youth of Today everyone was straightedge and my band everyone was straightedge and that’s like part of the whole thing. That’s part of our…
Marissa: It became a brand.
Mark: Yeah. That’s part of what we do. Um…
Marissa: [to Colin] Do you have any thoughts on the topic?
Colin: I mean I think that there’s something to be said about an identity or a scene that’s underground, that provides people with a powerful sense of belonging and collective identity. That lends itself to oath taking, right? If you’re at a show for some really popular singer that everybody likes kind of and you’re there because…
Colin: I did take an oath for Shakira but we’ll set that one aside too.
Colin: But if you’re a pop fan, right? You can take it or leave it. You can take this one or that one. You’re not feeling that powerful collected sense of yourself as a member of a group. But if you’re part of the hardcore, right? You are the small core of this movement. Right? Um, and this movement is important to you personally and it gives you friends, uh, family, connection, whatever. Uh, that’s a group that calls for promises to be made, for oaths to be made. That’s why you stand up in front of all the people you know and say to somebody, “I’m going to be married to you forever.” Right? Like…
Marissa: Yeah, I think that also sort of explains then why- what it looks like to be at a hardcore show. I mean, everybody is singing all the lyrics, like the whole time. And that’s one of the questions we wanted to ask you was, what are you capturing when you’re taking pictures at hardcore shows. What are you looking for?
Mark: I mean people, energy and stuff like that. People you know dancing, singing along, stage diving, you know. All of that stuff, I’m just looking for energy. Because you know a regular rock show, you know some rock bands have kind of have the energy but at a hardcore show the guitar players are jumping all the time. I’ve seen guitar players jump into the crowd playing guitar and stuff like that. I’ve seen singers go into the crowd and sing and do all that stuff and that doesn’t exist at like a rock show but at a hardcore show all, you know, the band and the audience are one whole thing. And that’s why it’s better, well not better, but different that you’re regular rock show. You have bouncers and people telling you what to do. At a hardcore show even though it’s violent I’ve seen maybe less than ten people really get injured at a hardcore show. Because are people are always helping each other out and watching each other, we know we kind of police ourselves and I think that’s cool. We are our own community and I think that’s why it’s always appealed to me.
Marissa: Right. A lot of your photographs that I’ve seen, especially some of the older one’s that you’ve posted from, I don’t know like the 90s? Right? Now at this point? You can’t even tell who’s in the band and who’s at the show. Sometimes I’m like…
Mark: Right because bands like in rock where costumes and stuff and they’re bigger than life but at a hardcore show they are like walking around, you’ll be able to talk to them, you know like they’re just like one of you because we’re all on the same level even though some of us are in bands, some of us do certain things, we’re all the same. We’re one unit I guess. There aren’t rock stars, there aren’t people who are better than other people. That’s why it’s cool. It’s like maybe true equality.
Marissa: Well, speaking about equality then- you two will probably have different answers about this but hardcore kids think of themselves- or thought of themselves in the 80s and 90s as aligning with the conservative elements of society, because we know now looking back that they were actually, they had some of these same ideas- at least when it came to the use of substances and promiscuous sex- they had really similar ideas to conservative uh, elements of society and conservatism was becoming very popular in the 80s. Um, do you think that that’s something that you realized when you were younger? I mean did you think of yourself as one with Reagan- or like I’m sure you didn’t. There’s no way you did.
Mark: In one aspect I guess but I don’t think that we were. I think it was more of a coincidence in that way. Like drug-free and all that stuff. Because you can be a lot of different things, you can be drug-free and a satan worshiper. You don’t have to be a drug-free christian. You can do- I think that the positions are independent of each other, I guess. You can be drug-free and you can be a bleep.
Marissa: Ok, so how do you think of it Colin? Because you think of it in a different way than Mark.
Colin: So I think practically there’s no way that these kids were walking around saying, “I’m going to fall in line with Nancy Reagan.” Just say no. That wasn’t happening. And so the challenge as someone who wants to write about this is to tell the story that I want to tell and that I think that’s actually valid, and that I’ve put in the work to earn the right to actually do, without doing violence to the actual lived histories of the people I’m talking about.
Averill: Because they are still living.
Colin: Because they are still living. I’m… I’m…
Marisa: See my 18th century people I can say whatever I want about them.
Averill: They ain’t gonna put up with us.
Colin: Yes but because I’m at the bleeding edge of history, that’s something that I have to think about. Right?
Averill: So what are you going to do?
Colin: What am I going to do?
Averill: Yeah, what are you going to say about lumping them in with Nancy?
Colin: This gets back to what cultural history is, right? And whether it’s valid for historians to make kind of broad statements about what things meant in the past when the people who were actually living that past weren’t conscious of that at all. Right? And I think that a valid thing for historians to do, and if it wasn’t then history would be real boring. It would just be this person was born and said this and then this person died and somebody else was born and said this…
Marissa: It would be a bunch of biographies.
Colin: Exactly. Right? So if you’re trying to write history that is interesting or useful, you’ve got to get a little ambitious and go beyond what’s right there in black and white, on the page from someone at the time. You have to be willing to interpret and be open to the possibility that in doing so you’re going to screw somebody over. Right? Or screw the memory of somebody over.
Marissa: Well in a way it’s like you’re a psychologist and you’re like, “this is actually what you guys were thinking. You were responding to this.” It’s almost like your kind of telling these people where your motivation came from. It can be strange, you know.
Colin: Although think about trying to explain the present to somebody. Trying to explain what’s going on in the country to somebody right now, right?
Marissa: Well, now’s a hard time to do that
Colin: Now is a hard time- but this is a hard thing to do generally. How would you do that without disregarding what some people or lots of people explicitly say about who they are and what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Colin: If you want to actually tell a story about what’s happening in the world you’ve gotta listen to people and take it in and come to some sort of synthesis and spit it out.
Marissa: And you need some time to pass. Right?
Colin: Yeah, maybe.
Averill: Or not.
Colin: I don’t apparently. Some historians need hundreds of years but I’m so good that I can just chew it up and spit it out.
Averill: Also just because the conclusions that Colin draws about the era and the context doesn’t discount the personal stories and the personal choices that people made for getting into the scene.
Marissa: And that sort of goes to the individual agency versus the sort of collective movement of what’s going on. They’re kind of two different things.
Averill: But because a movement there are obviously larger forces at work, cause it’s not just one person making choices.
Colin: Right, exactly.
Averill: And even if it was one person making choices, they would still be a product of their time. We are all products of our time.
Colin: Game over, there it is.
Averill: You know, I’m doing a podcast instead of writing a ‘zine right now….
Marissa: I have a couple of flashpoint questions.
Averill: Flashpoint? Is it yes or no questions?
Marissa: Is/was straightedge a predominantly middle-class white movement? Why or why not?
Colin: Uh- yes.
Mark: Is that it?
Mark: I think it mainly is, you know, I think it’s mainly like a suburban-type thing. There’s a lot of like you know urban people in it but yeah, it’s not urban if you look at it. All the bands who are like big and stuff didn’t come from the inner city. There’s a lot of hardcore bands that came from the inner city but straightedge bands- I mean I think that there’s a different dynamic between the inner city and the suburbs and I think it’s a lot harder for someone from the inner city to like adopt straightedge and stuff. I think there’s a lot of social pressure and stuff, which kind of lessons the likelihood of that happening I guess. Than with you know, a suburban kid I guess.
Colin: There’s also a big divide between British punk and American. Where in the 70s in England, you’re talking about anarchists, broke-ass people who are living in squats and whatever. And then it comes over to the U.S. or it returned to the U.S. after it went to England from New York, and it’s adopted by people in Orange County for instance.
Marissa: So it’s like sanitized…
Colin: It’s not necessarily sanitized because those people from Orange County or wherever are angry, and loud, and very willing to be just as confrontational and in your face as the earlier anarchist squatter punks from England or whatever. Right? But it looks different, it feels different, because it’s an entirely different space. You know 1982 in southern California looks a lot different than 1982 in Brixton. It’s just a different place.
Marissa: So, how did the media portray straightedge kids in the 80s and 90s then? You have you’re idea of how you thought of ourselves as kind of like a family and you’re making this commitment… you know you’re sort of taking this oath. But how did the media, did the media portray straightedge kids as like as like I don’t know, a cult or gang or as dangerous…
Mark: I think some people did. There were specials, you know like news specials about straightedge kids and they were a gang and this and that and people you know, were attacking people at shows for drinking… and I never saw that. I mean, I’ve heard stories about it but I never personally saw people like being violent towards people. You know like we’d joke about it and stuff like that but I never saw anyone attack anyone because they were drinking or anything like that. I think that’s kind of like an urban legend in a way. Like you know, and I’ve seen straightedge and vegetarian and vegan people like lump those two together and if someone you know destroys a factory farm or something, they’ve lumped them in with straightedge. I mean there’s people that do that but that’s not necessarily part of what it is. You know it’s like saying like, you know, all black people are criminals.
Marissa: Or all Muslims are terrorists…
Mark: Yeah, I mean it doesn’t work that way. I mean there are some that are but you can’t lump us all in.
Colin: But every few years there’s an outbreak of stories about straightedge as a gang, as this dangerous undercurrent of kids, it’s this useful hook that the media can use to talk about broader anxieties about youth gone wild and uh, youth violence and all that business.
Marissa: There’s occasional juvenile delinquency panics I’ve noticed in the U.S.
Averill: Every decade.
We have a couple of other questions that only Mark can answer. You mentioned the zines. What role did zines play in your life as a person who was writing and making them, or um, and also the lives of the straightedge kids who read them.
Averill: I would also like to know if they are influencing Colin’s research?
Marissa: Yeah, are you looking at zines?
Colin: I should.
Marissa: Yeah, do you have any fanzines Colin can peruse?
Mark: I do.
Marissa: He’s like an archive.
Mark: Fanzines were how we spread the word and stuff before the internet. You know, Rolling Stone didn’t have reviews of hardcore records. You know, fanzines did. That’s how you kind of spread the word and told people about ideas and stuff and that’s how you kind of learned about bands. You know, interviewing bands in fanzines is how you kinda like saw what kind of people they were before you actually met them. If you ever had a chance to meet them. Because it’s hard for a band you know to be on the East Coast and then go tour the West Coast. You know, it was hard back then to actually see what they were like and all that stuff. So I mean, fanzines were very important to spreading the word and getting it out there.
Averill: How did you make them and how did you distribute them?
Marissa: Right, logistics.
Mark: Well, I had a lot of my friends write for my fanzine. So I’d have different pages by different people but I’d take up the majority of it. I used to uh, “acquire” Kinko’s copy cards and that’s how I would print my fanzine.
Colin: I like that verb.
Mark: But that was more than seven years ago so statute of limitations has run out….
Mark: But yeah, we had a whole network. There was a whole network of things going on in the hardcore scene, I could tell you like lots of stories. Back before, you know when you had to pay for long distance and stuff, people would like hack Radio Shack pocket tone dialers and go to like pay phones and call people across the country to like book a tour for someone. There’s all sort of little like life hacks that we did and that’s how we did it.
Marissa: It’s like an analog life. I love it.
Mark: Yeah, that’s how we did it. We just had to figure out how to do it. It was like the stone age compared to now. It was different.
Marissa: I don’t think of the 80s and 90s as being that far away…
Averill: Oh it’s so far away…
Mark: It’s a lot different yeah…
Averill: The digital age is a real problem, but a glorious one to have.
Colin: Yeah we have the digital humanities.
Averill: We have the digital humanities.
Colin: It’s awesome.
Averill: Until there’s an apocalypse.
Marissa: I have another question, did, so we’ve already kind of talked about straightedge um coincidentally kind of lined up with the national, or uh….
Averill: The Nancy….
Marissa: The national Nancy…ok? Um, but did straightedge appeal to you do you think, because it kind of seemed deviant, like in a good way, like it seemed different, like it seems “I’m not going to go along with the flow.” Because that’s like with a lot of subcultures, that’s the thing, Like when you’re goth, you’re like “I’m gonna be different.” You know like…
Averill: Now they’re vampires Marissa, don’t you know anything.
Marissa: So do you …. And I’m not saying it in like a patronizing way, I’m just saying, because I think it’s interesting, do you think that that was part of it.
Mark: Definitely. I mean, being different you know, is cool , but it’s a matter of if it sticks with you. Because you know, there’s a lot of hardship with being different. You know, like I didn’t fit in with a lot of people I knew. Being into straightedge and hardcore is a pretty like, it’s a pretty white thing. You know, and I was, well I am Black. [laughter] So… you know like I didn’t fit in with a lot of family members. They’re like you know, “what are you doing? What is this? What are you listening to? What is this?” and like you know, it drew me in. And like, that’s what I was in to. I think you stick with it, if it’s what you are. You know some people they do it for a little while and then they grow up and are you know, go on to something else. But for me there was a rebellious like part of it, but it still stuck with me. That’s what I am and that’s all that I am.
Averill: Wait! Another question because we said middle-class and white but is it male dominated?
Marissa: I think some people even like, have doubts that women can even be straightedge.
Averill: Is that a thing?
Marissa: Like, in… am I starting stuff? Because I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard, “well she’s just dating somebody that’s straightedge.”
Mark: Well that’s a joke, kind of a joke. But I mean, there’s not that, I don’t know that many women… I mean, I don’t even know that many men who are straightedge and there’s even fewer women so there’s like, it’s kind of like a really small group. Because when I was going to shows I knew a really small group of people who were straightedge and most of them stopped being straightedge, you know. And there’s less women at shows, so you know, if they stop being straightedge then there’s even less of them. It’s like, it’s not something for everyone. It’s not something for a lot of people. It’s a very like I guess minority thing being straightedge. Not skin color-type, but there’s not that many people who are straightedge and who are committed to it at all.
Marissa: And even fewer women.
Colin: Well if you, I mean, there are a lot of ways in which it’s not just numerically dominated by men but it’s masculinist. Like the singer who’s got his fist out there who’s screaming at the top of his lungs- there’s a pit where people appear to be punching and kicking each other, right? It’s an agro-sort of setting, right? It’s not to say that there aren’t agro women out there because I don’t want one of them to come up and ….
Marissa: I always thought that
Averill: I’m behind a couch…
Mark: I think there are more women at shows nowadays than there ever have been. It’s like, I think the younger generation has become more like, has become more inclusive I guess, or more women are finding that it’s for them and everything. You know because I go to shows today, and there are less people at shows, but there’s a bigger percentage of women at shows, which is good.
Marissa: And then there’s one more topic that we haven’t discussed much, which this episode was supposed to be about.. Which is youth. The whole idea of youth and the importance of youth. I mean, is that something that you realized? I mean I always called my husband a hardcore kid, and he’s 35 and I never thought about it until I read Colin’s thing, I never thought about it that it was weird that I called…
Averill: A grown man…a kid…
Mark: Well there’s a Seven Seconds song, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Seven Seconds…
Averill: I am!
Marissa: You are?
Averill: Yeah, I’ve heard of them.
Marissa: Really? I don’t believe you.
Mark: Seven Seconds has this song called Young Until I Die and that’s like, you know, that’s like an anthem. I mean obviously you grow up and stuff but I mean, I’ve always you know, maintained a sense of youth and stuff like that. You know, going to shows and you know, I don’t think you have to- I don’t know what growing up actually is. You know, I listen to music and I’ll always listen to and like what I like but you know other parts of my life I have two jobs, I have kids and you know all that stuff. But it’s, I don’t think listening to you know, like a juvenile type of music has anything to do with like maturity, it’s just what you like. I don’t feel like a need to change the way I feel about it just because I’m getting older.
Marissa: But do you think it makes it harder to age, I think, I’ve seen like….
Averill: [spooky voice] Are you afraid of impending oldness?
Marissa: No, I mean.. I don’t want to age.
Colin: Is there a picture up in the attic aging away?
Averill: Dorian Grey…
Marissa: I think just, the few people that I know who are straightedge and from the hardcore scene, they do have this sort of like.. Sort of a fear of growing up and sort of like um, lamenting having to grow up.
Mark: I mean I think a lot of people are you know, juvenile, maybe, or they don’t want to grow up but I think that’s true of a lot of people in a lot of different walks of life. Like I have a friend who’s, he got divorced from his wife and his wife umm, him and his wife have five kids. And you know when people get divorced the mom will take the kids or whatever, but his wife just sort of, she’s like 45 years old she decided to start partying. And I think a lot of people, I don’t think it’s just confined to straightedge and hardcore, I think a lot of people you know, I mean 40 is the new 30. I think a lot of people become more immature as they get older, depending on what station they are in life. Depending on relationships and stuff and all that stuff. Basically it’s more magnified with us, but I think a lot of people just don’t grow up. At large I think there are a lot of people who haven’t grown up and they are still as immature as they ever were.
Marissa: But it’s easier when someone’s a hardcore kid to say that it’s coming from that. To say that it’s related to that.
So how do you think of youth in your work, in talking about this historically. How do you think of youth as playing into this. So why is that important?
Colin: So, um, one of the big things that my work is going to hang it’s hat on is talking about this change in the way that people think about what constitutes youth and what constitutes maturity. Right? So that you have this activist group that redefines the drinking age upwards to 21 and in the process raises one of the markers that’s supposed to indicate when you’ve arrived as an adult. Right? I’m interested in this process of defining childhood upwards because I’m talking about MADD, and they are a maternalist organization, and they draw their power from their identity as grieving mothers. So the larger the group of people who can be defined as children, the greater their potential power is, right?
Averill: Mother power.
Colin: Mother power. They are one example of this much larger process that I talk about where people are increasingly thinking of 18, 19, 20 year olds and 25 year old, 30 year olds, as um, if not kids anymore then not adults either. And so they’re proper subjects for regulation by the state. They need to be protected from others, from themselves and you know, it’s one of the reasons why we see all of these movies, all of these TV shows about the 35 year old guy who sits on his couch and is married to his mom. Right, like the whole Seth Rogen, oeuvre, which is a French word…
Marissa: It means work.
Averill: That’s what you can call Seth Rogen’s movies, his work?
Colin: Yeah, his you know whatever. Yeah but all those movies, those Judd Apatow movies are about guys who need to grow up. Right? Because they’re twenty-something or thirty-something and they haven’t achieved any of the markers of adulthood that used to apply. Right? They don’t own a home…
Averill: Until they knock someone up…
Colin: Until they knock someone up exactly. Right. They’re not married, they don’t have kids, they don’t have a real career. All these things that previous generations achieved early-on and marked them as adults, aren’t really um, as in play nowadays.
Marissa: Right but doesn’t a lot of that have to do with the economy and not being able to afford being an adult?
Colin: Exactly. So that’s what I talk about in my dissertation which will be done sometime before the Rapture and available for you all to read. Um…
Averill: Really? Do you have a date?
Colin: Uhhh, for the Rapture? Yes. But not for, not for the dis.
Averill: But we can’t put that on.. .because it’s a secret.
Colin: But yeah, post like 1973 when the post-war boom ends finally, it’s just a much harsher environment in which to raise kids. So you can’t simply say I’m going to get you to 18, you’re going to graduate high school and then you’re out the door. And you can get a job that will support you and a family and all that stuff.
Averill: Good ‘ol days.
Colin: The good old days right. [laughter] Supposedly right?
Averill: [sarcasm] Making America great again.
Colin: Uhhhh you see?
Averill: I see.
Colin: So in the aftermath of all of those changes to have a successful kid who has a successful life and supports itself and has a family and all that stuff you’ve got to pay attention and groom and give them the piano lessons and get them to the right school and…
Marissa: Get them in volunteering…
Colin: Yeah, and that whole helicopter parent thing right. So that they’re ready for this leaner and meaner world that’s come into existence. And one of the effects of that is people go to school for much longer, people are dependent on their parents for longer, so much longer. Some more than others.
My interest in the straight edge piece is that I spend all this time talking about how adults and adult activists are using children, right. How MADD is using images of children in parenting role to move this legislation about drunk driving for instance. So I want to go look at it from the other side and see what we’re young people thinking about their position in the early 80s as it pertains to drugs, alcohol, whatever.
Averill: So straightedge kids, SADD, that kind of stuff.
Marissa: Students Against Drunk Driving
Averill: Was SADD the 1980s too?
Colin: So I’m looking at SADD. They’re onboard with you know, Nancy, more or less. Although the Reagan administration looks a little askance at SADD a little bit because SADDs message now and then is “You know it’s okay to drink now and then, but don’t be crazy about it.”
Colin: So there’s, “have a few pops but maybe don’t drive.”
Averill: But not pops, beers.
Colin: Right. Yeah.
Averill: It’s confusing because we’re in the midWest and they call soda, pop here.
Colin: Yeah we do.
Marissa: So just to kind of wrap-up here, does that sound familiar to you? So Colin coming up with this sort of analysis or interpretation of what is going on at this time, that you lived through. Do you like recognize yourself in that? You know what I’m saying? Or no?
Mark: I guess I don’t look at it from that perspective. You know it’s just life I guess, it’s just how I lived it. You don’t, I guess I don’t analyze life. You…
Mark: I guess kind of try to live it you know. And that’s pretty much it.
Marissa: But does that make, I guess, what do you think of, I mean, how do you react to that?
Mark: I think we’re such like, we’re such a small group that it’s, I guess, I feel like we’re not in the map. We’re not like you know, that important of a thing or, we’re just a think. That’s just what we do. I mean there’s like this movement and all that stuff but it just happened. It’s how I live, it’s not like a thing. You know what I mean?
Averill: Is that, but is that specific do you think to the hardcore movement? Because when you think of like the hippies and the college student revolution they were like, “we’re doing a revolution right now, we’re changing the world with our protest.”
Colin: And they used that voice too.
Averill: Yes, I have a voice for every moment in history. That, that’s like a clearly defined youth movement and that thinks it’s changing the world. And then the hardcore scene probably, I mean it’s not as big as obviously the college student hippie revolution, but it still has the same kind of impact and changes lives, and reflects the moment, just as much as the hippie movement of the 60s.
Marissa: But it’s also very exclusive too. It’s not, as you said, maybe more inclusive now than it used to be, but in the early days it was very kind of exclusive sort of club. And so, in some ways they don’t want everyone in on this.
Colin: But just to be totally honest about it, in the craft of coming up with a history- straightedge is really convenient for me right? Because straightedge comes along in the early 80s in Washington, D.C. at the same time that Ronald Reagan rolls into town. So that’s a coincidence…
Averill: Is it?
Colin: Well.. but it’s a coincidence that I can use to talk about stuff. So there isn’t necessarily a connection between this development and that development, because there isn’t right. There isn’t that Ronald Reagan was going down to the Discord House and talking to the people there. That wasn’t happening. But, it was happening in the same time and the same place and the irony that you have these kids who are really radical who at the same time are reflecting part of the cultural program of Reagan, that irony is really useful for me. Because I can talk about where um, I can use it to talk about where young people and substances play into this larger cultural development. And if we’re honest about it, I think a lot of history is full of those sorts of convenient coincidences rather that beautifully provable one to one cause and effect, correlation, whatever…
Marissa: Right but I think that that’s, they’re still products of what came before them. So in that sense they’re related. Coinciding with something, means you have at least that in common and you have an origin in some sense in common. So I think that they are related.
Colin: And I mean, the biggest claim that I make is that in fact they are related. Because there are these big changes in the way that people think about young people and children that produce not just straightedge and not just Mothers Against Drunk Driving but also the Reagan Revolution itself. Because you have a guy who’s able to play on people’s fears that their children are in danger, that their families are falling apart, he frames the nation as a family who is endangered from without and within. And that whole- his win is powered by people’s increased willingness that children and family are under threat.
Colin: So that’s the big argument that connects everything, hopefully, with fingers crossed.
Marissa: Yeah, mind blown.
Averill: I see it. This was your defense, Colin you have a PhD!
Averill: David Herzberg was in the closet! Just kidding.
Wait, one final question, do you wear earplugs and is that a sign of weakness?
Mark: I wear earplugs when I go to shows but I don’t wear earplugs when we play.
Marissa: Because he’s in a band. I should have included that in the introduction. Sorry.
Mark: It’s cool.
Averill: What is your band name and when are they next playing.
Mark: We’re called Black X and we’re playing next Wednesday.
Averill: Everyone who wants to go catch Black X… free promo.
Where are you playing?
Mark: The Mohawk Place.
Averill: The Mohawk Place, is that in Buffalo?
Averill: In Buffalo, NY. Everyone come from Canada and New Zealand and wherever you’re from.
Marissa: Yeah that Vermont hardcore scene that Averill was talking about.
Averill: It’s a real thing. I’m going to share this with all of my friends on facebook.
So well, thanks Mark and Colin for joining us.
Collective: You’re welcome.
Averill: For the History Buffs, I’m Averill.
Marissa: And I’m Marissa.
Averill: And we’ll see you next time. Say goodbye!
Show Notes and Further Reading (and Listening!)
Ross Haenfler, Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean Living Youth, and Social Change, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005).
Ross Haenfler, Subcultures: The Basics, (London: Routledge, 2013).
Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (London: Routledge, 1979).
Gabriel Kuhn, Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics, (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).
Jamie Mullaney, “All In Time: Age And The Temporality Of Authenticity In The Straight-Edge Music Scene,” Journal Of Contemporary Ethnography 41:6 (2012): 611-635.
Robert Wood, “The Straightedge Youth Sub-Culture: Observations on the Complexity of Sub-Cultural Identity,” Journal of Youth Studies, 6:1 (2003): 33-52.
Devil’s Advocate-Buffalo Style Demo 2005
Minor Threat-Straight Edge
Youth of Today biography on Revelation Records