Knee Deep in Nostalgia: The Attitude Era: A Call to Arms
To All WWE Fans,
Bored, lacking internet connection, and having nothing to do but stay in my hotel room for another three hours, I decided to look at one of the many youtube videos I had downloaded with a browser add-on. The one in choice today was one of the many wrestling tributes put up among the web, this one an eight minute tribute video to WWE’s “Attitude Era”.
The Attitude Era, which was from about the late ninties to the early 2000’s, played host to a score of talented wrestlers, such as the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Triple H, and more. Sure, many of these wreslters were around before that and some well after, but after seeing this video it reminded me of something important–this was when they were all good.
Not to say that any of these wrestlers are singularly bad–perhaps the better statement is to say this is when wrestling itself was good–or, dare I say it, perfect.
These were the days that the Rock got away with references to sex–with many speeches involving ‘Poontang Pie‘– and could berate or humiliated everyone from the lowliest interviewer to the highest wrestler with dozens of insults.
These were the days where Stone Cold would celebrate a victory or a beatdown with beers thrown to him from the crowd. And when the crowd would cheer him after ‘Stone Cold Stunning an opponent or pulling off an equally ass-kicking move– would fall to all fours and yell obscenities at his downed opponent.
These were the days that we loved to boo and make fun of the self-centered and emotional Olympian Kurt Angle, and then watch him go from supposed goodie two shoes into heartless maniac to achieve a win by either cheating or pulling an Angle Lock–or, during a lost, using the Lock to cripple an opponent out of anger.
Did this era make us–it’s viewers and loyal audience–lovers of torture, of pain, or was it something else? Did we–many of us then teenagers or young adults–crave violence and blood, or was the action and drama calling out to something deeper in us?
I’ve looked at some of the recent wrestling shows and even some of the Pay Per Views with my pals, though not nearly as often as I used to a dozen years ago. At a recent bar/birthday hangout, I remember some of the guys exclaiming proudly how a day at school wasn’t complete until everyone talked about the PPV night that came before. That part of a guy’s social life–and hell, even the girls got into it at one point–was to talk excitedly about the match between Mankind and the Undertaker or DX versus the NWO. It was as a part of our lives as school or church–it was a cornerstone of being a kid, a teenager, or a young adult.
But years later, I watched, faithfully, and I felt incomplete. While I didn’t grow up watching the WWF religiously, I did catch it occasionally, and later I began to watch the WCW. With many wrestlers having gone to or come from the WWF I began to watch both, and compare storylines, and matches. In the WCW I remember Diamond Dallas Page pulling the Diamond Cutter, or Perry Saturn teaming with Dean Malenko, or Sting, Macho Man Randy Savage and Lex Luger teaming against whatever evil 3-man tag teams came across that week. From luchadors to ninjas like Subzero to a new era Giant–it was like seeing a comic book come to life.
As I began to hear more about the WWF, and recognize some faces in there from movies or from having bridged the WCW, I started to watch, partially out of curiosity, partially out of trying to fit in with all of my friends and their conversations about it. The more I watched, the more fascinated I became: wrestlers like Kane and Chris Jericho debuted and became stars soon. Old Schoolers like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper ripped off their pink, red or yellow shirts or fought in skirts (er, kilts) but no one dared challenged them about it. Mouthy managers like Jimmy Hart yelled over a bullhorn on the camera and others stared eerily silent after a morbid monologue at the camera like Paul Bearer. It was a place full of legends, gods, demons, and more, a hub for anything the mind could think of.
But almost ten years later and I was watching great wrestling characters like Kane reduced to 1-dimensional monsters who raped female wrestlers and cried and bullied doctors over losing their baby. I saw a once real-world “Strong Man” Mark Henry become “Sexual Chocolate” and eventually become the object of affection to a retired octogenerian female wrestler who in time gave birth to a hand. I saw the forementioned Perry Saturn get reduced to an idiot with a slapstick gimmick. I saw good wrestlers get shoved into the background only to retire, switch to alternate shows, or become subject to silly storylines or humiliating promos.
Where was the great Attitude Era, and how did it so quickly turn into a bizarre fascimile of what it once was?
First Problem: Lack of Competition
For one, competition has become almost non-existent nowadays. In a nation fueled by capitalism, the only way we ever make progress is when we are competing with others.
The WWE–the former WWF–has swallowed whole its wrestling brethen, destroying the rising greatness of shows like the WCW or ECW, using the shows as watered-down versions of themselves until they sucked them dry and had them cancelled or assimilated into the WWE brand, or both.
With a monopoly on wrestling due to the underwhelming success of TNA and others, the WWE became stupid. Not entirely the quality of shows, I mean, although it is certainly true, but their management and direction went into the worst direction it could, especially after the success of the Attitude Era.
Second Problem: Dumbing Down for the Casual Audience
It went PG. Taking out all of the adult references or allusions that made it popular was the quickest way to make it unpopular. It’s like taking a Big Mac and stripping it of it’s special sauce.
Of course they thought this was a good idea–a wider audience means more seats in the stadiums or more seats at home watching every week, but they suffered the same mistake that the so called core-gamers in the video game industry are complaining about now. With a focus on casual gamers, who come and go and frankly have little to no stake in the industry at a distance or a passing interest in a rising gimmick, the game developers are ignoring the core gamer who faithfully follows the industry and keeps it going.
Or the movie audience, who feel that directors and studios have relied too much on catching the eyes of spectators dazzled by CGI and so have forsaken the stories that core moviegoers have expected from their favorite companies and names in the movie business.
Wrestling has taken a similar approach, building up family friendly wrestlers like John Cena (who tries to be the fun, badass, muscular successor of the Rock without getting the fun and freedom and recklessness the Rock represented) and simple bad guys like Randy Orton (who emulate the rebelliousness of Stone Cold without fully capturing his essence) and then trying to invite everyone: kids, grandmas, and whoever else, to watch. The problem is that they will watch occasionally, and the kids may not notice the difference, but the moms and dads who watched wrestling at its best–the core wrestling fans–get turned off, stop watching, and then prevent their children from watching, when possible, just so sick to death with shame at their beloved enterprise.
The WWE has forgotten what makes a good kids show or movie. The people at Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks and Nickelodian have made some very successful movies (among more than a few mistakes) by remembering that a good kids movie is not dumbed down to a kids mental level to keep it clean and family friendly and safe–a good kids movie is made so that the mature, adult-theme jokes are just smart enough that the adults get them, but written intelligently enough so that it is still funny and understood on a different level by a child.
What made the Incredibles (one of my favorite Kid’s movies) fun for all ages wasn’t that it was dumbed down into a brash, simple superheroes-beat up-the bad guys brawler, but that it was a tale for adults and kids alike. On the adult level was a tale of a father who was–as I am about wrestling–nostalgic about the good days. He wanted to feel young again, to feel the excitement of being a hero on the prowl, of meeting strange ladies and impossible enemies, and always coming out on top. Instead, he has lost his shape, he lost his passion, and has become utterly detached to his family life and his boring cubicle job. Should we praise a father who is unexcited about parenting or hiding his feelings from his wife? No, but we understand it, it makes him human, it’s something we empathize with.
On a kids level, we have a cool superhero or wants to be cool again. Invoking the wish of little boys and girls who want to be special, the movie starts with Mr. Invincible trying to not be a nobody, to use his special powers he knows he has inside, and become something everyone will love again. How many kids and teens secretly wish or imagine we have powers or abilities that no one knows we have, that we secretly wish we could show to the world. Or how many of us have wished we could sneak away to secret worlds to fight evil and win love?
And for even simpler audiences, the very youngest of children, we have bashing and fighting and kids fighting and robots being blown up and cartoonishly arrogant villians, and while they don’t understand that Synergy is truly evil and selfish, they understand he is bad guy evil and they laugh at all the rest. Simple and enjoyable.
Altogether, the film becomes a story for all ages, and as the younger child grows up, they go through the stages of maturity, realizing what they didn’t when they were younger, and loving the film as new levels of understanding come upon them. That is the way to make something for all ages.
In comparison, the Attitude Era was already for all ages, more so then than it is now. Written intelligently enough, there were matches for adults, where the big names fought over petty rivalries or personal grudges, and joke references were made to adult things like sexuality, or insults were done with subtlety and sly implications.
Younger viewers were amazed and entertained by the flashy action. Some of the oldest wrestling moves were topped with a bit of personal flair by each wrestler, a little signature shake or angle each wrestler did to each move to remind viewers who they were watching. Or a nod to when a certain, favorite move would be done, getting the audience excited for what they anticipated.
There were the big things, like Shawn Michael’s stomping his foot in the corner to indicate a coming Sweet Chin Music–and the little, like the Rock’s antsy impatient footwork or the way that Stone Cold would drop down afterwards to berate someone. While the latter was just a small thing, it added personality to each wrestler.
At times it also made you wonder–will they get interrupted due to their callousness and arrogance? Will they take down another enemy and do it again? You couldn’t wait to see the next move they or their opponents made.
Third Problem: The Depth of the Characters
If you looked at the roster of wrestlers in the Attitude Era, we had them all. But the best thing about them was that each wrestler was flawed: either troubled or self-absorbed.
The self-absorbed were fun to watch for their arrogance: they were either continually reminded they were not as good as they thought, invoking a feeling of retribution we each have inside of us for people who are self-centered, or they kicked ass, invoking in us the pride earlier civilizations had for war heroes, who predicted whose ass they would kick, how they would kick it, and then proceeded to kick that same ass.
We had the Rock, who reminded people of how great he was, and kicked anyone’s ass who said otherwise. As a face–a good guy– he demanded retribution for the meek who were stepped over by bigger, badder wrestlers, and as a heel–a bad guy–who challenged bigger, badder enemies, or groups, and demanded retribution for them daring to be in the same ring as him by kicking their asses. All the while, he joked, made fun of his enemies, and kept us laughing.
Stone Cold, as a face, was a rebel to authority, something big for the Gen X/MTV crowd. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, constantly fighting Vince McMahon. Either on his own, or by intervention of Linda McMahon, or whoever else was in charge at the time in the storyline, he kept his job McMahon tried to get rid of him.
As a heel, he warred against too-good-to-be-true faces or self-centered faces, rebelling against their vision of what being a good guy was, invoking our own hate of what our parents, or our teachers, or our jobs, or authority tell us is the way to be a good person. And at his worst, he was a monster, a demon in texan form, and we loved him because we marvelled at how great he was being vindictive and creative–who didn’t get excited when he spitefully desroyed someone’s car with a construction vehicle or interrupted matches with a hose that gushed out beer?
Chris Jericho as a heel was a dick. He got on everyone’s nerves and was as vindictive as they came. Worst of all, he told you like it was. He told you what was weak about you, he told you what was wrong with everyone, he told you how and why he would whup your ass, and he made it seem like he was always the victim. But he didn’t whine–he demanded retribution, justice, and while it was never given to him for free, he took it by any means possible. As a face, he got back at those who were wrong, and as a heel he got back against those who he felt were keeping him down.
Or, in the same vein, DX Generation, mainly Triple H–the Game– and Shawn Michaels, who made rebellion their forte. They were self-absorbed, self-centered jocks who laughed at their own jokes and did all that they could to be dicks to everyone else. They were the perfect heels–we wanted someone to kick their asses but we also wanted to enjoy their banter and pranks. As faces, they rebelled against each other, invoking the feeling of retribution we wish for when betrayed by friends close to us, or they rebelled against greater foes, like those running the show, and, like Stone Cold, found ways to foul attempts to get rid of them at every turn.
And by extension of Triple H I have to mention the McMahon family, or really, Vince and Stephanie, the worst of the two (Linda and Shane had a bit of a sour side occasionally, but were pretty much the angels of the family). Vince and Stephanie were great when connected to Triple H, or without, but I really loved the beginning of their shared aristocracy. Vince McMahon was the big man on top, pretty much always a heel–he did bad things to everyone and expected them to fall in place because he was the Boss. He barked orders at everyone, he issue threats, and worse than any other boss in history, he could sometimes back up his threats with his own muscles. Before Trump made it his own little catch phrase, McMahon was shouting “Your fired” with all the sinister edge of a serial killer.
His daughter, Stephanie, really came into her own. She was Daddy’s little girl, the Princess, or, as New York from Flavor of Love calls herself, the Head Bitch in Charge (and boy was Steph good at being a bitch). She paraded around the WWF/WWE like a queen, taking control when she could under her father’s nose, or sometimes openly disobeying him. And she was so good at being a heel that it was other heels to go face when opposing her, and still do heel things.
On the other side troubled wrestler reminded us of our own flaws. They made us empathize for the outsiders, especially when you’re a teeanger feeling rebellious or feeling that no one understands you. They were deranged, sick, or just plain crazy. They were maniacal, mental, and sometimes downright evil. But we loved watching them–they invoked horror, they invoked insanity, they represented our worst vices or represented the worst society could turn someone into.
Mankind–often a heel–brought out our empathy. A tortured soul, he fought for himself and for others, and endured pain to get his goals complete–but damn if he didn’t do it smiling. Throw him on nails, throw him against barb-wired ropes, he’d get up, smile, keep fighting, chair shot after another, and he’d beat you and submit you with Socko, and go off grinning. He was the perennial underdog, never giving up, never being brought down to long. Most often he was fired, or betrayed, and yet he kept coming back, or being saved by higher entities than McMahon, like ~Mrs.~ McMahon. As a heel, he was just the same tortured soul lashing out at those who did him wrong. Whatever destruction he caused was validated by what wrongs were done onto him.
Kurt Angle. The Olympian we loved to hate. Best as a heel, he was this gloating, self-centered jerk douchebag who like to talk about how great he was and how we deserved him and needed to love and cheer for him, because of his victories at the Olympics, and his victories in the ring. But what makes him fit more in with the troubled than the self-absorbed was that when he got booed, or ignored, or laughed at, he snapped. He was the goodie-two-shoes top of the class kid who got picked on, and then later found you in the bathroom, alone, and kicked your ass. As a heel he was downright evil–he tried to cripple people weekly, he manipulated others, and when his plots didn’t work he resorted to brutality–and all the while validating his acts by the fact that we shouldn’t have provoked him, that we didn’t love him. If that isn’t a twisted, three-dimensional character, I don’t know what it.
On top of all that, we had the badasses, like the unstoppable Undertaker, who, as “undead man” or an “American Badass” was downright scary to take on. To survive a match with him was a legend in and of itself, and when he took on other giants, like the Big Show, or his brother Kane, it was like watching Titans fight. You were powerless to join in, but you knew that watching this was epic.
You had others like Tajiri, who brought martial arts fighting back into wrestling and made it cool again, where Ken Shamrock and Steve Blackman had begun to fail. You had Tazz, a short, Wolverine-esque wrestler who would tell you what he thought and then beat you down. You had the late Eddie Guerrero, who made deception his best form of combat. You had the late Chris Benoit, a silent juggernaut, the rabid wolverine, who took you down with technical skills and unstopping resolve. You had Al Snow, a crazy but fun to love deranged man, who carried a mannequin’s head, aptly named “Head”.
Or the tag-teams, like the Hardy Boyz, whose high-flying antics brought cruiserweight matches to a whole new level. You had the Dudley Boyz, meticulous, cruel brothers who worked perfectly together and made sure to use each win–with each victim put through a table–to show why no one should mess with them. Or the Acolytes–later the APA (Acolytes Protection Agency)–once you heard their music, you knew heads were flying. Or Edge and Christian, selfish and self-centered brothers who did anything to win. Or Two Cool, who were fun to watch for a generation brought up with new music and humor. Or the Holly’s, Hardcore and Crash, who clashed with each other occasionally, and the late Crash, who humorously went on his own and took the Hardcore championship, introduced an insane 24/7 challenge to anyone who wanted it to come and challenge him at any time, and had to get around being hunted at all times for it.
You had female wrestling, which is mentioned so late because it has now become a joke of what it was before. As my friends said at our last PPV hangout, the divas fight is merely an intermission nowadays, for core wrestling fans to ignore and go grab a beer, or for simple-minded fans to watch the highly repetitive sophmoric attempts at wrestling and sexuality and get a rise out of it. Gone are the days of Chyna, who showed that women could be powerful and feared and unstoppable even against the top male performers. Or Trish Stratus, combining sexuality and a mixed bag of moves to take down her foes. Or Lita, who took the high-flying moves of male cruiserweight matches and made it a staple of women’s bouts. Or even Victoria, who sadly came too late, and was misused and overlooked, but who could provide the best female wrestling if given the chance.
Instead we have giant 8-women matches that should go on for ten minutes but end in two. The matches end up resulting in quick, flashy moves, interrupted by tons of taunts that remind the audience of how sexy we should find them, and then end in a quick 1-2-3 that–if you blink–you’d miss.
And then there’s the humorous, funny matches. Who could forget the sexy Val Venis say “Hello Ladies” while grinding his hips under a towel, or the Godfather revving up the Ho Train, or Rikishi‘s ass rubbing against opponents faces, or the ever-bottom rung antics of the tag-team of Kai En Tai?
All this, and without mentioning the myriad others who defined what it was to be a wrestler in that day and age. People who made watching wrestling fun, dramatic, scary, and hearty.
We had it all.
Where Are We Now:
Nowadays we have matches between the same few people each week: PPVs over the year may even feature the same rivalries and pretty much the same matches for an entire year (how many one-on-one or Triple Threat matches were done through Raw the last few years featuring either John Cena, Randy Orton, Triple H, or Batista?).
We have matches full of talented athletes but lacking the best talent born in the Attitude Era: the Attitude. There’s not enough flair, there’s not enough life, there’s not enough creativity. Everything has been regurgiated repeatedly, everything has been copied with no fresh breath of life breathed into it.
Anyone who studies live performance, like theater, can tell you that what makes it real, what makes it palpable, isn’t only the story or the actors. It’s that the actors and the audience feed each other.
The stage comes to life when an actor catches the attention of his audience, and with each gasp, each laugh, each cheer, or even in some cases each bout of utmost silence (knowing that the audience is holding its breath in anticipation of the next word or action) the actors can get better and give the audience what it wants.
The current WWE doesn’t do that. Actors drone on the same recycled storylines and speeches done many times before but with no personal energy. When an audience reacts, they do not engage the audience with changing inflections or a certain tone of speech–they try to actually respond to them with their lines and pretend to be angry or sad.
And then there’s the silly. We shouldn’t havethe late Eddie Guerrero’s hideous and untalented widow Vicki making out with young wrestlers a mere few months after his death or trying to gain laughs by wrestling younger, more attractive and talented wrestlers, and winning, when she has no stage presence at all (plus who can stand her voice?)
We shouldn’t have the same faces being used over and over. Triple H loves his screen time, but I don’t. And if he and the management have no faith in their wrestlers to carry on a promo like H, then they need to recruit better talent.
We shouldn’t have predictable matches that can be called a full week ahead. We shouldn’t have wrestlers who can’t wrestle wrestling. We shouldn’t have any of it.
In Conclusion, We Need the Bizarre with a Dash of Reality
Most of all, we shouldn’t have wrestlers who deliver lines without the power and grace and vigor that the legends before them had. Sure we have our psychos and maniacs and self-centered pricks nowadays, but none of them deliver their lines with any conviction. None of them are real. None of them make me think that this is what they are when they go home.
Of course, we know wrestling is fake. But the best part that makes fans come back, fans of ten, twenty, thirty, or more years, is that the wrestlers who are at their best can perform so well that they maintain an illusion, the illusion of being real.
I can believe that the Rock likes Poontang Pie and that he doesn’t matter what I think.
I believe that Stone Cold will stun me if I get too mouthy with him.
I believe Triple H thinks he’s the Game–a personality I think he’s started to believe in too much.
But all in all, it’s what we need.
As soon as the veil is dropped, and we are reminded of it, the more we stop caring, because then it is like seeing Santa at a shopping mall and remembering how silly you felt when your parents told you he wasn’t real. As soon as their bad performances reinforce the idea that wrestling is for kids, the more that adults feel silly for still watching, instead of rebelling–like our favorite wrestlers–and trying to prove how wrong everyone else is. As soon as wrestling stops being fun and fresh, the more we stop watching, and move onto our PS3s or 360s or other TV programming.
Or, at it’s worst, the more we just go back into the real world, leaving our love for wrestling locked inside a chained locker, locked deep inside ourselves forever, never to be opened again.
We must all say “Don’t do this WWE. Give us what we really want. What we crave. What makes us love what was best about wrestling in its best, serialized form.”
We must say “You think this is what we want BUTITDOESN’TMATTERWHATYOUTHINK!!!”
We must stun these idiotic plots, put them into the Walls of Jericho, and tombstone piledrive them into an early grave. We must encourage better forms of wrestling entertainment, like when TNA tries to get it right or when other lesser televised shows, like Ring of Honor comes into town. We must remind the current WWE wrestlers of what it takes to be in the leagues of the Attitude Era greats, and that no Legend-Killers will ever take them down.
And we have to remember when wrestling was great, and why its fun, and why we want to keep watching it. Once we forget that, we become just as disillusioned as the writers behind the current WWE.
An Angry, Anonymous Wrestling Fan
And please, Most of all, Remember to
Have a nice day!