Vague 2 — Kayfabe Realism: Is there no Alternative?

I don’t know if this analogy fully tracks, but I’ve always thought of Vince McMahon buying World Championship Wrestling as pro wrestling’s equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Monday Night Wars were over. There have been independent hold outs since then such as IMPACT and Ring of Honor, but there has been no real challenge to the hegemony of WWE. Almost a decade after Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy, Vince McMahon declared the end of pro wrestling history, declaring the triumph of Sports Entertainment. 

Since then wrestling’s mainstream popularity has waned, and it has been more and more common for WWE to bring back popular wrestlers from the past, and the Attitude Era in particular, the absolute height of wrestling’s popularity as part of the monoculture, in an attempt to bring back fans who have given up on wrestling since the end of the Attitude Era. And it works, at least in the moment. In the past year WWE’s flagship show RAW has posted some of its all time lowest TV ratings. 

Low ratings and low ticket sales mean something isn’t working for WWE, but with the current mentality of their creative process, led by Vince McMahon, they can’t move forward no matter how talented their roster is. Their heights during the late ‘90s reflected a monoculture that no longer exists. It’s not uncommon to hear boomers lament that there’s nothing in popular culture that comes close to what The Beatles achieved in the ‘60s, the implication being that no one is as talented or creative as The Beatles. There can’t be a band as big as The Beatles anymore not because there aren’t bands that can write songs as good as The Beatles did, but because the way music and popular media in general is completely different. 

In the same way, there can’t be a new Stone Cold Steve Austin because the way wrestling fans consume and interact with wrestling is different. Comparing the then-WWF’s New Generation to the Attitude Era, you can see the way these eras reflected cultural shifts. The New Generation was trying to hold onto a more cartoonish vision of wrestling that became popular in the ‘80s with superheroes and villains reflecting the broader cultural and political climate. 

After the fall of the USSR, a sense of cultural ennui set in. The ‘90s were marked by their aimlessness. As much as I hate to reference Fight Club, Tyler Durden’s lamentation that there are no great wars to be fought, that the great war of the ‘90s was a spiritual war was reflected in popular culture. The optimism of the ‘80s, which gave us Real American, as his entrance music tells us, Hulk Hogan triumphing over cartoon foreign enemies like the Iron Sheik gave way to the idea that there were no more enemies, so what else was there to do but feel shitty about our own lives? People wanted something different in their popular culture. Hair metal gave way to grunge and alternative music as well as hip-hop. The monoculture had moved on.

The WWF didn’t move on, however. In the early ‘90s they put Hulk Hogan against Sgt. Slaughter, former American hero and literal GI Joe character turned Iraqi sympathiser. After the steroid scandal that made Hulk Hogan and the WWF lose much of their lustre, Hulk left for Hollywood and WWF had to find a new main event star. They initially decided that fan favourite Bret Hart, who had a more lean and athletic build, would be their guy in an attempt to move away from the steroid-built bodies of past stars. They didn’t move past their reliance on a foreign menace as the foil for their main event stars, however. Samoan wrestler Yokozuna was billed as an evil Japanese sumo who was unstoppable.

When Bret didn’t prove to be the saviour of their company, they decided that a returning Hulk Hogan would serve as a stopgap, confronting Yokozuna and his manager Mr. Fuji after they cheated Bret Hart out of the world championship at Wrestlemania 9, widely regarded as the worst Wrestlemania of all time. Mr. Fuji inexplicably challenged Hogan to a match right there and then which Hogan promptly won. Hogan wouldn’t stick around for long however, with Yokozuna winning the championship back and Hogan leaving for WCW. Hart stayed in the main event picture, but he still wasn’t what Vince McMahon wanted in a top star. Lex Luger, who spent his first year playing a narcissistic bodybuilder character, would be selected as their new All-American superhero, bodyslamming Yokozuna on the deck of the USS Intrepid on July 4, 1994 in an act of patriotic defiance. 

Fans never really took to Luger either, however, and the WWF was hesitant to go all in on him, eventually having Luger and Bret simultaneously win the 1994 Royal Rumble, gauging fan reaction to the announcement of each as the winner.  When it became obvious that people were more interested in seeing Bret as champion than Luger, that fans were no longer interested in the kind of stories the WWF had been telling up to this point, Bret once again became the WWF’s top star. This was a sign that they were finally moving on from the past, but they hadn’t quite figured out what would resonate with the monoculture.

What really changed things for the WWF was the rise of WCW. Hulk Hogan had already left and Lex Luger was not far behind, but it was clear that a change of scenery wasn’t going to bring them back to relevance in the eyes of the fans. It wasn’t until Hulk Hogan turned his back on the fans and joined forces with two other recent defectors from the WWF, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, to form the New World Order that the entire wrestling landscape began to change. This was a complete rejection of the WWF’s entire mindset. Professional wrestling’s biggest hero was now its biggest villain. It was so fresh and different that fans tuned in in droves, leading to heated competition between WWF and WCW’s respective Monday night shows that ran in direct competition with one another: the Monday Night Wars. WCW, who always played second fiddle to the WWF, spent 83 weeks beating WWF in TV ratings.

WWF’s response to this was to present an edgier, more realistic in many ways, products. Vince McMahon announced at the beginning of one episode of Monday Night RAW that the WWF no longer wanted to insult its fans’ intelligence, and knew they had to compete against more adult oriented popular culture. The kids who grew up watching WWF in the ‘80s were now adults and it was clear that they wanted something that reflected the ways they experienced the culture at large.

There’s disagreement about exactly when the Attitude Era began—many citing McMahon’s announcement itself—but trying to pin it down to one moment misses the point completely: ruptures became visible and became more and more pronounced between 1996 and 1998 when the Attitude Era was in full swing. A working relationship with Philadelphia’s Extreme Championship Wrestling, which was pioneering a more violent and sexy (often sexist) style of wrestling, highlighted an early rupture as members of the ECW roster would show up at WWF shows with commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler—a former legend of the Memphis wrestling territory in the ‘70s, known for his own groundbreaking work with comedian Andy Kaufman—playing the role of the old guard denouncing this new “Extremely Crappy Wrestling.”

The rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin—who found his character in ECW after feeling stifled in WCW before their own renaissance—was another major rupture. Before he became Stone Cold, WWF had been using him up until that point as “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s protege The Ringmaster, a strong silent type who was just good at wrestling. This evolved into his “Stone Cold” gimmick in 1996.

Austin won the King of the Ring tournament that year, defeating Jake “The Snake” Roberts—who had become a born again Christian while struggling with drugs and alcohol, which was incorporated into his character—which led to the coining of “Austin 3:16” in mockery of Roberts’ religious beliefs. This was followed by a feud between Austin and Bret Hart. In their legendary match at Wrestlemania 13, Austin began his rise after a bloody match saw Hart take on the role of villain, forcing Austin into a sort of anti-hero role that made him the most popular wrestler since Hulk Hogan.

After Hart’s controversial exit from WWF, which exposed Vince McMahon as the real life unscrupulous owner of the WWF, McMahon became the number one villain in the entire wrestling world, and Austin was positioned to be the working class hero who would take him on head first. Even though actually existing socialism had fallen and the West seemed to have no external enemies or struggles, the ennui of the ‘90s could be traced directly to the alienation of working meaningless jobs for bosses who don’t give a shit about you, and this cultural tension was playing out in the ring every Monday night. Stone Cold gave voice to a generation of wrestling fans much the same way Kurt Cobain had done for music fans years earlier. 

The purchase of WCW also saw the downfall of Stone Cold Steve Austin. One of the major storylines that came out of that year’s Wrestlemania was Stone Cold’s betrayal of the fans who had brought him to the top of the wrestling world in order to side with Vince McMahon. The figurehead of a generation was dead. It was career suicide for Austin and as it turns out, for the WWF itself.

In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher wrote about Kurt Cobain’s struggle with Nirvana’s role in a post Cold War culture that was stagnant:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’. Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed. But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment; what succeeded them was a pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.”

[a little more about WWE’s downfall here]

This week’s RAW Reunion featured about three dozen names from the past three decades of WWE, including some of the biggest names of their respective eras, such as (noted racist) Hulk Hogan (Rock ‘n Wrestling Era), Shawn Michaels (New Generation), Stone Cold Steve Austin (Attitude Era), and John Cena (Ruthless Aggression Era). The RAW Reunion gave RAW its highest rating of 2019. Last years RAW 25, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut in 1993, managed even higher ratings with a similar premise of bringing back the stars of bygone eras. The diminishing returns are clear. According to Dave Meltzer, RAW Reunion drew an average of 3.09 million viewers, down from the 4.53 million viewers for RAW 25.

The show opened with John Cena, who still shows up every now and then despite his ever-growing success in Hollywood. There were backstage segments where the various “Legends” as WWE likes to brand them—WWE is about nothing if not branding—mingled and a few others offered their talents in the commentary booth. One of the highlights of the show, and the only example of a Legend using their kayfabe capital to elevate a current wrestler was when Mick Foley was attacked by a recently returned Bray Wyatt, who took Foley out with Foley’s own finishing move. 

Later in the night they attempted to do something similar to elevate Seth Rollins—former WWE Universal Champion and current number one contender—when current US Champion AJ Styles and his partners in The OC, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, had Rollins outnumbered. Attitude Era stalwarts D-Generation X—plus Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, who were good friends with D-X members Shawn Michaels, Triple H and X-Pac, collectively known as the Kliq, backstage before leaving for WCW—came to Rollins’ rescue. Instead of making Rollins seem like a star on their level however, Rollins looked out of place, not because he can’t hold his own in the ring or even in terms of charisma and promo skills—when he’s given good material by the writers he can be as compelling as any of the top wrestlers of previous eras, and is better than most of them in the ring on top of that—but because of the way the entire segment was structured to focus on all of these guys who have a long running and tight knit relationship that Rollins was clearly not part of. 

The other thing this segment did was make The OC, a team that wreaked havoc on New Japan Pro Wrestling a few years ago as part of the Bullet Club, look weak. So rather than make Seth Rollins looks like a megastar, it made Seth, AJ, Anderson and Gallows all look completely out of their depths.

The image of D-X having a group hug with Rollins on the outside made me think of a passage from Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, in which he describes the way anachronism, the appearance of the past in the present, was used in British science fiction series Sapphire & Steel to create a sense of temporal stasis:

“Anachronism, the slippage of discrete time periods into one another, was throughout the series the major symptom of time breaking down. In one of the earlier assignments, Steel complains that these temporal anomalies are triggered by human beings’ predilection for the mixing of artefacts from different eras. In this final assignment, the anachronism has led to stasis: time has stopped.”

And then a few paragraphs later:

“[T]he 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.”

Of course Fukuyama was wrong, which he has since admitted, and the march of history continues as evidenced by the War on Terror, the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the resurgence of fascism around the world. 

In Ghosts of My Life Fisher gives lots of attention to music that was created after the turn of the century but would not feel out of place if you sent it back to a previous era. The video for Arctic Monkeys’ “You Look Good on the Dance Floor” looks and sounds like it is an episode of The Old Gray Whistle Test from 1980 and its lyrics even evoke a paleo-futuristic vision of dancing “like a robot from 1984.” Fisher draws on Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the “nostalgia mode” wherein we see “a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience.” 

We, as a culture, are stuck, and those who produce the pop-cultural products we consume can’t seem to figure out that this is the result of a cultural structure that doesn’t allow the future to be invented. They set the limits of what is allowable and what is allowable is what has brought them their dominance. If we collectively try to look forward to something new, challenging the dominance of what has come before, it opens up the possibility that something new will come along and replace what has come before. To bastardize Fisher’s concept of Capitalist Realism, what we are seeing in wrestling is a sort of Kayfabe Realism, the idea that persisted since 2001 that there is no possible alternative. For the first time in almost two decades, however, we are seeing this possibility on the horizon with All Elite Wrestling.

When Cody Rhodes, who was wrestling as the character Stardust in WWE decided he was not going to be allowed to accomplish anything new within the confines of WWE, he left. He quickly made a name for himself in NJPW where he became a member of the Bullet Club. Alongside Kenny Omega—considered to be the best wrestler in the world today—and The Young Bucks—who collectively called themselves The Elite—they managed to bring NJPW to new heights in terms of its popularity outside of Japan.

When someone asked Dave Meltzer if he thought that an independent wrestling show could sell 10,000 tickets and Meltzer said no, Cody, Kenny and The Young Bucks decided to take that as a challenge. Tickets for their show All In, the precursor to AEW, sold over 11,000 tickets in under an hour. When it was announced by wrestling media in the weeks after All In that trademarks had been registered for “All Elite Wrestling” it became clear that the groundwork laid by independent promotions like Ring of Honor, PWG, and international promotions like NJPW could lead to something bigger and that The Elite were ready to take that next step.

Much like when the USSR presented an actual alternative to Western capitalist hegemony, empowering the working class in capitalist countries by providing an alternative to be leveraged against their own conditions, having an alternative wrestling promotion that has major financial backing and a major TV deal on the horizon has emboldened wrestlers within WWE. Vince McMahon, who has final say and often complete creative control, has been letting wrestlers such as Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens have more creative freedom with their characters in recent months. Behind the scenes, WWE has been offering major pay increases to wrestlers who are willing to sign contract extensions to prevent them from jumping ship to AEW the way former WWE main event level stars Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley have done.

Of course AEW itself, despite providing an alternative to WWE, is still a product of capitalist relations, so the conditions of their work, as innovative as it has the potential to be in the ring, is still rooted in pressures of the market, it is just working to change what that market is, challenging the monopoly WWE has had for almost two decades. The AEW roster will not face the same kind of strenuous road schedule that WWE has inflicted upon its wrestlers, which contributes to an accelerated breakdown of wrestlers’ bodies, which has historically often resulted in alcohol and painkiller dependency to endure the physical and mental stress. While wrestlers will be paid differently at different levels on the card—a mid card wrestler will not be making the same money as a high level main event wrestler—mean and women on the AEW roster will make the same money at the same levels. AEW also features an openly transgender woman, Nyla Rose, in the women’s division as well as  an openly, flamboyantly gay man in their men’s roster who is a babyface celebrated for his flamboyance instead of mocked for it. These are all great things. On the flip side, AEW wrestlers will not have employer provided health insurance, nor will they have any form of collective bargaining. Those things won’t come without the wrestlers organizing.

AEW has also used  wrestling history as a way to tell stories and engage fans, but it’s been doing so in a way that I don’t think I would consider nostalgic. There is a self awareness to the use of the past that prevents it from being opportunistic. The match between Cody Rhodes and his brother Dustin drew on their family’s long history in wrestling, including many references to their father Dusty’s career, culminating with Dustin spilling an obscene amount of blood just like his dad used to. But in the lead up to the match, Cody spoke of how it was a clash of generations, how he wanted to end the Attitude Era and wrestling’s reliance on nostalgia. Cody won the match. 

They have recently brought in former Four Horsemen member Tully Blanchard to manage Sean Spears, and their commentary team features Jim Ross, the voice of WWE’s Attitude Era. A key difference is how they use this nostalgia: it’s not a result of stasis, of the present day product having no connection with the audience so they use the past to try and win back the audience who believe that the world that existed at the end of wrestling history, the peak of the Attitude Era, is what WWE still needs; AEW’s use of the past feels more like an act of building upon that past, of using what came before to inform something new. I won’t try to stretch this into an analogy with historical materialism but they seem to understand that history provides the context for what wrestling is today and also the possibility of forward motion, it is not an end unto itself.

[more on the decline of monoculture in general; more on the real life implications of all this]