By Mia Hughes
I first read The Catcher in the Rye and heard Minor Threat’s 1983 album Out of Step in the same week. At fifteen, I was coming to realise that I didn’t know my own place in the world. I had plenty of friends whom I loved and valued, but it felt to me that they were all walking very different paths from me. I knew that I had to carve my own path out myself, but I felt that I was missing some vital tool with which to do that, and that left me feeling lost and alienated and pissed off at nobody in particular.
I didn’t seek out either The Catcher in the Rye or Out of Step with the intention of solidifying to myself how I felt in that moment, but that’s exactly what they did for me. Though they are two vastly different pieces of art, for me they both landed in the same exact spot in my heart; inextricably tied together by the shared theme of being a lost, alienated, pissed off teenager. As I processed that art, I began to feel all my vague, immaterial feelings of teenage angst coalesce into a solid mass that I could make sense of. That was the tool that I needed.
Out of Step is a 21 minute burst of fury and frustration through the medium of hardcore punk. There’s just as much fiery rage in the hurtling guitars as there is in vocalist Ian MacKaye’s near-uncontrolled cries (often accusatory, always pissed off). Most of his lyrics draw on conflict within friendships; that in itself wasn’t something I could necessarily relate with, but the feelings it created, of alienation, of friction with the rest of the world, were. The title track – the only one in which MacKaye’s straight edge philosophy is directly touched upon – is, for me, the one that sums those feelings up the best. “I can’t keep up, I can’t keep up, I can’t keep up / Out of step with the world”, he yelps, barely keeping up even with the rest of the band. That was exactly how I felt; just that little bit out of step, that little bit left behind. Even the cover art illustrated perfectly everything I was feeling: a herd of neatly water-coloured white sheep, walking together, facing the same direction, and a scribbled black one running the opposite way.
By then, the concept of straight edge was already a part of my life. Drinking was something that had at no point ever appealed to me – I didn’t ever like the idea of getting fucked up and losing control of my own actions, nor did I like the idea of feeling like shit the next morning. I was maybe twelve when I became peripherally aware of straight edge via Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley’s Wikipedia page and figured it was probably something I could get behind; fourteen when I discovered H2O through their endorsement by Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and decided that straight edge was something I wanted to really commit to. But at that point, my only real understanding of straight edge was the simplest outline: no drugs, no alcohol. And that was easy enough to commit to, because I’d never had any desire to try those things in the first place.
I used the newfound understanding of my place in the world that Ian MacKaye and JD Salinger had inadvertently given me to dig deeper into how I saw the world and my own path in it, and as I did so the way I thought about straight edge began to transform. I came to understand it as much more than a set of rules; it became an identity, a lens through which to see the world. And I discovered that straight edge as an identity is far more challenging to commit to than straight edge as a set of rules, yet far more worthwhile. There are countless people who choose not to drink or take drugs without having ever even heard of straight edge; what sets them apart from those of us who are edge? The lack of X’s on their hands?
Three lines from Out of Step’s title track have become immortalised as a succinct explanation – birthplace, even – of straight edge: “I don’t smoke / I don’t drink / I don’t fuck”. But to me it’s the line that follows that encapsulates everything that edge means to me: “At least I can fucking think”. It’s not a commitment to a list of demands; it’s a commitment to thinking. A commitment to understanding myself independent of anyone else; a commitment to following my own path, regardless of what path anyone else may follow.
Everything that had left me feeling alienated and lost pre-Out Of Step became, post-Out Of Step, a vital part of my identity. I wore those three words on my sleeve with pride, equal parts badge of honour and suit of armour. As I sat in classrooms, studying things that didn’t mean jack shit to me and yearning to be at a gig or behind a drum kit, I would scrawl X’s on my hands and write ‘OUT OF STEP’ across my fingers. When prom rolled around, I showed up in a suit with cropped, bright pink hair and ‘OUT OF STEP’ painted in pink on the back of my crisp white shirt. I wanted to make it clear to everyone, not least to myself: I wasn’t going to fall in line. It was obnoxious, sure, but it was important to me in the maelstrom of high school and adolescence to carve out a place for myself, and to do it in a way that was physical, tangible. Hence, Biro and neon pink paint.
I’m not in high school anymore; as such, the need to sharpen my identity into a point has disappeared, and with it the Biro and pink paint. But I remain out of step with the world, and that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.