Some thoughts inspired by the rise and fall of Professional Wrestling, via this comment at Z Man’s.
As [smart] fans [who were in on the con, thanks to the then-new Internet] grew in number and expressed their knowledge by bringing signs to shows that referenced backstage events, the creative minds at WCW decided to give great consideration to smart marks when booking their shows. Fooling the marks became a priority. What resulted was a steady stream of swerves and plot twists that defied simple logic. Unfortunately, they greatly overestimated the number of smart fans and they wound up turning off a massive amount of casual fans. In the space of two years they went from a multi-million dollar profit to a multi-million dollar loss and then quickly went out of business.
Now, you could write what I know about rasslin’ on recipe card and still have room for the recipe, so take all this with a grain of salt. But there seems to be a political, and organizational, lesson here for those who want to find it.
When I say “everyone has always known, on some level, that pro wrestling is fake,” I want y’all to bear in mind that I grew up in the South. I know from rednecks. Rasslin’ might have its fans in the Northern states, but it’s a redneck thing through and through. And trust me: Nobody, I mean nobody, thinks “The Undertaker” is really a ” macabre entity who…held links to the supernatural.” Though they’d never be caught dead at anything so faggy as the theater, they know full well that’s what rasslin’ is: Theater, performance art.
Which leaves the brain trust behind pro wrestling with a very tough job. The commenter’s point is, the people who make the loudest noises quite often aren’t the biggest fans. For instance, “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons used to write about Wrestlemania all the time (google “‘bill simmons’ wrestlemania”). Simmons was one of the first and best of the “new new media” people; he was doing the “sperg out and whine and over-share like a jilted 16 year old girl” Twitter thing years before Twitter was a gleam in the CIA’s eye. He had, and has, a huge audience. Yuuuge. I guarantee you the Powers That Be in pro wrestling read his column.
Simmons knows it’s fake. His readers all know it’s fake. They openly declare, all the time, that they love it because it’s fake. Like everyone who went to college in the Clinton Years*, they caught a morbid case of Postmodernism. And that’s Postmodernism’s genius: It relieves you of the aesthetic burdens of your social class. College-educated people shouldn’t enjoy wrestling, or rap music, or chop-socky movies, or what have you. Before Postmodernism, you had to either admit to “guilty pleasures” — you’d buy your Sugar Hill Gang tapes the way your seedy uncle bought Playboy, wrapped in a brown paper bag — or you had to go to grad school for many years to become a PhD level “cultural critic.” Postmodernism, though, lets you enjoy redneck ghetto shit ironically. Hence, Simmons and his six million social media followers spooging over rasslin’, or Eminem, or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or pretty much everything else that only existed in the late 1990s – early 2000s because middle-class, middle-aged White people willed it into existence.
The question then becomes: Who actually buys this shit, as opposed to squee-ing over it online?
Again, I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that pretty much all entertainment these days works like the music biz. Nobody buys music anymore. Certainly nobody buys albums anymore. It’s almost a mirror image of the 1970s. Back then, artists went on tour to support their albums, because album sales made most of their money. These days, artists drop an “album” as an excuse to go tour… if they even bother touring (the bigger acts, your Taylor Swifts and whatnot, do Vegas “residencies” like old-time lounge singers). The money is in the show.
Did Simmons ever attend a Wrestlemania event in person? Did his fans?
I strongly doubt it, because see above: Middle-class people shouldn’t enjoy these things, and they know it. One can enjoy them “ironically” in one’s own home (pay-per-view, in Wrestlemania’s case), or among a select group of friends, or as part of one’s online persona. But actually going to the show would involve rubbing elbows with the kind of people who don’t enjoy the show ironically. Bubba from Meth Acres Trailer Park doesn’t really believe The Undertaker is some kind of demonic revenant… but he nonetheless takes The Undertaker’s stage persona very seriously indeed.
[If it helps, think of some Bill Simmons type attending, say, Hamilton on Broadway, making snarky comments the whole time. “Oh yeah, that guy could totally kick Aaron Burr’s ass. Right. He’s 5’2″ in platforms. Eye roll. And I’m sure he’d totally bust out in song right there.” He wouldn’t dare, though it’s all but certain that nobody in the crowd has ever even seen a fistfight. Think he’s going to do it at a WCW show, where lots of the crowd have started fistfights?]
As the original commenter said, the WWF (at the time) badly misjudged their core audience, then, by paying attention to the guys with the biggest microphone. The tiny fraction of so-called “smart marks” (in the original poster’s terminology) would’ve kept watching regardless. They were perfectly willing to be “marks,” so long as — indeed, because — it allowed them to be “smart.” The few who actually attended the shows would’ve kept themselves in check… or the not-so-“smart” marks would’ve done it for them. Instead, the rasslin’ brain trust decided to pander to the “smart marks” and pissed off the not-so-“smart” ones, the ones for whom “wrestling fan” wasn’t an ironic pose, but a deadly serious identity.
Postmodernism, then, has a very steep price. Irony, late 20th century-style, is parasitic on a stable identity. You can only enjoy rasslin’, rap music, chop socky pictures, whatever, ironically if you know deep down you’re not supposed to. By the turn of the century, Postmodern irony had been pushed as far as it would go. The Matrix (1999) had to go all-in on pseudo-philosophy; it only worked because enough people back then had heard of Descartes’ demon, in one form or another, to recognize it. What if we’re all, like, just a brain in a jar, dude? Nudge nudge wink wink. And oh, I know kung fu.
Further examples: Look at all the remakes — not reboots — of Schwarzenegger films since the turn of the century. They have to lard on all kinds of extraneous bullshit to disguise the fact that they’re recycled Arnold movies. There have been upteen Predator movies, for instance… that all focus on the alien (but it’s the humans — specifically, Arnold — who’s the real predator. Dude. Mind….blown). I can’t be the only one who noticed that Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise is just Commando with a different accent.. can I? Or that the Bourne Identity films look an awful lot like Total Recall, minus Mars and the three boobs? Then look at all the actual attempted reboots: Conan the Barbarian. Total Recall itself. And the whatever-you-call-thems that are both remakes and reboots of Schwarzenegger movies, where Schwarzenegger is still in them but isn’t the star: the latest Terminator movies, for instance, not to mention also-rans like The Expendables franchise.
The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.
In other words, buying a ticket to a Schwarzenegger flick was — like attending a rasslin’ show — an agreement to step outside of ourselves for two hours. We know The Undertaker isn’t a vampire (or whatever), just like we know there’s no possible sequence of events that ever could’ve happened in the real world that would end with an Austrian bodybuilder as a mattress salesman in Minneapolis. So why bother trying to “explain” it? We all agreed, when we bought the ticket, to put “the real world” aside and enter another. In this world, the spectacle’s world, there are vampires who can body slam and bodybuilders who save the world from Satan.
Those are the givens. It doesn’t matter how ludicrous they are, so long as you don’t break your own rules.
Note that the rules can be broken from either side, the spectacle’s or the audience’s. Movies these days are most often guilty of the former, while rasslin’ bankrupted itself doing the latter. The last Star Wars movie I saw, for instance, was the first one with Girl Luke. It broke its own in-universe rules by having Girl Luke do everything Luke did, minus the training and effort and self doubt. She was just instantly awesome at everything, because grrrl power, and now that franchise is in the process of bankrupting (oh God, let it be so, and soon!) the entire Disney empire. Rasslin’ first tried to fool the “smart marks,” then went the nudge-nudge wink-wink route — both fatal to the suspension of disbelief for the majority of fans, who were still operating under the old contract.
Under the old contract, “wrestling fan,” like “Star Wars fan” or “Schwarzenegger movie fan” or what have you was a temporary identity. You went to the spectacle to put your real self aside for a few hours. You buy the ticket, and cease being Joe Schmoe the mechanic or the plumber or the customer service rep or the shmuck who still lives at home because he just can’t catch a break. Instead you’re transported to a galaxy far, far away, where bodybuilders are time-traveling robots and men in spandex come back from the dead to body slam their rivals.
For that kind of person, breaking the fourth wall, as the lit-crit types call it, is a slap in the face. Ha ha, fuck you, you loser! You don’t get to enjoy a few hours in a galaxy far, far away from your normal life, because we’ll be constantly reminding you that all of this is fake fake fake fake fake! You can watch the body slams and light saber fights, but every time you’re just starting to get into it and forgetting yourself, we’re gonna pop back up with an in-your-face aside! You’re a loser, and the very fact that you’re here watching this proves you’re a waste of oxygen! Take that!
In other words, loser is the fixed identity on which Postmodern entertainment is parasitic. This is just aces for the dorks-with-big-microphones who write the Tweets, since nudge-nudge wink-winking each other about what losers those other fans are is what keeps them, the Postmodern ironists, from feeling like losers themselves. But see above, with wrestling. Or Star Wars, or now sportsball, or pretty much anything else. The Postmodern ironists don’t buy tickets. They don’t go to the show in person, because they know that bringing their Postmodern ironic act into the theater would likely end with them getting their asses kicked.
Because they themselves are losers who live on Twitter, the Powers That Be have been convinced by the Postmodern irony crowd that the entertainments they’re ruining will continue to exist — indeed, will be better — by pandering exclusively to the Postmodern Irony crowd. Everything’s overtly fake and getting worse. NBA goons are wearing “social justice” shit on the backs of their jerseys. The Houston Astros won a World Series by stealing their opponents’ signs, and nothing happened to them — and, more tellingly, nothing happened to the other clubs also credibly accused of stealing signs (but the Astros went to batting practice in “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, so all is forgiven). College football is going to conference-only play, if indeed they end up playing in the fall at all, so whatever cachet the various “bowl games” had is now gone — they’ll simply anoint whichever teams have the biggest tv revenue streams the “conference champs” and have them play. The NFL, of course, is a cesspit. How many times have the Patriots been caught stealing signs now?
At this point, I truly would not be surprised if someone goes full Kim Jong Un for Colin Kaepernick whenever some team finally signs him — whenever he’s on the field, the defense will simply shuffle their feet in place while he scores at will, because social justice. Might as well. Any illusion that this is about anything so prole as “fair competition” went the way of the dodo long ago.
One could go very far, very far indeed, by simply bringing back sincerity.
*1988-2001, for benefit of newer readers
** It’s telling that the Terminator series actually did, at one point, attempt a retcon in which they “explained” how their supposed-to-pass-for-human infiltration cyborg ended up as a gigantic bodybuilder with a ludicrous German accent. It’s a deleted scene in Rise of the Machines (I think), and the significance, for our purposes, is that they decided to cut it. T3 isn’t a very good entry in a series that has been absolutely shameless about twisting itself into pretzels, but even back then they realized that “explaining” stuff would do more harm than good. See also: All the Terminator movies after that one, where they try to explain every damn thing and lose their audience.