I hope by now it has been

demonstrated that Straight Edge

located punk practice in the individual

consciousness and that its development

was a logical extension of the tendency

of American Punk expression to favor

function over form. All Punk can be

understood as a rejection of formalism

but American Hardcore extended this rejection to melody and

mode. Straight Edge further distilled punk until all that was

left was its purpose. The Straight Edge view of punk as a

platform for ideas and action necessarily elevated the

individual and was a reinterpretation of punk as a positive

expression. So far this study has been an interpretive

reconstruction of the Straight Edge idea. Its goal has been to

uncover the Straight Edge aesthetic and use it to situate the

thought of Ian MacKaye in the American intellectual tradition.

It is in the aesthetic struggles,

social apprehensions and philosophies

of Transcendentalism that I find the

clearest connection. Many scholars

have noted elements of Romanticism in

the punk rock aesthetic. The conclusion

to this study argues that Straight Edge

is connected to the American expression

of Romanticism and the thought of

Transcendentalist authors Ralph

Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

If there is a recognized American aesthetic it is best described

by the dictum of architect Louis Sullivan that "form ever

follows function." American taste is populist. We value

individualism and originality, and distrust and avoid artistic

affectation. Emerson wrote, "In every work of genius we

recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a

certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more

affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our

spontaneous impression with good-humored

inflexibility then most when the whole cry

of voices is on the other side"

(Self-Reliance 259). In his extended study

of the American aesthetic Made in America:

The Arts in Modern Civilization, John A.

Kouwenhoven accounts for these elements of

American taste in part as a struggle to

reconcile the conditions of industrial

capitalism and modern civilization with

traditional belief (Kouwenhoven, Art in

America). Art is a tool in resolving these

conflicts.

 

The value of art in America has been judged by

how well it works as an extension of democratic

expression; it must be unselfish, informative,

uplifting and serve to unite. This aesthetic

conception informed the work of Emerson and the

other Transcendentalists. Kouwenhoven notes that

Walt Whitman believed that art must function

"'not for a single class alone, or for the

parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to

practical life'" (qtd. in ibid. Stone, Steel,

and Jazz). Emerson wrote that "Art has not yet

come to its maturity if it do not put itself

abreast with the most potent influences of the

world, if it is not practical and moral, if it do

not stand in connection with the conscience'..."

(Emerson, Art, 437). The American democratic

ideal demanded that art be functional. The

Transcendentalists responded by making art that

was valuable for a capitalist democratic society.

Their work argued for the value of genuine

experience, it negotiated the conflicts of

idealism and materialism and addressed the

increasing gulf between man and nature in the

modern industrial world.

 

The Straight Edge emphasis on functionalism,

individuality, simplicity, self-reliance, anti-

materialism and unmediated experience argue

strongly for a connection with Transcendentalism.

Ian MacKaye explains the Straight Edge idea as

the need for simplification. His defense of this

inclination describes a desire for unmediated

experience. Thoreau believed that simplicity,

eliminating as much mediation as possible, could

put one in a position to receive universal truth,

thus his famous mantra in Walden, "Simplify,

simplify" (Thoreau, 395). The American preference

for direct experience can be traced to the Puritan settlers of

New England who sought to be hardwired to God. It was a strain

of Puritan thought that survived the transition to Unitarianism.

In his 1841 South Boston Sermon Unitarian minister Theodore

Parker wrote "we never are Christians as he was the Christ,

until we worship, as Jesus did, with no mediator, with nothing

between us and the Father of all." Emerson reitterated this

sentiment in Nature when he wrote, "The foregoing generations

beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why

should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?"

(Emerson 7). The Transcendentalists desire for unmediated

experience related to their belief that God was present in all

elements of the natural world and man himself. Thus, the

Romantic emphasis on the individual, perception and imagination

took on special significance. Understanding oneself was the key

to unlocking higher truth. The movement promoted intuitive truth

above rationalism. Clarity of perception and a direct connection

with God and nature developed intuitive understanding.

 

All of these ideas resonate with the

Straight Edge desire for clarity and

the centrality of the individual in

Straight Edge thought. The difference

is the evocation of the Godhead. Where

the Transcendentalists lifted the

individual to the level of a Divine

Being, the self and clarity of

perception are the Straight Edge

hypostases. In the Straight Edge Punk

vernacular clarity encompasses but is

not limited to sobriety. Clear thought

also involves self-awareness and the

willingness to challenge prescriptive

behavior. Clarity of perception is

figured as a transformative, "I've got

the Straight Edge." Access to knowledge

of the self comes through unflinching

introspection and discipline. Formal

religion and education are barely mentioned

in the documents that I examined for this project, and as

MacKaye says "I am a faithful agnostic...I don't sign on to

nothing." The Straight Edge idea locates the Punk revolution in

the individual heart and mind. No road maps are needed.

 

The Straight Edge vision of youth and

clarity compares to Emerson's emphasis on the

newness of perception. In Nature he wrote,

"few adult persons can see nature. [...]

The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the

eye and the heart of the child" (Emerson 10). Youth is a form of

cultural capital in the lyrics of Minor Threat and the Straight

Edge bands that they inspired. The value of the perspective of

youth is a recurring theme. The Minor Threat song Minor Threat

equates adulthood with loss,"...we're all heading for that adult

crash/.../I was late to start/ I might be an adult/ but I'm a

minor at heart/.../it's not how old I am/ it's how old I feel/"

(Dischord, Complete discography). In the song Betray MacKaye

laments, "we were supposed to stay young/ and now

it's over, it's finished, it's done/ normal

expectations, they were on the run/ but now it's

over, it's finished, it's done" (Betray, ibid.).

The song depicts youth as a special power that

allows one to see the truth. The symbol of the

X on the hands of Straight Edgers proclaims

youth as central to their identity. It marks

them as connected, not only to other kids but

to a special understanding of the world.

 

The strongest connection between

Transcendentalism and the thought of Ian

MacKaye is through the work of Henry David

Thoreau. Thoreau's work anticipates much of

the style and directness of punk expression

and the socio-political punk "stance."

Thoreau wrote that "A fact truly and

absolutely stated is taken out of the region

of common sense and acquires a mythologic or universal

significance" (Journal 3:85, Nov. 1, 1851). The stark rhetorical

style of many punk lyricists, including Ian MacKaye, recalls the

simple, direct and sparing prose of Thoreau. Thoreau's

definition of a philosopher describes the highest aims behind

the Straight Edge drive for simplicity and action, "To be a

philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to

found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to

its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity,

and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only

theoretically, but practically" (Thoreau 334). Thoreau avoided

pretence. He envisioned the power of his work as it's content

rather than it's style. He was convinced of a higher truth that

could only be grasped from the rigorous observation of reality

and its details. The Straight Edge emphasis on clarity is also

an argument for the value of reality and unmediated perception

of the self and the external world.

 

Of course, the most direct link

between Thoreau and punk thought

was his Civil Disobedience. In

this text Thoreau outlined his

conviction that a man's

conscience is a higher authority

than civil law. Straight Edge

placed the onus of addressing societal wrongs on the individual.

In Straight Edge thought the individual acted as its own source

of authority and was also the primary location of reform.

Thoreau sounds like the lead singer for a Positive Punk band

when he stresses the power of the individual to effect change

compared with the government that, "has not the vitality and

force of a single living man..." Thoreau was powerfully

suspicious of wealth and greed. In Civil Disobedience he noted

that the rich man, "is always sold to the institution that makes

him rich." MacKaye's objections to the amoral greed of corporate

America recall Thoreau's antipathy.

 

MacKaye's anti-materialism is another clear

link between his thought and

Transcendentalism. For MacKaye, consumerism

and materialism work as drugs and alcohol do,

they get in the way of one's self-knowledge and they mediate

experience. Fugazi's mantra "You are not what you own" iterates

a recurrent theme in American literature. Emerson had noted in

his poetry that "things ride mankind." Thoreau echoed this with

his condemnations of bustle and commerce, "-- business! I think

that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry,

to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business"

(Life Without Principle, Thoreau Reader, 2002). Fugazi's

Merchandise continues this theme, "merchandise keeps us in line/

common sense says it's by design/ what could a businessman ever

want more/ than to have us sucking in his store?/ we owe you

nothing/ you have no control/ you are not what you own"

(Dischord, Repeater + 3 Songs). MacKaye's text objects to

forming identity through consumption. It depicts materialism as

an obstacle to free thought, "Merchandise, keeps us line." In

the interview for this page MacKaye describes materialism and

profit as corrosive of new ideas, "Originality in this country,

is being beaten to a pulp." MacKaye figures materialism as an

impediment to individualism and the imagination.

 

When Ian MacKaye describes the

power of music his language

recalls the idealism of the

Transcendalists who not only

believed in higher truth but

also were convinced that man

could experience connection with

this knowledge in ecstatic moments of revelation. The

"transcendental moment" is a transformative experience. It is an

instant of "intuitive" understanding, a flash of clarity when

the distractions of the world fall away and one feels connected

to higher truth. Emerson called it "Universal Truth," Whitman,

the "Kosmos." In the American Punk aesthetic this "truth" is

presumed to exist in music itself. Reaching this sublime moment

of connection between performer, audience and "truth" is one of

the main elements of the Punk dialectic of performance and it is

bound up with notions of punk authenticity.

 

Authenticity in punk rock is often a matter of performance.

In his essay 4 Real: Authenticity Performance and Rock Music,

David Pattie notes that "...both the audience and the performer

look to the music to provide the ultimate validation, the

ultimate proof of authenticity. It is as though the music itself

contains, beyond the meanings attached to a particular chord

structure and rhythm, a single set of lyrics or a specific

delivery, the ability to organize the audience's and the star's

perception of it as inherently truthful" (Pattie,Enculturation).

Many punk fans and musicians

conceive of music as its own truth.

The authenticity of Punk links the

ability of the performer to inspire

faith among the audience that the

performance is based on a need to

communicate a message that comes

from the heart and is neither

motivated by money nor modulated

by affectation. This assumes an inherent truth in music and

suggests the performer's duty is to convey this truth with

genuine performance. In Beth Lahickey's All Ages: Reflections on

Straight Edge, MacKaye describes the project of live performance

as an effort to "conspire electric moments" of connectedness

with an audience (qtd., Lahickey 101). MacKaye continues, "You

can't buy those things. They are not consumer items. They are

the result of a lot of combined efforts. It is a totally amazing

moment, and it can be reached, but it takes work" (ibid. 101).

These "electric moments" that he describes are instances when

the dialectic of performance achieves the complete unity of

audience, performer and the performed. The audience is allowed

claim to the authenticity of the music, to assume an identity

that connects them in a tangible sense to the perceived

authenticity of the performer. MacKaye is speaking of a

phenomenon that many musicians know well. The indescribable

connection between performer and audience, an energy that builds

on itself, allowing the performer to reach new heights of

expression and the audience to experience and share in creating

the full power of music.

 

It is my position that Ian MacKaye conceives of

the power of music as transcendental. He is

describing the same phenomenon the

Transcendentalists understood as moments of

revealing the divinity of man. MacKaye speaks of

music in terms of ultimate truth. In the interview

for this site he says that he believes "Music is sacred." He

compares music to a river, a flowing life force that "simply

exists in the world." MacKaye stresses that what makes music

real is that it is performed because the performer is compelled

to perform it; it simply has to come out of them. His

description denies the nature/culture split. It is impossible to

express this view and believe the traditional definition of

music as sound rationally organized by man. MacKaye describes

music as a divine utterance of cosmic truth. The Straight Edge

aesthetic is organized around the search for genuine and

transcendent experience. The dynamic of live performance is the

perfect expression of American punk. Following MacKaye's

thoughts on the value of music, one realizes that for him, music

is nature. It contains its own truth. Performance is communion

with nature. Like Emerson's walk in the woods or Thoreau's

journeys in Walking, performance puts one near genuine

experience and truth.