Punk Rock is My Religion

Straight Edge Punk and 'Religious' Identity

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Francis Stewart
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2017.
     188 pages.
     $149.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472489661.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Studies of popular music and religion tend often to focus on the thematic or the lyrical, an angle of analysis of partial merit. Not all significant artists possess obvious connections to religious institutions, nor do fandoms always coalesce neatly into observable communities. The most suggestive and illuminating recent scholarship on music and religion locates and analyzes impulses that take improbable shapes not simply at the margins of the popular, but at the margins of the category “religion.” Francis Stewart’s provocative, nuanced analysis of a subculture-within-a-subculture is one of the more provocative additions to the recent literature.

Her subject, a durable one of nearly four decades, is a subgenre of punk emerging initially in the Washington DC area, inspired by Minor Threat’s 45-second song “Straight Edge,” and the behavioral dicta in “Out of Step (With the World).” To be straight edge (to gain one’s “X”) is to avoid consuming alcohol or narcotics, and engaging in meaningless sexual activity. Usually this is supplemented by a generic nonconformist disposition that can be sharpened into, for example, anarchist politics, communitarian living, or, Stewart suggests, compelling improvisations on “religion.”

To get at the sensibilities, communities, and practices of Straight Edge, Stewart employs a combination of rich fieldwork and a wide range of theoretical sources. Her basic disciplinary identification is with sociology of religion, though Stewart deftly incorporates sources ranging from Dick Hebdige on subculture to David Chidester on popular culture and religion, from Charles Taylor on secularism to Christopher Partridge on “implicit religion.” The book that results is ultimately a fine addition to the literature probing the limits of the category “religion” while also giving a vivid reading of local, organic, subcultural scenes.

Following from Stewart’s overview of the music’s history (Stewart herself is a participant in this subculture, but in ways that enrich rather than undermine her analytical precision), the book explores its subject in a series of thematic chapters: authenticity, rebellion, community, symbolism, individuality, and salvation. At each level of analysis, Stewart keeps in play the basic epistemological and phenomenological question Straight Edge proposes for students of religion: how can a movement so grounded in rebellion even consider appropriating “religion,” which codes as conformity? (42).

The thematic chapters answer this question in largely persuasive ways. For example, Stewart’s organizational focus—assessing the role of labels, bands, and organizations ranging from Positive Force to Dharma Punx—convinces the reader that some of the value-reversal strategies one generally finds in social-critical new religions are also present in Straight Edge. Building on an elegant, organic distinction between “positive” and “hardline” Straight Edge, Stewart not only traces the shapes of various communities (from squats to venues like Gilman Street and Warzone) but the questions that communities facilitate and wrestle with: solidarity, commitment, voluntarism, and, most significantly, race and gender (areas far too seldom broached in literature on punk music).

What’s suggestive about the “religiosity” of these communities, Stewart observes, is that they are grounded in “seeking social change at both a micro and a macro level” (86) and religion thus either does or does not facilitate the prior commitment. The implied ethic of Straight Edge practitioners, then, takes readers to a place that is “far beyond fandom” (100), where the “religious” articulates through collective, performed vigilance about the inauthentic, the overly commodified, and the mundane. In contrast, self-monitoring promises belonging, authentic decision-making, and the possibility of sustained radical elan.

Where it would have been helpful for Stewart to go further in her analysis is in a sustained engagement with embodiment and emotion. These themes are present in the text, when Stewart acknowledges the regularity of bodily transformation and comportment, and in her attention to Judith Butler’s well-known notion of performativity. They are also regular topics for reflection among the interviewees. Yet in such an otherwise elegant reading of a musical subculture, the reader does come away craving more about performance itself, about crowds, about the effect of sound on bodies, and the like. What is more, there are places in the book where opportunities for further comparison with a broader range of “religious” musics would be welcome (22, 78).

These are minor concerns when measured alongside the broader theoretical success of the book. In particular, Stewart excels in her reading of orientalist tropes in Straight Edge appropriation of Buddhist and Hindu traditions. She is also attentive to the nuances of Straight Edge’s blending of traditions, as well as the resonance of such efforts with other cultural forces like New Age or neopagan traditions. And there is a compelling focus on material culture throughout the text, ranging from body art to shirts to signage to graffiti.

 Late in the book, Stewart quotes an interviewee named Terry, who asserts “punk chose me” (138). The resonance of this claim—both in its avoidance of “religion” and its articulation of key themes and experiences—emerges powerfully on the porous boundary of sacred and secular. Stewart’s fine text allows us to hear it fully.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason C. Bivins is Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis Stewart grew up in Northern Ireland and discovered punk in her early teens (early 1990s) through the late, great John Peel, the not late but equally great Terri Hooley and the radio stations that came up Belfast loch. Punk was the perfect soundtrack to the environment. She left in the late 1990s to attend university in England, where she completed an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and English Literature. This was followed by seven years as a high school teacher of religious studies, before returning in 2006 to complete her education. A Master’s in Theology at the University of Glasgow was followed by a doctoral thesis at the University of Stirling, where she combined her multiple interests and passions of punk rock, religion, anarchy and DIY communities. Since graduation she has worked part time in the religion department at Stirling.

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