(note: This is a response to David Shoemaker’s Hipster Wrestling column published in July 2013)
When it comes to professional wrestling, perspective changes everything.
For example: Daniel Bryan wasn’t seen as a bona fide superstar. Until he was. And then, when he was saddled with a gimmick so bad that everybody thought it might spell the end of his main-event career, he proved that being bff with The Big Red Machine was precisely the platform he needed to break-through Vince McMahon’s glass ceiling. His meteoric rise stopped short of a lengthy WWE championship run (to which internet fans, including myself, cried foul), but left us with a severe case of ‘Daniel Bryan deserves more’ syndrome, “Yes!” chants and all.
But just because Daniel Bryan seemed like the impossible modern-era WWE Superstar, and just because Vince McMahon seems to hate everything that isn’t John Cena, doesn’t mean smart marks have uncovered some vast conspiracy that seeks to redefine professional wrestling as we know it.
In fact, the internet wrestling community is often wrong. It has been in the past, and it will be in the future. The IWC was ready to burn WWE to the ground after Bryan became a Wyatt – a response which Jim Ross himself cautioned against. And those same people that got incredibly upset at the time looked pretty foolish while Bryan maintained his momentum and crowd favoritism (despite being a “heel”) after weeks of wearing his knock-off Dickies. Bryan was never being punished for crowd chants in his hometown. Vince McMahon is a wrestling promoter at heart, and knows better than to piss-off his crowd.
But with a little perspective, we can look back and see that WWE positioned Bryan with the Wyatts because fans would hate it – and they would hate Bray Wyatt for it. This is where we are now. And Bryan’s reaction has never been louder (well, save for maybe in Seattle) than it was when he renounced being a Wyatt this past Monday on RAW and reclaimed his position atop the wrestling kingdom throne.
This is all to say that hipster wrestling, the rally-call of a thousand fans who want to believe ‘sports entertainment’ is bunch of corporate hogwash, was only a myth. It implied that behind-the-scenes fans were finally being placated. Instead, Vince McMahon defiantly proved that their purpose remained the same: they serve to croak and moan in the most public venue possible every single time they disagree with creative. It’s really what’s best for business.
Don’t believe me? Check-in with Dixie Carter about what happened when she finally made her hardcore TNA fans angry enough to stop caring about the product. They stopped watching. They stopped talking about it. Their savior left the company. And then, in a not-so-surprising turn of events, ratings dropped. Like salt on an open wound.
Vince McMahon – and Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H, and Michael Hayes, and whoever else you want to list – all know that making people talk about your product is as important as making people care about your product. Like, I don’t much care for Total Divas, but if something happens that concerns my favorite bearded-goat, then I’ll probably check it out. And then I’ll tweet about it. Or write a column about it. Much like the Michigan State fans who made ESPN’s SportsCenter for a certain chant, I’m hooked on being a part of the conversation, not on catching every minute of every show.
The other major issue here is that some hipster wrestling phenomenon implies that you have to be “in the know” to get the most out of the product. And that’s just plain wrong. Commenting that Rob Van Dam gets higher than any other superstar was really the WWE’s subtle jab at their own drug usage policy (you can almost hear the sneer in Michael Cole’s voice, as if to say “not on our watch”). Of course John Cena might wrestle a Bella Twin; he does so every night, in his own bed (remember ‘Total Divas’?). The phrase “future endeavors” is something the company itself made famous, not the internet fans. And Vince McMahon’s sole purpose in professional wrestling has always been to act out-of-touch and ego-driven in hopes of garnering a few more jeers. He’s a HEEL authority figure. None of this is counter-intuitive, irreverent, or even remotely ironic.
In fact, that’s why ‘hipster wrestling’ completely missed the boat. The company met every fan’s expectation of what would happen going into SummerSlam, and at every Pay-Per-View since. Go read your favorite dirt sheet. This isn’t something for the few, or a new storyline to reach the jaded fans, it’s the ONLY THING available for those who care about this sport at all. It’s “sports entertainment”.
But what is sports entertainment, really?
It’s the democratization of professional wrestling as we know it. It’s the end of an era. It means that Vince McMahons reign of control over what professional wrestling is, or what it should be, has ended, and that you can pick-what-you-want at the all-you-can-eat WWE Network buffet. Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown might be scripted, but this is the fan’s opportunity to finally change the conversation. And the channel.
We are entering an era of unfiltered access to the thing we love – professional wrestling – and the people we love – wrestlers. We can watch historic contests, such as Andre vs Hogan, or check-in with the latest major card, all on the same platform. We’re able to connect with our favorites on a personal level via Twitter and other social media platforms. Our heroes from yesteryear, such as Chris Jericho and Steve Austin, finally have an open mic to voice their true feelings about the business, and the current product,(without reprisal from upper-management), and we can listen to it anytime, anywhere.
Professional wrestling has finally matured. It has passed the family-friendly fun of the late 80s, or the teenage angst of the 90s, or the awkward transition into adulthood of the 2000s, and even the “maybe I take life too seriously” period that occurred around late 2008,2009, and 2010.
It’s not professional wrestling. So what? I’m quite excited about the future of sports entertainment, thank-you-very-much.