Pining for the Attitude Era and appreciating the present

Younger fans who did not grow up with the Attitude Era may have a misunderstanding about what worked and what didn’t. In fact the question is not so easily answered: There were parts of the late-90’s wrestling boom that simply were a product of the time and can not be duplicated. That’s a frustrating reality but it’s also a part of life. When you work in entertainment, your job is to provide something that is appealing to a wide variety of people over a long stretch of time. Sometimes, what you are doing syncs up with pop culture and your product’s popularity inflates to new levels. For pro wrestling, this has happened twice: In the 80’s, the cartoon action with a dash of patriotism felt right at home in the overly stylized decade of excess. In the late 90’s wrestling hit a second boom, this time finding a groove in the grittier, more sarcastic heyday of young millennials.

In the attitude era, Vince and co. offered a product that was in many ways just as cartoonish and goofy as it had always been, only without the gloss and the wink to the camera that the golden era enjoyed. Nostalgic fans want the company to return to the methods used in those days, but they fail to see the world has changed in 15+ years. There are wrestling fans who were not even alive when Steve Austin wrestled his last match, and yet they pine for the Austin 3:16 era to return. If it did, they would probably reject the product instantly. Today we are spoiled with long, athletic matches, featuring a variety of styles, and sizes, with slow-burn stories that–if anything–take TOO long to play out.

Do fans really want to return to the days of 3 minute matches that end in DQ? Do we want to go back to the days when big guys were at the top, medium guys were in the middle and small guys were on the bottom of the roster ladder? Do we really miss Mae Young giving birth to a hand? No, but everytime an older fan laughs about the past, and nostalgia sets in, invariably someone will wish for those days to return. Do you really want to go back to high school? No, but darn it if you don’t have a half-second’s thought about it when you remember some stupid thing that happened in biology class one time.

Are there elements of the Attitude Era that are needed today? Absolutely. The late 90’s were anchored by Steve Austin. He was the alpha male, undisputed top dog central focus of the show. Unfortunately, guys like him don’t grow on trees. John Cena has been the face of the company for nearly a decade now (if you can believe it) but he isn’t capable of moving the needle the way Austin did for his all-too-brief three years on top (98-99, 01). That’s not so much a rebuke of Cena so much as it is a recognition that Austin was the right guy in the right place at the right time. He accomplished what he did through hard work and limitless talent, but at the same time he benefited from coming along exactly when pop culture was ready to sync up with pro wrestling.

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When Austin took a year off to recover, there had to be worries that his absence would slip the WWF back to the pre-Attitude levels of financial disappointment; it is fortunate for them that Vince had a second ace in the hole–The Rock–ready to take over. If you want to know why the Attitude Era is so fondly remembered, it’s because Vince had Stone Cold for 300 days a year and then replaced him with The Rock for 300 days a year. That sounds overly-simplistic, but think about it. When has Pro Wrestling ever had two guys of such huge pop culture stature under the same roof at the same time? It was lightning in the bottle and not something that can be replicated.  When we talk about the glory days of the Attitude Era, what we’re really pining for is the privilage of getting to watch those two maestros work their craft on TV every week. Sure fans miss Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle and the backstage antics of the APA (more on the midcard on page 2), but those elements were not the focus of the show. Vince had two 1985-Hulk Hogan’s back to back and he knew exactly how to use them to achieve greatness.

So if you want to move the product back to the days of the late-90’s/early 2000’s, let me invite you to watch some “Best of Raw” episodes that are on the WWE network. It won’t be too much longer before the RAW replays (which are currently airing the late-1994 episodes) catch up to the antics of 1998 and 1999. How many Kaientai squashes will you be able to sit through? How many times will you watch the exact. same. Val Venis prematch promo and match before you realize it’s all the same, every week.  And before you complain about the stupidity of The Demon Kane, take a moment and enjoy Austin rescuing Stephanie from a plastic crucifix.  Tired of Triple H opening practically every Raw with the same speech? You’re gonna love Vince McMahon and his stooges coming out to open RAW every week in 1998.

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. The word traces back to a Greek compound of the words for “returning home” and “pain.” Don Draper (in what is still Mad Men’s greatest episode) was actually a little off when he said nostalgia meant, literally “the pain from an old wound.” Actually the word means “the pain that follows thoughts of a left-behind home.” When you want to return to the comfortable and familiar, knowing full well that you left because you were ready to evolve and grow, that’s nostalgia.

Pro Wrestling has evolved. Were there things better then than today? Yes (the focus on the midcard and the pop-culture starpower from top to bottom), but there are strengths today that were not around then (workrate, more storyline logic, better use of talent from all sizes and from all around the world). The differences don’t make one era better or worse than the other (except in the realm of one’s opinion); they only make them different.

So it doesn’t matter to me what the ratings were in 1999 compared to 2014 (especially considering the change in the television landscape in that span), or how energetic the crowds were then compared to now (and by the way, we’re in the midst of a renaissance of crowd support and fan interaction). I know in fifteen years, if I’m alive and pro wrestling is still on whatever passes for TV, my son will be pining for the days of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, remembering the brutal Cena vs Lesnar match at Extreme Rules 2012 or the brilliant Bryan vs Wyatt match at Royal Rumble. He will long for the days of The Shield and think about how great it was to watch history–and memories–being made for three hours a week, every Monday night.

Do we really need a return to the Attitude Era or do we just need a slight tweak to the current formula? See page 2 for more…

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  • Henry Higgins III

    That was a good article.

    It does get forgotten that there was a lot of dross in the AE shows as well.

  • contel

    Great points about nostalgia. The 80’s was actually even worse than the late 90’s and people act like it was the greatest thing ever. All because we grew up on it.

  • fv

    Today’s wrestling sucks compared to the Attitude Era. Period.

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