Wednesday, April 23, 2008

THE NEW AGE OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING IN AMERICA

On a very recent episode of the WWE’s main flagship show Monday Night Raw, third generation professional wrestler Randy Orton declared to all that would hear him that we, being fans and other performers alike, had entered the “Age of Orton.” I thought the gesture was perfect, outlandish, idealistic and oppressively decisive all at once, a true masterstroke in regards to endearing envy and distain with faint traces of admiration. That is what the best heels do well, make you love to hate them. Over the weeks that followed I would find myself sitting somewhere in traffic or in a grocery store and I would randomly recall the declaration and giggle to myself. Not truly knowing what happened to spark the inspired moment to come to me again. But today I found myself reconsidering what had been said, and then honestly viewing it with a discerning eye, had to concede, mayhap the boy is right. Not just in regards to where this generation of individual wrestler stands but in regards to where this time period finds the state of professional wrestling in America. After all, Backlash pending, if he remains the WWE champion for the bulk of this intense transition period for the performing art that wrestling is starting to be recognized as, what better name for it could there be. I’m sure a few arguments could be raised for the ‘Era Rated R’ or perhaps a ‘V 1 Renaissance’, I digress.

Professional wrestling finds itself in a very interesting position in this new age of Sports Entertainment. Thanks to the outcry from the World Wildlife Federation, the organization that was incensed at the idea of having to share the acronym of WWF with an entity they considered false and ultimately beneath them, the owners of the WWE were forced to change what they had owned outright for years. Rightfully so, no astute businessman in his right mind goes to war with an organization that is trying to protect nature, it’s a no win situation. If you win, you’re the bad guy; if you lose you’re the bad guy and a loser. So, in a shrewd, but much debated move, Vince McMahon and family decided years ago to declare in a loud and unwavering voice. Yes, ‘wrestling is fake.’

The general public hasn’t been foolish enough to believe that professional wrestling was real for years now. But the general public is in general, much brighter than it used to be. There are plenty of factions in this country amongst higher education and big business that like to remind the civilians constantly in increasingly more offensive ways, that we are not the brightest lamps in the den. Vince McMahon and his board understood that as a popular source of entertainment for the upper middle to the lowest lower income ‘peasant’ classes that this country’s powers that be like to pretend don’t exist, perhaps they should stop doing so as well. Instead they have opted to use the very thing that none of the other outfits have even considered, the truth. In an age where just about every medication from a pharmaceutical company has to reveal months, sometimes years after product release, that it not only isn’t the best option to cure what ails you, but could now be the cause of your death, a little honesty is like a breath of fresh air. In a time where information about Senatorial, House Representative and Federal money misconduct is rampant and right-wing oppression is actively making a bid to try and make our democracy a monarchy, a little ‘we are not trying to pull the wool over your eyes’ feels like cold ice tea on a hot Sunday afternoon. Instead the WWE and other less affluent wrestling brands are handing out the blindfolds and letting their fans choose for themselves how much they will or won’t believe. This is in direct contrast and sometimes at the expense of our government which is making the rapid production of falsified ‘audience tailored’ information its own twisted art form. No blindfolds here, they’re opting to just poke out our eyes.

Wrestling has always held high levels of popularity depending on locale because the genre has always been more in touch with the common man than any other American entertainment vehicle. What is confusing to critics now is the somewhat sudden increase in popularity. My first thought is, this is not sudden. Wrestling events have been filling arenas with 50,000+ people since Hulkamania got its legs planted underneath it. But there has been a spike and I don’t believe anyone has factored into the equation the increasing number of people being relegated to common due to economic chaos. Tickets to professional level sporting events increase substantially every quarter to counter act the greed of the owners, players and agents in between. A family of four can expect to pay $200 for a mid to low ranking baseball game, a price increase of roughly 10.9 percent as studied by the Boston Globe. On average the prices for basketball and football have a similar rate of increase. Tickets for local wrestling events have an average price as what one would pay to go to the movies. With the exception of the WWE that starts tickets at about $19 to level at about $150 ringside for a weekly show. But if you plan a vacation around a Wrestlemania, not including flight and using the most frugal WWE offered vacation option for 4 days, 3 nights, that same family can go, with daily and nightly events included, for about $2000. For the last SuperBowl, average cost per ticket was $3000. Also I don’t think the fact that international audiences get quite a kick out of watching America finally making fun of itself with a respectable amount of cheek has been taken into account.

This new culture of wrestling works because it’s tapping into the crux of American frustration for mainlanders and international audiences alike. The fact that Americans constantly suffer the pangs of those in power feeling obligated to lie to them instead of being obligated by office to tell the truth opens a door for the sport that’s always not been considered one. And through this door there is an opportunity for this entertainment vehicle to redefine itself in an image that is true to form, making it the only aspect of American pop culture that actually tells the truth anymore. The truth is that this is all an elaborate stage show, complete with top tier performers, grand costumes, elaborate sets and stunning special effects. Professional wrestling is the new form of the Hollywood mega blockbuster.

Long gone are the days when one needed to be the much acclaimed triple threat. This now almost mythical creature that flaunted the ability to act intertwined lovingly with a great stage voice and an unhealthy amount of natural movement quality and rhythm. In my opinion the most ludicrous idea I’ve heard is the theory that wrestlers are bargain basement performers and low rent entertainers. In ancient Greece where the art of acting was cultivated and refined they would be larded as the most gifted of entertainers due to versatility and the way the art form has to be delivered. But not in this reality show driven age of Hollywood where a decent face and the ability to be obnoxious on queue tends to garner more attention and respect than a man or woman with a classical dance background, extensive voice training and the ability to perform physically almost nightly without many mistakes does. And yes I was actually speaking about a decent number of the men and women who are WWE top tier talent.

I have often likened this entertainment sport to classic Vaudeville. Where everybody knows where they stand. There’s going to be a good guy, there’s going to be a villain and just when you think that guys gonna actually get away with it, no dice; he gets what’s coming to him instead. The genre of professional wrestling is live stage performance, extreme theatre if you will. Men and women sacrifice their physical safety every single performance to insure the entertainment of their fans. But it is just a performance, sometimes it becomes bloody and a hair brutal because they respect our intelligence enough to give us as close to real as can be had without anyone getting seriously injured. They know that we love the live theatre of good versus evil, of struggle and triumph that is up to date with our concerns and our times. So while footage from war torn countries may pacify this nihilistic urge in some, most wrestling fans are just too humane to believe that anybody needs to get legitimately hurt or actually die for it to be entertainment worth watching. If only our politicians felt the same way.