Was wrestling better when it had Attitude? Or has the PG era been better than it gets credit for?
At last month’s Hell in a Cell event, The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar waged war. The action was hard hitting and the blood flowed surprisingly freely. As the Beast ended their titanic feud, there was little doubt amongst fans that this was not only one of the best WWE matches of 2015 but also the greatest Hell in a Cell contest in years. The common consensus was that this was achieved by abandoning the regular conventions of PG programming, adding violent drama, gritty realism and, to coin a popular old term, attitude. With Raw ratings at a record low, more fans and critics are questioning whether PG programming has driven away too many fans and whether the only way to stop the rot is to revert to the hard edged product of the late 90s? Like many who watched at the time, I loved the Attitude era. It spoke to my teenage sensibilities. However, to say it is the answer to today’s woes seems too simplistic. Controversial as it may be, PG is still the WWE’s best way forward.
The Attitude era is defined as the period from 1998-2001 but its tone and stylistic features were prominent until 2007 and the seeds for this more mature product were planted as early as 1996. Then it was the risqué presentation of Goldust and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s salty vocabulary and lax attitude to home invasion that foreshadowed Vince’s creative switch and by 1997 swearing, blood-letting and adult themes such as race and sexuality became far more common features of the storylines and matches. Come 1998 and the rise of Austin 3:16, D-Generation-X and The Rock meant that the then WWF became one of the edgiest, coolest products in the entertainment market. Ratings and PPV rates sky rocketed and there is no doubt that the creative licence afforded to the talent and head writer Vince Russo contributed to this. Reflecting the crude and controversial output of other cultural phenomenon of the time, from the animated hit South Park to the popular Nu-Metal music genre that included such acts as Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, the WWF was able to draw back teenagers and young adults who may have stopped watching wrestling after the late 80s boom period. Iconic catch phrases (D-X’s battle cry and The Rock’s insatiable love of pie) and hellacious matches (notably Mick Foley’s Hell in a Cell outing) would not have been greenlit in a PG era and tighter censorship would have meant that business wouldn't have soared as it did. Would Austin, Rock and Triple H still have been stars had attitude not been born? Most likely, yes, but not to the same level that they were. Late 90's Vince tapped into the mood of society (or at least listened to someone who got it better than he did) and served up a product that felt fresh and relevant; it saved the company from the threat of WCW and was the launch pad for some stellar business. For its era, it was a god send and those of us lucky enough to witness it first-hand were fortunate indeed.
However, nothing good lasts forever. Come 2002, the newly christened WWE still presented many features of the Attitude era: swearing, blood, women in degrading match types and storylines that shattered any sense of human decency (Katie Vick anyone?). However, the 2002-2007 era didn’t yield much in the way of monster business, Wrestlemania notwithstanding PPVs stagnated and television ratings fell from the highs of 1999. Indeed, it seemed that the ingredients of the attitude era had outstayed their welcome: Nu-Metal was dead, South Park adopted a more subtle, satirical streak and it was time too for WWE to tread a new path. Encouraged by a lucrative toy deal with industry giants Mattel, a deal that seemed to forbid the WWE from engaging in bloodletting for fear of negative brand association, Vince quietly dropped the TV 14 rating in early 2008. The PG era had arrived.
For some, PG has been a travesty. They see PG as responsible for the rise of John Cena and his colourful shirts and corny humour; they blame the rating for the rise of purely cartoonish characters like Santino, Hornswoggle and El Torito and they see it as taking the pith and vinegar out of feuds, promos and gimmick matches, not least the aforementioned Hell in a Cell. But the PG era hasn’t been all bad, far from it. The WWE careers of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan fell largely within the PG era and yielded a number of choice highlights. The Pipe Bomb? PG television. Bryan’s road to Wrestlemania? All PG. The Shield’s celebrated run fell under the umbrella of PG as has the Diva’s revolution of NXT. In fact, NXT, which we all love unconditionally, has never had an attitude era; it has always been TV PG. Good PG television is still good television.
Indeed would today’s society appreciate some of the features of Attitude era or has the world changes? The representation of women in the late 90’s was fairly shocking and juxtaposes the characterisation and status of today’s crop of female performers. Would a bra and panties match between Eva Marie and Nikki Bella really be a good thing or would it discredit the WWE in the mainstream? Trish barking like a dog for Vince’s pleasure is a stain on the 2001 product, a reminder that edgy television could simply be bad taste. Blood in wrestling is a divisive topic: it can certainly be effective and I’ll admit to a base thrill as Taker and Brock donned crimson masks in LA last month. But given the information we have on the dangers of blading in wrestling, and we only have to look to our own Nigel McGuiness for evidence of this, maybe this is an aspect of the industry that ultimately is best left in the past. Profanity can also play a role in adding spectacle to rivalries and sometimes mild swearing is permitted to enhance a promo (for instance, the use of “ass” is often used to differentiate between serious Cena and comedy Cena while The Rock is allowed almost free rein for his mic time to ensure maximum impact). But passionate and effective promos don’t need to resort to expletives if the psychology is tight.
So what does the future hold? Well, since the long term success of WWE is tied up to the worldwide popularity of the Network and that involves pushing the product in disparate markets, it is best to present a product that doesn't overly offend sensibilities. Families are big business and as WWE continues to push its philanthropic image, it will seek to maintain a clear cut image: the Wyatt Family putting Becky Lynch through a table might not be the best follow up to a Be A Star advert. But PG need not be a bad thing. From Money in the Bank 2011 to Wrestlemania 31, we all have a PG PPV we love. The key to success is not the age rating but the bookers providing a clear, coherent product that appeals to the audience. The WWE of 98-2001 targeted and attracted young adult males brilliantly but did alienate families. Today, the goal is to ensnare that lucrative family audience and that brings problems. Presenting a product that appeals to five and fifty year olds and everyone in between, as well as all genders and races can be challenging. But when quality control is tight it can be done: John Cena’s US title open challenges appealed to fans of all persuasions as did the Yes movement. NXT has cracked PG wrestling as it keeps it logical and simple. Now it’s time for the main roster to do the same and finally put the fabled Attitude era to bed.