Written by Tobi
Below you will find an interview with Ross Haenfler, a sociology professor working at the University of Mississippi. He wrote a book about the straight edge subculture and that’s what the interview is about, straight edge and fashion, women in hardcore, hardcore and religion, and so on. Read it, and if you liked the interview go and buy the book!
First of all, would you please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into hardcore and straight edge?
Hello, readers. I’m Ross Haenfler, sociology professor and author of the book Straight Edge. I first discovered hardcore and straight edge in the late 1980s through several friends in the punk scene. I had experimented with using alcohol off and on for several years but I always felt uneasy about drinking and hated the feeling like I needed to drink to “prove” how cool I could be. At the time, I was really into metal – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Iron Maiden- but hearing Minor Threat, Downcast, Insted, Chorus of Disapproval, Youth of Today, and other bands opened up a whole new world for me. Learning that I could be accepted and have fun without alcohol seems like pretty elementary now, but for a 15 year old was an extraordinary revelation.
You wrote a book “Straight Edge – Clean-living youth, hardcore punk, and social change”, how did you get the idea to write his book, and was there intention behind it, maybe to clarify something?
The idea to write a book about straight edge came to me in one of my graduate school classes. I had to write a paper about something and I realized there wasn’t much research out there on straight edge. Even though I was still straight edge, I hadn’t really been involved in a scene for several years (I went to college in rural South Dakota). I felt like I had enough background to research straight edge, but enough distance to bring a fresh perspective. Remember that this was in the mid-1990s, too, a time when straight edge “crews” and violence were making the news. I knew there was more to straight edge than tough guys punching people and doing kung fu kicks in the pit. So I thought maybe I if I researched and wrote about the scene I could offer a broader perspective than 20/20 or America’s Most Wanted.
You have been observing sXe and hardcore for a while now, from the inside and outside perspective, what would you say are the most important changes? Has the attitude of the scene changed?
Like any youth-oriented culture, straight edge really varies from scene to scene and even person to person. Since I’ve been involved, I’ve watched straight edge go through a few major eras. In the late 1980s, the youth crew vibe was still around. There was a lot of positive energy, despite the ongoing male chest-thumping and the beginnings of a more intense, in-your-face edge with bands like Judge and Chorus of Disapproval. The focus on animal rights was still pretty big – even my high school friends and I were going vegetarian or vegan, and this was in South Dakota! Seeing Insted play “Feel Their Pain” and “Well Make the Difference” was inspirational. A bit later, I saw Shelter several times and attended a Krishna “feast” the day after a show. Even though most kids (myself included) weren’t interested in becoming Hare Krishnas, Shelter brought a spiritual dimension into straight edge. The early ’90s seemed to me to be an era of increased social awareness in parts of the hardcore scene with bands like Outspoken and By the Grace of God. The mid-’90s gave way to a more metal-influenced sound, vegan straight edge, and what I call the “Victory era” as Earth Crisis, Strife, and Snapcase really took off. I recall a near riot at a Strife show when security tried to eject some kid. The poor kid got caught in a tug of war between Rick and security and the whole place was about to erupt before Rick chilled everyone out. The Victory era seemed to usher in what some people call a more “militant” attitude, more judgment of drinkers and smokers. A few straight edge kids in Salt Lake were connected with Animal Liberation Front groups, earning straight edge the label of a domestic terrorist group in that area.But everything changes and the militant era gave way to a youth crew revival and some positive and political bands. Trial was one of the best hardcore bands ever in my opinion- great music, positive shows, and provocative messages. Good Clean Fun countered the seriousness and toughness of the scene, putting the “ha” back in hardcore. And today, we have a number of great bands making not only great music but speaking to meaningful issues. Have Heart and Verse are phenomenal examples, in my humble opinion.
Another point is, that there are many complaints that hardcore has lost its political character and has turned into a fashion scene like any other, do you think that this is correct?
At any point in any youth scene there will be people into it simply for a place to fit in, to promote political issues, or both. I do think for a while there that hardcore was in danger of becoming just another music genre, as some bands went really commercial, the scene seemed to grow too fast, and the sense of political urgency seemed absent. And actually, I think music for music’s sake is just fine. But for many of us, part of the brilliance of hardcore is in the DIY ethic and the opportunity to imagine and create a more just, humane, and sustainable world. When the focus shifts to tattoos, hairstyles, and earning scene points, it can seem like the scene is all about fashion. But even fashion can be political and you have to remember that hardcore is a lot more than shows. I think choosing (often as a result of hardcore) to be drug free, be vegetarian or vegan, to support independent music, to treat women as equals, to avoid homophobic language … all of these are political acts. And of course we have a lot of bands that are explicitly political – Verse and Rise Against for example. And also, in my research I found that as kids “grow up” in the scene, those who stick around in some capacity usually shift their focus from the fashion more to the values of hardcore.
You write much about the role of women in hardcore/sXe. Has the role changed in the last years? What is in your opinion the reason that women are still underrepresented?
It is to my great embarrassment and shame that the role of women has not changed much in the twenty years since I’ve been involved. Women have been and are currently involved in hardcore/sXe, but often still on the periphery. One exception is Kelly at xSisterhoodx.com, which is just fantastic. And certainly some women set up shows and a very few are in bands. But let’s face it, the best way to have a voice in hardcore, to shape the scene, is by being in a band. So long as women do not have that platform, they will not have an equal voice. Which I think is to the detriment of hardcore and straight edge as a whole. By the way, women in some other countries seem to have more success in bands.
So why so few women? Super tough question, and I devote two chapters of my book to issues of gender. To some, it seems like women just don’t want to be in bands or be involved as much as guys want to be involved. Other suggest that the music is just too aggressive for women. I think both of these explanations miss the bigger issues that marginalize women. First, despite hardcore’s insistence that you can “be yourself” and not be judged, there is, as you all know, a lot of trash talking and judgment in the scene. And just like in the rest of society, women are often held to higher standards than men and are especially judged for their appearance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people making fun of a girl for looking too “prissy” or something. Second, there is a double standard for women regarding how they’re judged for being involved in hardcore – women are more likely to be seen as posers, there just because their boyfriend is there. Don’t get me wrong, that may be the case sometimes. But I’ve known a lot of guys who were initially there only because of a guy friend. No one is born into hardcore, but women are expected to justify their participation much more than men. Third, despite the many awesome bands that have sung anti-sexist songs, there is still a strong element of sexism in some hardcore scenes. I’ve heard everything from “she’s just a hardcore ho!” to “no clit in the pit!” Fourth, men have often created spaces to “escape” from women, whether they be golf courses, hunting lodges, or bars – sometimes scene “brotherhood” unites men but excludes women. Finally, for a minority of men in some scenes, hardcore is an opportunity to flex their muscles and beat their chests, proving their manhood by strutting around with their crew. Each of these things (and a lot of other factors) mean fewer women will participate.
Now a longer question: There is this quote from Fight Club: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” You too talk about the changing role of men and the problems of manhood. Why do men feel more uncertain about themselves and their role in society, do you agree with the Fight Club quote? That quote is from 1996, has there been any change in the attitude of men last 12 years?
Haha, I’ve actually showed parts of Fight Club in some of my classes, including a course on Men and Masculinities. I think the quote is pretty insightful. Without being too dramatic, the idea is that manhood is in “crisis.” In other words, society holds up these images of powerful and successful men, but most of us don’t have the means to achieve those things. The “perfect” man is as principled and brave as William Wallace in Braveheart, as savvy and successful as Bill Gates, as athletic as Kobe Bryant, and as sexually prolific as James Bond. No man can live up to those standards, yet the standards persist. We’re supposed to be “breadwinners” in a society where providing for a family on one income is increasingly difficult – not to mention that women are increasingly competing for jobs, and rightly so! So the theory goes that men are unsure of how to be “real” men – as if there is only one way to be a man. The good news is that it seems like more men are interested in more than being financially successful or having a prestigious career. Some are instead focusing on how to be peaceful people, how to be loving partners and fathers, how to make positive differences in their communities. Straight edge, I think, is caught between the two extremes.
What would you say is the relationship between sXe and Hardcore? Is hardcore equal to sXe and sXe equal to hardcore?
Straight edge and hardcore are two different things. Straight edge has transcended the hardcore scene to a certain degree. There are kids who identify as straight edge but who are not and have never been part of a music scene. There are sXe kids in the metal, emo, hip hop, punk, and indie scenes. And, believe it or not, there are a bunch of us in our thirties and forties that don’t make it to many shows and like a wide variety of music! Still, sXe still has an important connection to hardcore, and hardcore is one of the most important mediums through which sXe ideals spread.
What is the most absurd thing/myth you have ever heard about straight edge?
While I was doing a live radio interview for the National Geographic special “Inside Straight Edge” one of the radio guys claimed that straight edge kids liked to go around “curbing” people for fun, that they were a completely violent group. I think he had watched American History X one too many times.
In how far do you think, that sXe/hardcore can help people to cope with all the negativity in the society, social pressure , economic decline, unemployment etc and give a more positive outlook on life?
I think straight edge can be one of many tools that help people cope with tough things in their lives. Many of the kids I interviewed for my book told me that sXe played a huge role in helping them resist abusive parents, negative peers, and homophobic and racist attitudes. Anything that helps you keep a positive outlook during tough times can help you get by, whether that’s straight edge or something else. For me, the powerful part about straight edge positivity lies in the community and friendships I’ve developed over the years. Nearly all of my closest friends have some kind of background in hardcore. They help me when I’m down and out, and I try to do the same for them.
What are, in your opinion, the similarities between hardcore kids and what separates them from other “normal” kids?
Hmmm, tough question. A lot of hardcore kids are like other kids in most respects. And I don’t know what a “normal” kid is. But I guess in my experience, some hardcore kids really adopt the DIY ethic into their daily lives. Others get political. Progressive hardcore kids that are vegetarian/vegan, are into environmental sustainability and are adamantly opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia stand out from the crowd.
Do you think that sXe can be called a religion? What does it have in common with religions? Is religion compatible with the sXe ethics at all?
I don’t think straight edge can’t be called a religion because religion typically has a supernatural element. Some kids do see connections between their religious and sXe beliefs, of course. Some even see clean living as part of a quest for self-actualization. But a lot of sXe kids still have the punk-influenced distrust of organized religion. I think there have been a few cases of Christian organizations co-opting straight edge a bit.
There are a lot of arguments about Christian Hardcore bands, and it divides the scene, so what is your opinion about Christianity and hardcore? Would you call religion a positive influence in hardcore?
I don’t think religion is inherently good or bad. As much as we’d like to deny it, we look to others for a sense of how to live a “good” life. Both religions and music scenes have answers to those kinds of questions and it’s up to individuals to decide what speaks to them. I firmly believe in the old “question everything” mentality from punk, so anyone who expects to bring religion into hardcore should be prepared. Any kind of total judgmental dogma, whether religious or straight edge, turns ugly. On the other hand, ideas and encouragement for how to live just, meaningful, and sustainable lives are welcome.
In your book you refer to many bands which have already split up like “champion” for example, how do you think can the short lifetime of these bands be explained?
I’m not sure and I guess it depends on the band. Creative differences, haha! But I suppose that the hardcore touring lifestyle takes its toll. For most people (not all), living at the edge of poverty while being in a band eventually gets old. Some bands are able to be a bit more financially secure, but for most – even the popular ones – it’s tough. Hardcore fans get upset when bands “sell out” to make more money, or get pissed when shows go from $6 to $10. Yet they’ll spend gobs of money on upgrading their iPod or cell phone or some other junk. If we want an underground scene, we should be willing to pay for it. There are ways to be a band long term, make a living, and still hold true to your ideals – Fugazi and Dischord Records prove that. But for the average kid in a band, it’s tough.
Do you have any last words? Any recommendations regarding local bands or any book suggestions for more information on the discussed topics?
I think there are great things happening in straight edge and hardcore, here in the U.S. and worldwide. I hear from kids from all over the world – Japan, Brazil, Guatemala, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Australia, and more. MySpace has certainly accelerated the connections between all of us! Even more inspiring is that many of these kids are not just listening to the music, but are trying to make the world a better place. For me, that’s the true potential of the scene and it’s what sets us apart.Thanks for the opportunity!
This interview was originally published on http://www.thelightbetween.com and has been re-printed with permission