David M. Krueger on Punk Rock and Religion
Growing up in rural Minnesota during the 1980s, I was somewhat insulated from the lesser-known cultural trends that seemed to originate in big cities on the nation’s coasts. My musical exposure was limited to the schmaltzy, white gospel music adored by my parents and the vapid, commercialized pop music I heard on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. It is not surprising that I had never heard of hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat until after they had broken up. However, when I first got my hands on a friend’s dubbed mix tape and listened to Ian MacKaye belt out the lyrics to “I’ve Got Straight Edge,” my life was changed.
I’m a person just like you
But I’ve got better things to do
Than sit around and smoke dope
‘Cause I know I can cope
Laugh at the thought of eating ludes
Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue
Always gonna keep in touch
Never want to use a crutch
I’ve got straight edge!
Minor Threat’s music resonated with me on two levels. First, the rapid-fire rhythms and angry vocals resonated with my teenage angst about not fitting in with the popular kids. Second, their music’s admonitions against drinking, drugs, and sex gave me path of rebellion that allowed me to continue practicing the moral lifestyle mandated by my Evangelical Christian faith.
As the punk rock movement evolved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it gave birth to a louder and more aggressive subgenre known as hardcore. Characterized by its ferocious speed, in-your-face political protest, and a DIY ethos that eschewed the commercialism and celebrity worship in mainstream music, the movement was birthed in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but soon spread to Washington DC, Boston, New York, and countless other cities throughout out the United States. One popular strand of hardcore movement was known for its opposition to the alcohol and drug abuse rampant in broader punk movement. Known as the straight-edge scene, bands like Minor Threat and 7Seconds popularized a lifestyle that eschewed alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity. In essence, the straight-edge movement became a counter-culture movement within a counter-culture movement.
Although Ian McKaye has clearly stated that he never intended to start a movement, some straight-edge bands spread their message of asceticism with a fundamentalist fervor. The Boston hardcore band Society System Decontrol (SSD), took a militant, Puritanical stance toward those who did not embrace their lifestyle. Most observers have noted that early straight-edgers were critical of organized religion, and particularly, religious authority. This is certainly true, but religious ideology influenced early straight-edge leaders in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. For instance, the Rastafarian-hardcore group known as the Bad Brains influenced Ian McKaye and others with a quasi-religious philosophy known as Positive Mental Attitude. Additionally, scholars of the straight edge movement have noted, but not sufficiently explored, the influence of the New Christian Right that fostered a culture of conservatism during this time period.
Americans have often had an uncomfortable relationship with alcohol, and sobriety movements such as the straight edge scene have been around for a long time. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, starting in the late nineteenth century, had profound impact on American’s attitudes toward alcohol and was instrumental in bringing about the United States’ experiment with Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Even to this day, alcohol consumption per capita in the US has long been much lower than in other Western countries. The enduring appeal of the straight-edge movement must be considered within this cultural history.
Despite the fact that most early straight-edgers shunned organized religion, the scene’s promotion of a sober lifestyle would eventually resonate with scores of religious adherents throughout the US and beyond. As Robert T. Wood noted, the “secular” straight edge scene sometimes functioned as a pathway into these religious traditions. Starting in the late 1980s, several straight-edge leaders gravitated toward the International Society for Krisna Consciousness (ISKCON). Bands like the Cro-Mags and Shelter popularized the Krishnacore movement, which melded hardcore punk with the ascetic lifestyle of Krishna devotees.
Evangelical youth also found appeal in the straight-edge scene because it enabled them to safely rebel against the aesthetic tastes of their parents while still upholding the standards of a Christian lifestyle. It also provided a means by which they could proselytize secular punk rock enthusiasts. More recently, Muslim American youth began to embrace the hardcore scene in greater number inspired by the novel The Taqwacores written by Michael Mohammad Knight. The Arabic term “taqwa” can be translated as “God-consciousness” and “Taqwacore” youth have used hardcore punk to challenge Islamaphobia and racism in American culture, while also critiquing traditional Muslim values. Additionally, some Buddhists have found a resonance between straight edge hardcore philosophy and the teachings of the Buddha as exemplified by Brad Warner’s book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality.
In the last decade, a number of excellent popular and scholarly works have considered the hardcore punk scene in general, and the straight-edge scene in particular. Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History first published in 2001 includes interviews, visual imagery, and a discography of the 1980s hardcore scene. The book inspired the creation of the documentary American Hardcore distributed by Sony Classics in 2006. Two academic books written by sociologists were published in 2006: Robert T. Wood’s, Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture and Ross Haenfler’s Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean Living Youth, and Social Change.
Wood uses a diverse collection of interviews along with lyrical and semiotic analysis to illustrate the schismatic nature of the movement. Haefner investigates the themes of resistance and group identity while paying particular attention to roles of gender and masculinity. An edited volume titled Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics highlights global dimensions of the movement and emphasizes its radical leftist politics. Most recently, Swedish scholar of Islam, Anthony Fiscella, published an article on the history of Taqwacore in the journal Contemporary Islam, and sociologist Amy McDowell has compared and contrasted the use of antagonism in Christian and Muslim hardcore for the journal Qualitative Sociology.
All of these publications have made important contributions to the public’s understanding of the movements I have described, yet more work can be done. As several have noted, the straight-edge hardcore scene provides an excellent case study of fluid religious identities and explores the boundaries and intersections between religion and popular culture. The hardcore punk movement is more than just straight-edge scene and the straight-edge scene is more than just the various religious manifestations that have emerged since the late 1980s. However, the category of religion, broadly construed, can provide a fruitful path for future efforts to better understand the various subcultures of punk rock.