Ross Haenfler was active in the straight edge community for over seventeen years and is now a professor of sociology. It helps to know both of those things before you pick up this book because they frame the entire reading experience. Since he came out of the straight edge scene, Haenfler is well-versed in all the details, contradictions, and debates within straight edge. He is both a vocal champion and sharp critic of the scene, and that gives his discussion of hardcore punk a depth that is usually not found in more journalistic, cookie-cutter coverage (Steven Blush, I’m giving the stink eye to you). For example, Haenfler offers informed discussions on some of the debates in the straight edge community around tolerance and militancy regarding alcohol use, veganism, and spirituality. He also offers two chapters on the issue of masculinity and gender in straight edge, in which he grapples with one of the fundamental contradictions of straight edge: its claim to be anti-sexist while reinforcing societal norms with the almost complete lack of female musicians and the promotion of hyper-masculine symbols and behaviors. As an insider, Haenfler also offers engaging insights into the tension between straight edge’s promotion of individuality and self-expression, on the one hand, and conformity, close-mindedness, and intolerance among some participants, on the other hand.
But Haenfler is a sociologist and this book is, first and foremost, an academic book. Fortunately, he is a good sociologist and provides excellent interview material to support his claims. There are some interviews with bands and the occasional quoting of lyrics, but most of the interviews are with individual fans and ex-participants, which is refreshing and informative. He also spends a great deal of time quoting other academics at length, engaging in debates that you might not have much interest in: Is straight edge a subculture or a social movement? What is a subculture? What is a social movement? I’m an academic myself, so I can hang with him in the sections dominated by jargon-riddled prose, but I found his claim that straight edge is both a subculture (never adequately defined, by the way) and a social movement a little bit of an unoriginal copout. But his arguments about why straight edge is important socially and politically are convincing. Either way, this is definitely the best book about the straight edge movement I’ve come across. –Kevin Dunn (RutgersUniversity Press, New Brunswick, NJ)