Case Studies: Well Being Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 23

straight edge well being

“The basic tenets of [the] Straight Edge (sXe) [lifestyle] are quite simple: members abstain, completely, from drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and usually reserve sexual activity for caring relationships, rejecting causal sex… Many sXers even shun caffeine and medicinal drugs… These sXe ‘rules’ are absolute; there are no exceptions and a single lapse means an adherent loses any claim to the sXe identity.”  (Haenfler, 2007, p. 10, p. 36, p. 10)

Numerous academic articles and entire books have been written about the primarily youth-based Straight Edge (sXe) culture.  It is not my intention to give a complete historical analysis or summary of the sXe movement, but rather to give a brief and general outline of the lifestyle and explain how it applies to heavy metal and hardcore music.  Additionally, although the sXe movement is not based in a political agenda, politics are a “logical extension” of the sXe lifestyle, which in itself can be considered an “important weapon” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 59, p. 55).

Singer Ian MacKaye from the seminal hardcore band, Minor Threat, changed the world in 1981 with his culture-defining song “Straight Edge” from the album Minor Threat. The following lyrics launched the entire sXe culture by inspiring “thousands of young people to give up (or never start) using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products” over the last two decades (Haenfler, 2007, p. 7).  MacKaye exclaims,

“I’m a person just like you / But I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and fuck my head / Hang out with the living dead / Snort white shit up my nose / Pass out at the shows / I don’t even think about speed / That’s something I just don’t need / I’ve got the straight edge

I’m a person just like you / But I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and smoke dope / ‘Cause I know that I can cope / I 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 the straight edge”  (MacKaye, Nelson, Baker, Preslar, & Hansgen, 1983)

The fundamental Straight Edge values of abstinence, activism, clean living, sexual responsibility, self-actualization, and resistance define the movement and lead to social transformation through “involvement with progressive causes” and an overall positive outlook on life (Haenfler, 2007, p. 35).  Haenfler (2007) states that the underlying ideology of the Straight Edge movement is to resist social standards and traditional expectations in attempts for a more “meaningful… path… toward greater self-actualization [and] spiritual quest for a genuine self, a ‘truth’” (p. 47; p. 49).  Members of the sXe subculture are also renowned for their evangelical efforts of spreading the word of sXe values, and as Haenfler (2007) states, “straight edge remains nearly inseparable from the hardcore music scene” (p. 9).

The progressive punk ideals, aggressive hardcore music and conservative and responsible lifestyles of sXe’rs created an intriguing dichotomy that completely contrasted the traditional “live fast, die young” outlook of the previous generations’ “youth gone wild” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 8, p.7).  In stark contrast to the “hippies, punks, and skinheads,” sXers use their music, involvement in the subculture, and “clear, drug-free mind[s] as pivotal to developing a consciousness or resistance” (Haenfler, 2007, p.53).  Vegetarianism and environmentalism also became primary concerns for the sXe culture during the mid-to late-1980s, largely in part of New York’s Youth of Today, who released the animal rights anthem, “No More” on the 1988 album, We’re Not In This Alone,

“Meat eating / flesh eating / think about it / So callous to this crime we commit / Always stuffing our face with no sympathy / What a selfish, hardened society so / No More / Just looking out for myself / When the price is paid is the life of something else / No More / I won’t participate.” (Cappo, Porcelly, Philips & Pesce, 1988)

Straight Edge band members viewed themselves as influential leaders capable of educating people about the dangerous realities of animal cruelty, eco-destruction, and, of course, substance-free lifestyles, and legions of youths subscribed to the messages within the music (Haenfler, 2007).  Straight Edge members expanded their culture and shared ideas through music, concerts, and fan magazines that featured reviews, interviews, stories and artwork that touched on a number of additional topics, including homelessness, police brutality, and even “the movement to free journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 26).  Haenfler (2007) additionally reveals that the founders of Commitment Records build upon the drug-free sXe mindset in their lives, commercial business, and approach to activism by stating,

“For the people involved in Commitment Records, straight edge means more than just not drinking, not smoking and not using drugs…. In our eyes, these are just necessary conditions… for the really important things; creating a society, based on mutual respect, without prejudice, hate and ignorance; working for a world without the big differences in welfare which exist nowadays, a world where humans, animals an the environment have a priority, and not economic growth and monetary considerations.  There is not place for hard-line attitudes, racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, Satanism and masochism in Straight Edge.” (p. 75)

The amount of dedication that members have towards the sXe movement is quite obviously more profound and intense than involvement in other subcultures.  Although the sXe movement has no official headquarters, mission statement, or other types of formal operating procedures, members all around the world have agreed to act on a set of “fundamental principals” that transcend national boundaries and offer support to an entire network of fervent followers (Haenfler, 2007, p. 63).  The core values of resistance to social pressures, positive attitude, and clean living have thus created a community based on well-being, leading by example, living as an individual and of course, enthusiasm for hardcore and heavy metal music (Haenfler, 2007).

Rather than being an antisocial, negative refusal of mainstream conformity, Straight Edge is an extremely positive movement that, “turn[s] a mirror on society” by encouraging members, peers, and family members to actualize their inner most aspirations and “live up to their ideals” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 192).  The Straight Edge scene greatly expanded with “renewed energy and passion” during the “Victory Style” era in the mid-1990s, which was propelled by bands like Earth Crisis, Snapcase and Strife, who pushed the boundaries of militancy and aggression in their heavy metal music and lyrics (Haenfler, 2007, p. 87).  Increasing media coverage of Straight Edge since 1997 has also greatly increased the popularity of the movement, and new artists continue to emerge and spread the word of Straight Edge through their new styles of metal.  Arguably the most important band to use heavy metal to spread the word of Straight Edge, however, is Syracuse, New York’s Earth Crisis.

Earth Crisis’ early releases, All Out War (1992) and Firestorm (1993), initiated an insurgency in militant Straight Edge membership, and thus transformed the entire subculture in the mid-1990s (Haenfler, 2007).  The band was adamantly political, spoke out about social injustices and environmental destruction, evangelized vegan diets and animal rights, and, with their metal-influenced hardcore sound, became the “national voice for sXe” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 6).  Thousands of adolescents were directly influenced by the rhetoric of Earth Crisis to adopt strict sXe lifestyles, and many adherents became especially outspoken in regard to environmentalism, veganism and animal rights (Haenfler, 2007).  Many fans were educated about the vegan lifestyle through Earth Crisis lyrics, and in addition to refusing to consume meat, eggs, milk or any other type of animal product (including honey), many vegans also refuse to wear leather, suede, and wool, and also make special efforts to support companies that do not test their products on animals (Haenfler, 2007).

Singer Karl Buechner’s lyrics from Earth Crisis’ Victory Records 1995 album, Destroy The Machines, encapsulate the ideologies of the Straight Edge movement in bombastic heavy metal anthems that proudly castigate substances, impurities, and intoxicants of all sorts.  The lyrics from “The Discipline” are an undeniable excoriation of drugs and alcohol,

“Straight Edge – The Discipline / The key to self-liberation is abstinence from the destructive escapism of intoxication / I separate from the poison – a mindlessness I’ve always abhorred / Usage will only increase the pain – a truth I constantly see ignored / The pollutants that kill the body breed apathy within the mind / From drug clouded lungs and veins motivation dissipates / Imprisoned within addiction abuse increases until death overtakes,” (Buechner, Crouse, Edwards, Merrick & Weichmann, Destroy The Machines, 1994)

And the song “New Ethic” vehemently censures the meat production industry,

“This is the new ethic! / Animals’ lives are their own and must be given respect / Reject the anthropocentric falsehood that maintains the oppressive hierarchy of mankind over the animals / Their lives reduced to biomachines – In the factory farm and laboratory / Dairy, eggs, and meat – fur, suede, wool and leather are the end products of torture, confinement and murder.” (Buechner et al, 1994)

Earth Crisis was the initial inspiration for countless metalheads to become Straight Edge, and thus, “almost single-handedly chang[ed] the scene” (Haenfler, 2007, p.94).  The following examples of Straight Edge artists are taken from Haenfler’s (2007) all-encompassing book, Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change, which provides a detailed inventory of Straight Edge bands and their respected eras:

“Old School” (1979-1985): Negative FX, The Abused, Teen Idles, Minor Threat, SSD, DYS, Faith, Justice League, Uniform Choice, Stalag 13, 7 Seconds.

“Youth Crew” (1985-1991): Slapshot, Youth of Today, Bold, Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, Straight Ahead, Project X, Side By Side, Uniform Choice, Insted, Hardstance, Inside Out, Unit Pride, Chain of Strength, No For An Answer, 411, Against the Wall, Chorus of Disapproval.

“Politically Correct” (1989-1995): Bane, Mouthpiece, Shelter, 108, Battery, Forced Down, Outspoken, Endpoint, By The Grace of God, Trial, Stretch Armstrong.

“Victory Style” (1991-2001): Snapcase, Earth Crisis, Path of Resistance, World’s Collide, Strife, Integrity, Confront, One Life Crew.

“Youth Crew Revival”/”Metalcore” (1997-2006): Ten Yard Fight, In My Eyes, Fastbreak, Have Heart, Floorpunch, Ensign, Shutdown, Hands Tied, Good Clean Fun, Count Me Out, Down To Nothing, Carry On, Allegiance, Champion, Time Flies, Eighteen Visions, Torn Apart, Throwdown, Prayer For Cleansing (p. 218-219).

Clearly, the sXe scene is a thriving subculture of dedicated and positive individuals.  Members of these bands also found themselves in positions of power because of their profound influence on legions of fans.  Haenfler (2007) states that as forerunners in the sXe movement, as well their crucial role as composers of hardcore and heavy metal music, charismatic leaders like Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds of 7 Seconds, Rick Rodney of Strife, Ray Cappo of Youth of Today and Earth Crisis’ Karl Buechner were tremendously influential and collectively incited thousands of youth fans to adopt Straight Edge and vegetarian lifestyles.  These findings demonstrate how the “pernicious” influence of heavy metal on adolescents could not be more invalidated (Binder, 1993, p. 753).  While not necessarily related with the sXe scene, other bands have used heavy metal music and their positions as influential micro-celebrities to express their concerns for animal rights.

Previously-mentioned British band Carcass played a significant role in the incipient death metal and grindcore genres with their technical guitar riffs, growling vocals, and dirty production quality, but the band’s elaborately composed, gore-centered, and medically accurate lyrics also had an impact in terms of promoting meat-free diets (Purcell, 2003).  Carcass uses the human body as a “theater for disgusting and perverse entertainment” by describing grotesque and “absurdly revolting” scenarios with convoluted medical terminology (Purcell, 2003, p. 44).  Songs like “Manifestation On Verrucose Urethra” and “Microwaved Uterogestation” from 1988’s Reek of Putrefaction and “Lavaging Expectorate Of Lysergide Composition” from 1991’s Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious provide prime examples of material that is “bizarrely comical” due to its outrageously verbose titling and brutal sound, yet the lyrics are composed of linguistically accurate medical terminology. The music and lyrics are crafted with scientific precision, quite literally, in that the words are derived from the annals of human anatomy and the instrumentation of the songs is both progressive and demanding. The artwork for these Carcass albums are similarly crafted with images seemingly extracted from mortuary science textbooks; featuring collages of skinned humans, autopsied corpses, and close-ups of extracted tissue.  Gore images and lyrics like these invert perceptions of what is attractive or acceptable and thus “represent an attack on cultural norms and values” (Purcell, 2003, p. 178).

Much like horror films, the “disgusting body-based horror” of gory death metal lyrics allow listeners to live vicariously through the characters and situations in the songs, and thus “permit[s] a vacation into man’s repressed bestial nature” (Purcell, 2003, p. 175).  This plays into vegetarianism because audiences often interpret these themes in terms of the reality of the human body and the lives on animals that are reduced to food industry byproducts.  Death metal songs “reduce life and its values to a nearly absolute minimum,” which forces listeners to contemplate the nature of such foundational elements of “good and evil, positive and negative, monstrous and human” (Purcell, 2003, p. 178).  One subject in Purcell’s (2003) studies indicated that his anti- meat interpretation of corporeally-based gore lyrics was caused by the “blurred boundaries between the psyche (mind) and the soma (body),” and results as follows,

“If an organ that defines an aspect of our individuality could be transplanted, it became inescapable that we must be made up of interchangeable parts… Cut us open and we all look like the meat counter in a supermarket… we are all just slabs of meat” (Paul, 1994, p. 386 cited in Purcell, 2003, p. 182).

Thus, in the gory lyrics of death metal music, the bodies of both man and animal become vessels for evasive exploration, disgusting interchangeability, and at times, rapine carnage. The true-to-life medical terminology and horrific fantasy of the lyrics present a bizarre dichotomy that have indeed caused audience members to refuse to consume these sickeningly described flesh products that obscure the boundaries between “inside and outside, self and other” (Purcell, 2003, p. 181).

One act that is currently spearheading and expanding this movement is San Diego, California’s viciously violent and vegetarian Cattle Decapitation.  Their albums Human Jerky (1999), Homovore (2000), To Serve Man (2002), Humanure (2004), Karma.Bloody.Karma. (2006), and The Harvest Floor (2009) all provide ample accounts of insanely gory and misanthropic lyrics, repulsive artwork (which has been censored), and histrionic song titles that are all based in reality and factual accounts of everyday human activities that are interpreted as repulsive.  Cattle Decapitation has used their music to voice their discontent with various institutions like the meat production industry (“I Eat Your Skin,” “A Body Farm,” “Success Is…(Hanging By The Neck),” “The Product Alive”), modern medicine (“Colonic Villus Biopsy Performed On the Gastro-Intestinally Incapable,” “Suspended In Coprolite”), war (“Hypogastric Combustion By C-4 Plastique,” “Applied Human Defragmentation”), environmentalism (“The Regurgitation of Corpses,” “Humanure”), religion (“Unintelligent Design”) and even seemingly innocuous entities like community swimming pools (“Into The Public Bath”). The following lyrics from the 2002 song, “Lips and Assholes” use gore and filth to deplore the makers of hot dogs,

“All your life you never knew what went into the meat / As good as any roadkill you’ll find in the street / They made that shit from discarded bits of snouts and lips / Rat feces swept from the rafters now food in the hereafter / Ah, your ignorance astounds me / No rhyme. No reason. / No boundary to how insane we have become…

The juice off the floor becomes an additive / A waste bin of gore thrown in for shits and giggles / Helpless heap at the mercy of some freak / Some fuck in charge of decontaminating the meat / Who wipes his ass without washing his hands / You must understand that everyday you ingest some sort of disease…

You did not kill it. / You did not clean it. / You’d probably fuck it if you couldn’t eat it / Sick, depraved everyday human / Stupid consumer with faith in humanity / Led without a fight straight to the grave / Birth. Agony. Death. / Defiled. Processed. Packaged. / Scanned. Purchased. Prepared. / Eaten. Digested. Feces,”

(Ryan, Oftedal, Elmore, Laughlin, Humanure, 2004).

 While the song “Chunk Blower” provides similar accounts of revulsion with the factory processing of animals,

“In this world of concrete and machines / there are still many things to remind us we’re human beings / A gigantic grinder / Fused of steel and turbine / Blades flay muscle from bone / Nobody dies alone / As hundreds wait for death / The sound of engines grinding / Every tissue, organ and lining / Explode in a mulch of compost / Churning corkscrews of pain / Razor-sharp gears and cogs / For the creation of human sausage logs / The splattering of meat on flesh / Enzymes, acids and fats / Trickle down into vats / Nightmarish humanoid mower / Behold, the Chunk Blower” (Ryan, Oftedal, Elmore, Astor, To Serve Man, 2002).

These two songs from the album, To Serve Man (2002), are accompanied by artwork that features a partially “processed” human with butcher’s marks who is offering intestines and meat on a platter with other “products” hanging in the background.  Additionally, the album art of 2009’s The Harvest Floor features a processing plant with a line of people being herded inside like food production livestock.  The band members are triumphantly posed in the liner notes in various manifestations of butchery with ravenous gazes and satisfied grins in the human meat production factory.  Blood-soaked meat hooks, knives, chainsaws, preparation tables and factory walls present imagery that is consistent with the wonton gore of the death metal genre, but the use of the these horrific images is not simply a gratuitous display of violence.  Cattle Decapitation have replaced animals in packaging plants with humans, and thus created an extremely strong criticism of the meat production industry and, ultimately, the people who support it.

The band T-shirt with the “Tooth Enamel and Concrete” graphic is another horrific image of misanthropy and role reversal with animals (, 2009).  A man’s opened mouth is placed on the edge of a concrete curb with a cattle’s hoof smashing his face into the pavement.  This image is shocking and repulsive, but no more gruesome than any number of modern meat processing techniques like de-beaking, skinning, or the actual act of cattle decapitation.  The back of the shirt says “Life is Cheap,” which is also a criticism of meat production industry economics and capitalism in general.  Cattle Decapitation provides listeners with a very extreme form of music, and through the misanthropic representations of man as production livestock, the messages in the lyrics and art provide extremely literate, critical and worthwhile messages promoting vegetarianism and abnegating the meat production industry.  Other heavy metal bands have even gone so far in their support of animal rights as to actually employ the use of animals as performers in the bands.  New York-based death metal band Caninus has two Pit Bulls named Budgie and Basil who perform vocals, and the Baltimore-based group uses a parrot named Waldo to growl lyrics in their band called Hatebeak (“Caninus,” 2007; Thornton, 2004).  Although using non-human singers is an extreme and isolated phenomenon, the fact remains that heavy metal is being used for deeply profound expressions of animal rights and compassion.


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