WWE and the Pitfalls of Nostalgia
Professional wrestling is a bizarre thing. The appeal of it is difficult to explain to someone who isn’t a fan. You either get it or you don’t. The best I can do is compare an episode of Monday Night Raw to an episode of The Muppet Show. They’re both vaudevillian presentations structured around an authority figure struggling to deal with an array of larger than life personalities. Only the Muppets use a stage while the WWE use a wrestling ring. Most fans discover it at a young age and they’ll always maintain an appreciation for it, even if they don’t watch it anymore.
It’s certainly not as big as it was in the Attitude Era, but the WWE has had somewhat of a resurgence as of late—a lot of which could be attributed to the drawing power of nostalgia. Since guys like The Rock and Brock Lesnar have returned to the ring, many viewers who stopped watching have taken an interest again. Unfortunately, the emphasis on former stars is very much a large problem with the current product.
In terms of pure wrestling, the current WWE roster is arguably the strongest it has ever been. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler are all better wrestlers than most of the guys from the Attitude Era were. Of course, it’s difficult to see that when they’re never given the opportunity to show it. With it being Wrestlemania season, WWE is in full-out huckster mode. In every three-hour episode of Raw, there’s only about twenty-five minutes of actual wrestling and the rest of the show is spent hocking t-shirts, toys, and social media applications. It feels less like a television show and more like a QVC infomercial. If the fans wanted to see a bunch of oily people scream at each other while commerce is thrown in their faces, they’d watch MTV. Otherwise, they’re subjected to three-minute long, one-sided matches. A wrestling match is a story in itself with beats and an escalation of suspense. When the ending is a foregone conclusion, the investment is lost. If you’ve seen one Ryback match, you’ve seen them all.
What the Attitude Era lacked in good wrestling, it made up for in strong characters. The Rock had that over-the-top arrogance people loved, Mankind was a living cartoon, D-Generation X was all about controversy, and everyone wished they could’ve stuck it to their boss the way Steve Austin did. Compelling characters have been absent from the program ever since. What’s the defining characteristic of John Cena? He’s just a guy wearing jean shorts. The rest of the roster are either defined by their ethnicity or a one-note joke that runs out of steam all too quickly. With wrestlers not being given a chance to wrestle nor the writers giving them good characters to compensate for that, they lack credibility in the eyes of the fans. Therefore, the success of this year’s Wrestlemania is all based around the nostalgia of wrestlers from ten years ago.
People are drawn to nostalgia because it reminds them of simpler times; when they were younger and it seemed like their interests were always catered to. However, nostalgia can be both misleading and cynical. Wearing those rose-colored glasses will make you believe everything in past was great and that everything in the present sucks. The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Triple H, and The Undertaker all have marquee value, but they’re going to return to their day jobs and semi-retirement soon. Once that happens, the interest of the nostalgia-dwelling fans will more than likely diminish.
The Rock has barely been present for his program with John Cena as is. While he’s been busy acting as an apologist for the first G.I. Joe movie, the build up for Wrestlemania’s main event has rested on the shoulders of someone the fans have been sick of for the last seven years.
A wrestler like The Undertaker just seems out of place in the current climate of WWE. His Wrestlemania opponent, CM Punk, works best when he can bring aspects of reality into the storyline. With CM Punk’s opponent being a zombie with superpowers, it might be a bit difficult for him to drop the proverbial “pipe bombs”. Because of this, they’ve turned to drawing heat from the actual death of Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s former manager. They’re not quite exploiting it the way they exploited Eddie Guerrero’s death years ago, but it does feel like a crutch for the story to hinge on.
Then you have Brock Lesnar and Triple H, two performers who serve no purpose in having a match together. They already have credibility and neither of them would suffer from a loss. It feels like a vanity match more than anything. They’ve attempted to spice it up by adding the stipulation that if Triple H loses, he’ll be forced to retire. Considering he only wrestles once or twice a year anyway, it doesn’t feel like much is at stake.
There’s definitely a place on the card for the veterans, but they’d be better suited elevating the wrestlers who will be carrying the show for the rest of the year as opposed to taking the spotlight from them. At the rate WWE is going right now, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to sell Wrestlemania 39 off of the nostalgia of Cody Rhodes’ mustache.
By selling out an entire football stadium for Wrestlemania, WWE obviously maintains a large fan base despite all of its flaws. What makes these flaws so frustrating is that they have the potential to have a really good product. Professional wrestling is a great satire on sports culture and even with the roster capable of pulling that off, WWE doesn’t take advantage of that. They’re too busy living in the past while having lost sight of what made it awesome in the first place. I suppose Vince McMahon knows that there will always be lifers (like myself) who will always shell out the money for it, regardless of how much they complain. Nostalgia isn’t the only thing that’s draws people to professional wrestling now: there’s also an element of irony. If you’re over the age of 10 and still watch wrestling, it’s likely with a least a hint of irony. Hate-loving the inherent stupidity is part of what makes it fun.
Once a fan, you’ll always be a fan. Whether you like it or not.
Guest Post by Morgan Eschmann.