Written by Zoe
“Ironically, the very first time I heard the term ‘straight edge’ was when I was eighteen years old and drunk at a house party,” notes Robert Wood in his new book, Straight Edge: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture (Syracuse University Press). “I was sitting on a couch next to a guy I hardly knew, and I asked him why he wasn’t drinking. He explained that he was straight edge and that he didn’t drink.”
This was his introduction to a philosophy and subculture that Wood would come to know intimately in the next few decades. While ultimately he chose not to claim edge for himself, he resonated with much of what he saw in straight edge culture. “I really liked the fact that hardcore in general was very critical of society,” Wood, who’s now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, told me recently. “It criticized authority and government and things that we always take for granted and that sort of stuff was really important to me at the time. And of course straight edge was a big part of hardcore so I spent a lot of time listening to straight edge music.”
I was curious about what made Wood interested in straight edge from an academic perspective. It’s one thing to like the music or be drawn to the idea, but another to study and write a book about straight edge. Why did he find straight-edge culture such a compelling topic?
“Well, there are a lot of different things that interest me about straight edge,” Wood told me. “I think the thing that interested me the most was some of the negative media coverage,” particularly articles from over a decade ago that portrayed straight edge as violent. At that time, in the 1980s, Woods was going to straight-edge concerts and didn’t see the militant and violent activity that was described in the media. Instead, he saw diversity. Straight edge, he observed in his interviews and research, “really just means different things to different people. So you can talk to two so-called straight edge kids, two people that identify themselves as straight edge, and they’ll have a pretty, sometimes a radically different perspective about what being straight edge is all about.”
Whatever your opinion on what it means to be straight edge, I recommend you read Wood’s book. Whether you have been straight edge for years and know exactly what it means for you, or have just begun to get interested in straight edge, this book is thought-provoking and informative.
When I first found out that Robert Wood was a professor, I was a little nervous about whether I’d like the book. I’ve looked through many academic books and found some to be dense and hard to read, filled with difficult-to-understand ideas and phrases. However, I quickly found that Wood doesn’t let these kind of things get in the way. His writing style is clear and unpretentious; yet it’s certainly not simple. While Wood does sometimes use more academic ideas to study straight edge, he always keeps it accessible to non-academic readers.
Wood’s book covers it all–from the basics (what is straight edge, how did it start, who started it, the musical connections, for example) to more in-depth ideas, such as exploring the symbolism of the Xes and the complexity of the straight edge identity.
But my favorite thing about this book is that it isn’t just Robert Wood’s voice. Wood conducted many interviews with straight edge people of all kinds, and uses their ideas and opinions as much as possible in the book. To hear the voices of real straight edge people is invaluable when trying to find out more about straight edge. Reading this book, you can find out about the opinions of everyone from members of hardcore/straight edge bands to a typical—if there is one–straight edge teen.
Since straight edge is so rarely written about, I’m always concerned about whether straight edge will be portrayed in a truthful light. Robert Wood’s book does just that, covering the negative, the positive, and everything in between.
You can find out more about Professor Robert Wood and his book, Straight Edge: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture, at http://www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2006/straightedge.html.