Rocking on the straight edge

Image via Wikimedia
Image via Wikimedia

Drug-free, drink-free musicians

By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor

Not all artists turn to drugs and alcohol to fuel their creativity. The rock world has a huge reputation of combining hard music with hard drugs, and the idea of a partying rock star lifestyle springs to mind all too easily. But the entertainment industry’s fixation on drugs and sex has also spawned a pretty prominent reactionary counterculture. “Straight edge” is a lifestyle abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and many people also link it with vegetarianism and veganism.

Straight edge was originally a subculture of hardcore punk explicitly rejecting the self-indulgent habits of sex and substance abuse that had become associated with punk music, though a lot of musicians and artists across the entertainment spectrum have adopted straight edge beliefs and practices. There isn’t one strict dogma of straight edge—plenty of people who define themselves with the term practice it to various degrees of abstention and sobriety.

Chicago-based punk band Rise Against is probably one of the most notable and active straight edge groups out there. All of its members are vegetarians and vocal supporters of PETA, and three of the four members don’t use alcohol or drugs. Rise Against has also been pretty vocal about a lot of other social and political issues—they’ve written songs against bullying, songs criticizing the US government, and their most recent album, 2014’s The Black Market, contains a track called “The Eco-Terrorist in Me.”

Rise Against’s members have adhered to this lifestyle pretty much their entire lives, but plenty of artists have had a considerably more winding path. James Hetfield, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Metallica, is a notable example. Hetfield’s battle with substance abuse was made very public in the 2004 documentary about the band, Some Kind of Monster, where he entered rehab for his alcoholism. Hetfield has since described himself as “reborn straight edge.” In honour of this, he has tattooed on the back of his wrist a version of the straight edge symbol, which is a black X on the back of the hand—Hetfield’s is a pair of crossed razors instead.

Canadian punk star Bif Naked has also left behind a life of alcohol and cigarettes, and she labels herself as straight edge, as well as being a raw food vegan, for health reasons as well as ethical ones. Some advocates of the straight edge lifestyle oppose the hedonistic promiscuity that often goes along with the glamorous rock star life, but Bif has written plenty of songs about sex and infidelity, both her own and others’. She’s also openly bisexual, and she’s a proud advocate for lesbian and bisexual women’s rights, in her music and outside.

Other artists have plenty of different motivations for staying clean. Christian band Skillet, for example, rocks as hard as anyone, but they’re unashamed to decry the debaucherous habits that characterize most rock bands and the rock industry. In a 2016 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, frontman John Cooper said, “Rock and roll is not about sex and drugs. Rock and roll is about writing about what you’re passionate about.” For Skillet, their faith keeps them on the straight edge.

See, you don’t have to be drunk or stoned to make—or enjoy—good music.