The best wrestling performers know how to work with the audience, pumping them up or reacting on the fly to their moods. When we visited the Fan Axxcess event the day before, we saw some of the wrestlers from the WWE’s NXT school training. You could see that they were all working to learn how to communicate emotions through broad gestures and facial expressions that could be read by fans on the other side of the auditorium; they were working to develop a recognizable personality through which they could deliver those stock gestures and devices. And we saw people at various stages of development, including a few who had appeared prematurely on the WWE’s main stage and then been sent back down for retooling because they couldn’t deliver what was expected of them. For the most part, they were performing in character, but not really reaching across the fourth wall and engaging with the audience.
A great wrestler knows how to pull that off. I was impressed, again, with the melodramatic elements of the Jack Swagger vs. Alberto Del Rio match. Here, we saw a kind of classic “agit-prop.”
When I got pulled into WWE years ago, it was by waking up on a Saturday morning to hear the show-down between Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter. Slaughter was an American soldier who had been brainwashed by the Iraqis; Hulk was seeking to protect the American spirit and inspire the young “Hulkamaniacs,” especially those whose parents were fighting overseas. This was in the midst of the first Gulf War, and the storyline seemed well designed to play upon the emotions of the spectators.
The Swagger fight was equally of-the-moment: Swagger and his manager, Zeb Colter, represent the Tea Party. Their patter emphasizes the nativist side of the Tea Party. They wrap themselves in the American Flag and chant “We the People,” yet they are militantly anti-immigrant. So, in New Jersey, they rode out in a military vehicle and Zeb began to denounce people who speak Spanish, Italian, Greek, and finally, Yiddish, with the crowd booing louder and louder with each new prejudice. Then, Del Rio was introduced as a Mexican-American success story, reading aloud the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and talking about how much he loves his new country. The effect on the crowd around us was visceral. For the most part, the crowd was playing their parts, booing the Tea Party and cheering the Mexicans. Add to this mix Del Rio’s announcer, Ricardo Rodriguez, who wobbled out on crutches, having been mercilessly attacked by Swagger on Raw a few weeks before, and you had a classic melodrama.
I was struck by two specific fans in the crowd. Behind us, there was a massive black guy who was standing up on his seat and chanting “white power” in response to Swagger. It was clearly a self-consciously ironic performance. But, then, across the aisle from us, there was this knot-head who keep chanting “USA, USA, USA”, and it was not clear to me where he was coming from. We were holding up a sign which jokingly read, “If Swagger wins I’ll move to Canada”. He was enraged that we were holding up a Canadian sign. I definitely thought from the way he harassed us that he might well be celebrating Swagger without any sense that he was the heel in this particular match. But here, the line between reality and performance was blurred beyond recognition.
I thought Cena’s performance on Raw after Wrestlemania was striking. It’s clear he knows that many of the hardcore fans don’t like him, and he was playing into this, giving people reasons to boo and reasons to cheer in more or less equal measures. Above all, he was seeking to bring on the heat and provoke as loud of a reaction as he could.
It’s the most dignified thing he can do. Most of those fans aren’t going to cheer for him. If he begs for their approval then he’ll look pathetic. By re-framing the boos as a sign of his success or proof of the fans’ passion for him he saves some face.
I’ve found the Del Rio-Swagger feud to be very polarizing among fans. Trust me: I wish the audience was eating it up. I like it. But here’s what I see instead: Everyone has a different opinion. Some fans like us think it’s a cool story and admire the way all of the performers are playing their parts. Other fans think the whole story is in poor taste. They say they watch escapist TV to get away from the ugliness, racism and political deadlock of the evening news. Some fans feel offended by Del Rio’s Mexican character because they view him as a stereotypical immigrant. Others – perhaps like the bald dickhead who was yelling at you for waving a Canada sign - more or less agree with Jack Swagger’s frustration with immigrants, or refuse to boo the USA and cheer Mexico. From an artistic standpoint I think it’s great that this story is challenging the audience. The WWE should be telling this story. But the result has been that crowds been restless, and their vocal reaction has been kind of muddled. You’re hearing weak boos for Swagger intermingling with weak “USA! USA!” chants. None of that reads well on TV.
As for the minor league wrestlers from NXT I agree with everything you said. It’s very cool to see these guys so early in their careers. All of today’s top superstars, including John Cena, The Rock and CM Punk, trained somewhere. There is an audience of fans out there who is even more interested in watching unknown athletes in the small independent wrestling promotions than in watching the established stars, and for much the same reasons that there’s an audience might prefer home town indy rockers to famous pop stars. They can watch the action really close up, even catch a few words with them in between performances. Pose for a picture, sign an autograph. Scout the talent. There’s a romance and simplicity to the trainees. They’re sacrificing a lot for their dream. I don’t personally focus on indy wrestling. I only have so many hours to devote to wrestling, and I prefer the grand spectacle of the WWE. But I get why so many fans prefer the indies.
Yes, like any other fandom, the WWE fans incorporate a range of interests and different forms of subcultural knowledge. In many fandoms, the result is fragmentation and individualization. Yet, this may be one of the reasons I am so interested in the collective dimensions of fan response – the shouts and chants at the match require a high degree of cooperation. There are certainly moments where two fractions play against each other in a kind of call-response fashion. So, “Let’s Go Cena” is followed by “Cena Sucks” or “Undertaker” is followed by “CM Punk”, with two sides working together to create a rhythmic dialogue. There are other times these factions are set against each other with boos and cheers trying to drown each other out.
Yet, often, everyone joins in a shared response – or at least a large segment of the crowd does. That response may represent a consensus which has been hammered out online and then expressed spontaneously at ringside. So, “boring” may be an aesthetic reaction to the performance, but it seems grounded in shared criteria, or “same old shit” seems like a spontaneous response to the scripting and the plot, but it often reflects the fans’ disappoint that the more imaginative speculations discussed online haven’t panned out. Some of the chants represent the shared lore of the wrestling fans, so they may chant the name of the referees or the announcers, rather than the wrestlers in the ring, and that seems to require a deeper, inside knowledge than most casual fans would possess.
There seem to be certain basic chants which may persist even when the wrestlers they are associated with are no longer performing. It seems the crowd will use any excuse to go into Ric Flair’s characteristic hooting sound. At the same time, we can see processes which support innovation. So, someone may try out a new chant or gesture. If it seems to express something the crowd cares about at that moment, it may start to spread really rapidly. Some of the best contributions become part of the collective repertoire and may resurface at other events around the country (especially if the chant is clearly audible on the television broadcast). As we’ve suggested, sometimes, this is about playing along with the official storyline and sometimes, it may be about resisting or playing against the dominant narrative.
All of this brings us to the now legendary crowd responses on the RAW after Wrestlemania. You and I, alas, had to fly back to LA for our respective jobs, though you caught some of that broadcast via the airplane’s media system (thank you, Virgin Atlantic) and I caught up with much of it on Tivo later. Can you share some of your impressions of what was going on there?
Let me answer that in a round-about way. Every year there are literally dozens of wrestling shows and conventions booked to coincide with Wrestlemania weekend. Virtually every regional/independent group in the country travels to the host city to perform at some small boxing gym or other dive. Past stars like Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart sell tickets for intimate Q&A sessions (to fund their retirement years.) WrestleCon is a whole fan convention which brings in past legends. A lot of these individual performances only draw 100 people. Then everyone comes together for Wrestlemania.
You’d think that the crowd response for the big event would be through the roof, but that’s usually not the case. Part of it’s the acoustics of the space. When you’re in an open-air venue like MetLife Stadium the crowd noise travels upward into the sky instead of echoing around an enclosed arena. Part of it’s that the core fanbase is already worn out from the past few days, and just wants to settle in and watch the show. It’s also harder to get 80,000 fans on the same page at the same time than it is to get 16,000 fans. So even when everyone’s saying the same thing, the left 40,000 people will be shouting it two seconds after the right 40,000 people, and the result is a wordless din.
There’s also a different audience who’s joining the “core” Internet fans there – families from the local area who don’t get very rowdy, or people from the area who don’t know much about wrestling and just come to see what all the fuss is about. They dilute the concentration of the raucous crowd, and to some degree shame the loudest fans into behaving themselves. Every time I’ve ever heard fans start chanting something profane at Wrestlemania someone sitting next to them has told them to watch their mouth.
The next night when the WWE tapes their weekly television show, RAW, everything is different. The curiosity seekers stay home. So do the families. They’ve spent all they’re going to spend. What’s left are 16,000 Internet fans (and 5 horrified “other people”) wedged into an enclosed basketball arena, with acoustics designed to echo. They see that as their chance to air their agenda in front of WWE management and a worldwide television audience: to show how united they are in support of some wrestlers, and how unanimously they detest others.
One of the most dramatic moments this year was when the crowd got fed up with a match between Sheamus and Randy Orton. Instead of cheering or booing either performer in the ring, they decided to show just how little they cared by chanting the referee’s name. “Mike Chioda! Mike Chioda!” Then they chanted for each of the television broadcasters, one at a time. Then they called for RVD, a wrestler who’s in TNA!, the WWE’s rival promotion. They even threw in a Mexican soccer chant used by indy wrestler El Generico. When a villain, The Big Show, prematurely ended the match by ambushing Sheamus and Randy Orton with a steel chair the crowd chanted “Thank you, Big Show! Thank you, Big Show!”
Later, the crowd decided to show their appreciation for Fandango, a young performer they wanted to elevate, by humming his orchestral theme song. Listening to the broadcast, you can hear the humming begin as a faint murmur. Then more and more people start doing it, until almost the entire 16,000 person audience is shouting full blast and dancing in their seats. When Fandango’s match ended after just a minute or so and the WWE tried to move on the crowd kept singing. They kept it up for almost the last half hour of the show, right through John Cena’s match. Every time it would die down someone would start it back up again. Even though the event was in New Jersey, a video came out a couple of days later of the Houston Texans NFL cheerleaders doing the Fandango song-and-dance in practice. PETA employees in animal costumes did it too. Even a weather man danced on the news. Now fans around the country are apt to follow suit. Someone mixed Fandango and the Peanuts gang. That’s spreadable media.
The crowd basically held the broadcast hostage. They did not let the WWE tell the story that management directed. They started telling a new story about how bored they were with the “same old shit” the WWE was trying to sell. I’m sad that we weren’t there for it. As rude and bossy as the Internet fans can be, I’m proud of them.
But here’s the truly sad part. Just a week later the WWE has already made Fandangoing the least cool thing there is. On RAW they brought out all of the marketing statistics and glossy PR videos about how many people are Fndangoing. Then they had Fandango try for 10 minutes to get the crowd to do the Fandango dance on cue. He looked more and more desperate as he screamed hoarsely over and over for people to get out of their seats. Instead of just letting Fandangoing be a fun thing the fans came up with they turned it into a corny marketing gimmick.
Even worse, rumor has it that the WWE is considering holding next year’s RAW after Wrestlemania in the Louisiana Superdome “to make it an even bigger event.” But as I’ve already explained, the acoustics of such a giant stadium, the difficulty of getting 80,000 to harmonize at once, and the presence of so many families is all apt to discourage next year’s crowd from acting so disobedient. If the rumor is true, then the WWE is either out of touch (possible), or machiavelian (very possible).
The WWE constantly pushes fans to social media on their shows, and pops up updates on the screen every time they trend on Twitter. They write in press releases that every live audience is a focus group, and that they have their finger on the pulse of their fanbase like no other producers in Hollywood. But it often doesn’t seem like they actually give a damn what fans are saying. They just care that the fans are marketing them free of charge on social media, and giving them impressive statistics that their PR people can distribute. If the fans don’t embarrass the WWE by making a mockery of their broadcasts I don’t think management is going to take them seriously. I’ll probably remain a fan for many years to come, and I’ll be at Wrestlemania next year. But I won’t be there to dance and sing when the corporate fat cats tell me to. I’ll go to experience natural emotions and shout my genuine opinions. That’s what pro wrestling is about.
Postscript: WWE referee Jimmy Korderas said in a podcast interview:
"I appreciate the fact that the fans who paid their hard-earned money come and enjoy themselves and they cheer and boo and chant for whomever they want. They only issue I had with the post-WrestleMania Monday night crowd was it got a little bit crazy and overboard where they did it to amuse themselves as opposed to being entertained with what was going on inside the ring. So, it was almost like ‘We don’t care what’s going on in the ring, it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the ring; we’re going to start chanting and almost kind of hijacking the show to some extent... To me, it didn’t feel like it fit with the actual presentation of the show... I just thought, like you said, it was more to entertain themselves than to be entertained by the festivities."
And this week's edition of Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer reports:
"Multiple WWE employees were upset with the crowd's unwelcoming reaction to Maria Menounos, particularly since they love affiliations with celebrities and with her subsequent letter acknowledging the negative response, it got out that a strong portion of their fanbase lack proper manners, refinement and decency."
Both of these items seem to show that wrestling employees expect their audience to "be entertained", "care about what's happening in the ring", and not be "unwelcoming." But fans expect the show to be entertaining and welcoming, and for the WWE to care about what's happening in the audience. I guess it could show a lack of 'manners, refinement and decency' if Rockne S. O'Bannon showed up at Paley Fest and the audience booed and chanted "Same old shit!" But it would seem even more ridiculous for Rockne to criticize his audience for not being entertained by his show. WWE Fans boo almost every time a celebrity comes on the show, and have for years. I can see how this puts Vince McMahon in an uncomfortable position with some of his business associates. But he's got a problem, because they're booing how corporate wrestling has become, and I think they'd like to sabotage those business relationships. That's definitely unfriendly. I just think the producers and their audience have irreconcilable differences in what they want.