All it took was a trip to the Royal Rumble to see how similar the warped reality of the WWE is to The Kardashians. Or The Real World. Or Duck Dynasty. Or Honey Boo Boo.
I recently went to the Royal Rumble. I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the weekend, visiting some friends. I woke up Sunday morning, hung-over, and decided to humor myself by looking on the popular ticketing site Stubhub to see if there were any insanely cheap tickets. The lowest prices hovered around the $18 mark. I looked at my friend, made a joke, the joke was tossed around enough to become a reality, and before anyone could say "Macho Man", four of us had reserved seats and were ready to head downtown.
Wait. For those who aren't privy to the professional wrestling oeuvre, as it were, the Royal Rumble can be described as such: The first pay-per-view event of the year from the biggest wrestling company in the galaxy. In addition to a few traditional matches (or, as a friend asked with a straight face early in the day, "Who's playing whom?"), it features a 30-man battle royal, where the only way you can be eliminated is if you are thrown over the top rope and both of your feet touch the floor. From what I understand, it kicks off something called "The Road To Wrestlemania", though I cannot confirm or deny what that even means.
Why? Because I had no idea who the hell I was watching. Growing up, I latched on to the subculture with the vigor of a chokeslam, tuning in on Monday evenings and setting the VCR to record late Saturday nights. We could never, ever, ever afford to buy any of the Holy Grail-esque pay-per-views, so I would turn to the channels I knew the events were on and listen to the commentary while watching a scrambled, dizzying screen. I subscribed to newsletters, saved up for weeks in order to rent the Wrestlemanias or Royal Rumbles once they became available, collected action figures, and mastered the video games.
And then I went to middle school. With that came the realization of exactly how uncool it was to be a fan of the stuff. I recoiled, participated in sports teams, had girlfriends, opened an ICQ account, started bands, dabbled in drinking, played my drums, occasionally did homework, enjoyed some partying, and ultimately concluded that not only was I not really allowed to voice any admiration for the niche, but I also had no time to keep up with it, even if I wanted to know who was holding what title. I eventually fell back into the sea of choruses proclaiming how moronic it was to follow results of Monday Night Raws, and did what a good boy should do: Talk NFL, NBA and alternative rock bands no one yet knew about.
But something strange happened between then and now: Professional wrestling inched its way into popular culture's acceptance. Respected voices in mainstream sports media, i.e., Bill Simmons and pretty much everybody writing for Grantland, began voicing their own admiration for body slams and clotheslines. Former NBC personality Michelle Beadle began tweeting photos of herself ringside at TV tapings, unironically proclaiming how much she enjoys following the WWE narratives.
Pro football players began mimicking the act of putting on a world title belt during celebrations. Endorsements from hard rockers and hip-hop heavyweights came pouring in (not the least of which, by the way, came in the form of Billy Corgan, who took the reigns of his own pro wrestling company, which was addressed in one of these very columns a couple years ago). Actors and actresses would appear on TV wrestling programs, embracing the soap-operatic world into which they were stepping. Shoot. Even a genius such as Dr. Gregory House loved turning on his tiny television to some good, old-fashioned mindless entertainment every now and then.
All of this has led to it be ... well, OK ... to like wrestling. Why is it only OK? Let's take it from a particularly angry blogger some years ago:
"America is completely obsessed with professional wrestling these days and if you haven't figured out at this point, then it means you are living in a cave or you are just damn lucky to live in an area that is 100% free of morons. But just like every other thing that America gets preoccupied with, it's the most completely stupid and pathetic thing one can be exposed to. It's like watching a soap opera minus ANY intelligence what so ever. I mean when you are five years old, I can actually understand the inane appeal of this so-called 'sport.' Because the bathroom humor and the child like script appeals to a person that hasn't formed a cognitive intellect yet. But grown men and women watching this swill? Now that's depressing. I think I would rather shove hot coals up my nostril than watch these shows on a regular basis!" ("I hate wrestling", by Killing Joke)
OK. How about a more calculated take on the matter. Consider ESPN's Chad Dundas, who, in 2012, pondered why MMA fans, of all people, find it taboo to enjoy a nice, entertaining evening with the Undertaker or John Cena:
"If the well-documented online consensus is anything to go on, most MMA fans either despise pro wrestling's 'fakeness' or care so little about 'sports entertainment' that they feel compelled to remind the rest of us about it every single time the topic comes up," he wrote. "As everyone knows, the best way to prove you don't care about something is to take the time to type out a message about it and then hit 'Post' in order to share that indifference with the world. Exactly why some MMA fans harbor such disdain for pro wrestling, and why they delight so much in shouting it to the world is another matter entirely. Certainly, there is a fair amount of crossover between the two fan bases. A good chunk of current MMA fans were likely once pro wrestling fans and perhaps now they're embarrassed about it -- though I'm not sure why." ("Why do MMA fans love to hate on WWE?" 6 January 2012)
Neither am I. Sitting in that arena a couple weeks ago, I couldn't stop smiling. The pomp. The fandom. The pretense. The passion. The energy. The involvement. The athleticism. The joy. The disappointment. The hatred. The concern. The community. All of it mixed together to form one big pot filled with a recipe for addiction. You can shove that nose toward stratospheres higher than the apex of a power-bomb, but take one step into that atmosphere and I dare you to turn away on account of a small-minded brain-trust or some type of perceived low-brow ideal. Those guys know exactly what they're doing. And if they can fill arenas more consistently than the world's most popular rock bands do these days ... well, somebody must be doing something right, no?
The most fascinating things about the cultural shift toward mildly appreciating professional wrestling are the very real implications its success suggests about a world constantly finding reasons to be upset with itself. It started out in vaudeville halls, for Stone Cold's sake. When the then-WWF took steps in the '80s to become a part of the world's mainstream vernacular, it was laughed at, dismissed as a cheap way to engage tasteless, intellectually inferior personalities that would be better served if they only just read a book every once in a while. "How could you like something so absurdly theatric, if some of you believe half of what you're watching might actually be authentic," detractors loved to argue. And nobody really had a viable response.
But that changed once enthusiasts began to openly proclaim that they were in on the joke. "Of course it's not real," wrestling fans would concede to themselves. "But I don't want to fully admit that to anyone. Part of the lure is its fabricated reality -- the lines that blur fiction and fact. Why question it? At least I'm entertained. That's more than I could say for Who's the Boss?."
Does any of that sound even vaguely familiar? Does that perception recall a certain satisfaction we all occasionally receive from keeping up with the Kardashians every now and then or checking in to see what the girls on The Hills were doing? Might that notion sound like anything going down today? Does that dichotomy between real and scripted entertainment appear even remotely topical in the current world? Because it should.
My god, it should.
You see, professional wrestling was reality TV before reality TV existed. It satisfies a very specific portion of our brains that crave entertainment not anywhere near as deep as Breaking Bad or The Wire, yet still not as detached as, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's a live-action cartoon for mature audiences who want to connect with adolescence. Sometimes, it's too graphic and sometimes it crosses lines it probably should have never even approached, but the intention behind the entire practice begins and ends with escapism.
That's why it's fascinating: The minute popular culture began its passionate love affair with scripted reality was the minute professional wrestling magically became accepted by those who previously believed they were above such a nonsensical form of entertainment. "Oh, I know they told Paris Hilton to do that!" became the new "Oh, I know they told Vince McMahon to say that about Hulk Hogan's wife!"
We're all one, big happy family that takes pleasure in following things that might not (but still might, maybe, kind-of, be) real because the frustrations with our own lives are now more advertised than they've ever been. Such a structure creates connection, authentic or not. It's much easier to feel detached from Full House, than it is The Real World and that tiny nod toward actuality can go a long way for the consumer. Be it partying on the Jersey Shore or staging fake fights in the backyard, there's an element of connection we as viewers enjoy finding, enjoy experiencing.
And as far as experiences go, I learned last week that trekking to an arena in Pittsburgh on a Sunday night to watch shirtless dudes roll around grappling each other all the while creating some type of homeless universe dedicated to theatrics previously only seen on sound-stages and in theaters... well, that's quite the experience.
Quite the experience indeed.
"I don't know if it's a strive to be different, like saying THE WWE SUCKS makes you cool," Token Tom Clark wrote in May 2013 on the website This Is Infamous while defending the company's product. "I don't think it does. I think it makes you sound somewhat ignorant... If we have any opinion of the WWE it should be that of a guide, a model to success." ("Why’s Everybody Suddenly Hating on the WWE", This Is Infamous, 29 May 2013)
Actually, labeling the promotion a mere "success" is quite the understatement. Its flagship Monday night slug-fest, Raw is both the longest-running program in cable history and the highest-rated. The company itself is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Its roots date all the way back to the 1950s. At the end of February, McMahon's family business is set to launch its own television network that many experts are already claiming might revolutionize the way we consume the medium as a whole. Wrestlemania, which has brought everyone from Mike Tyson to Cyndi Lauper into the pro wrestling world and is without question the most synonymous phrase attached to the niche, is ready to turn 30 in a couple months.
Most people don't call that "success"; they call it "an empire".
And it was an empire I was lucky enough to soak up for a handful of hours at the Royal Rumble. Granted, I still don't quite know who we were cheering for -- the crowd had an obsession with someone named Daniel Bryan and I knew next to nothing about him -- but the entirety of the adventure proved that specifics and semantics were of no importance relative to our experience. By the end of the night, all that mattered was the fact that I was driving home with the $10 long-sleeve T-shirt I bought in the parking lot and a hoarse, somewhat sore esophagus.
Though if that's the price you have to pay in order to enter into such a wild, absurdly infectious reality, let it be known that I heretofore shall have no problem filing for bankruptcy!
Splash image: Christian & Sheamus vs. The Real Americans. Photo from WWE.com