WrestleMania 27 came to Atlanta on Sunday night, and Spencer Hall took in his first WWE matches and watched America's national theater put on their biggest show of the year. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin rode an ATV through the Georgia Dome, but like everything else, you knew that was coming (and didn't care.)
LESSONS LEARNED, PART I: PEOPLE MISS THE 1990s
The Rock breathes through his traps like he has a pair of second lungs in them, and like all showmen isn't playing for the camera, but instead is talking to you, you in 30D in Section 315. Yeah, you. You who needs to hear all the things the Rock has to say about knowing your role, and about what you're thinking, thoughts which are actually irrelevant because -- and the entire crowd will join him in saying this -- WHAT YOU THINK DOESN'T MATTER.
He arches an eyebrow, because you and the rest of the universe are worthy of his scorn. The people are his only loyalty, and only that in the plural sense: On the way out of the ring, The Rock will theatrically disdain offered handshakes made by sad individuals in the audience because only a mass of lessers numbering in the thousands is worthy of his address. There is no "you" singular, only the plural "you."
In order to find his equal, he must address an entire dome full of people. It's the only fair way for him to talk.
The Rock does not vary from the script he used 10 years ago in becoming the People's Champ. The catchphrases are the same. You are still invited to smell what he is cooking. What you think still is of no consequence to him. The Rock still only loves the People. He still uses the same glare, a cross between a Polynesian warrior's battle stance and a mimeographed Stan Lee Wolverine pose, clenched, heaving and ready to pounce in the direction of the offending party. It is 1999 in replay, and in the midst of a recession exactly 71,617 people and $6.6 million have poured into the Georgia Dome to act like we're all at the height of the Internet boom.
It is replay, and no one, repeat, not one single person in this building cares. The Undertaker will keep his WrestleMania win streak alive tonight at the age of 46. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin will stop the show with a proactive bit of officiating in the Michael Cole vs. Jerry "The King" Lawler match. The Rock will perform 35 minutes or so of glowering and intense mike work before wrestling for exactly one very decisive minute. Hipsterdom dies in the arms of Wrestlemania 27 in 2011: This is meat and potatoes, and will be reheated until the desired effect has been attained.
LESSON LEARNED, PART II: AMERICANS HAVE CONSOLIDATED THE ENGLISH MOB SHOW
Wrestlemania is above all a testament to American efficiency.
England did mob theater the inefficient way for a long time. If you wanted to cede all shame and let your mob-loving vulgarian loose, you had to do it by assembling each piece of the menu yourself. Want to laugh at freak show types? You had to go to a freak show, risking life and limb by crossing busy London streets just to go watch an Abyssinian dwarf fight a Persian bearded lady until one or both passed out from drink, exhaustion, or both.
For the insane you had to go to Bedlam, where the prison would turn loose the deranged for your mockery. For feats of strength you had to go to the fair. For ladies wearing very little clothing and behaving scandalously, well, there were a variety of different options varying by price and degree of safety. The same went for theater, since theaters often burned down and fire was a real risk at the time. Fireworks? You'd have to wait until a coronation or military victory for that, and even then you best keep your distance since pre-modern fireworks were not known for their safety features.
WrestleMania is the living continuation of that in one insanely compact space. The theater and sport is is in the ring, the freakshow element comes to you in the form of wrestlers like The Undertaker and "the hideously deformed Cody Rhodes," the fireworks go off safety indoors with an almost profligate frequency and Bedlam comes in one tightly scripted package you can digest without getting your boots soiled by the mud of the squalid streets.
They even sell beer and meat for your consumption while you watch the show. There are midgets and everything. One of them rapped for Snoop Dogg last night, and another one, Snooki from "Jersey Shore," executed back-flips in her finishing move in her match, and in fact looked more enthusiastic and athletic than either Triple-H or the Undertaker in their headlining match. Pee Wee Herman was there. No one knows why, but no one cared, either. This show has no order, and the audience demands none.
It is opera for men. It is vaudeville that goes boom. It is our national theater, and not for lack of competition.
LESSONS LEARNED, PART III: THE WWE IS THE RAINBOW COALITION
Tribes sort of matter here, but not in the way you might think. Wrestlers are themselves demographics. No wrestler contains more efforted earnestness than John Cena. Cena's entrance at WrestleMania 27 featured a full gospel choir onstage, singing beneath a jumbotron blazing out the backdrop image of a cathedral's stained glass. If my brain hadn't shorted out three seconds into this exercise, I could tell you what the film acccompanying it was about, but the bombast gave me an aneurysm, and I needed some time to recover.
Cena splits the crowd, and the gospel choir is caught in the crossfire as Cena is booed heavily. Cena's people make up one tribe: those who demand a hero, one who encourages the young to brush their teeth, the old to floss, and the middle-aged to hit the treadmill at least four times a week for their general health and well-being. The smoking landings at the Georgia Dome were constantly full for most of WrestleMania. Half of the crowd despises him and his sparkling white socks and jorts; half of this crowd has a deep suspicion of anyone with visible abs.
These people, the smokers, the Bud Light drinkers, those guys who probably throw entire old car batteries out of their trucks on the way to work to avoid "messing up the cab, man," those guys are the ones who roar for Austin. They cheer The Miz in his match against Cena, too, even thought The Miz is a less-than-convincing heel with no real charisma of his own past the standard heel's profile. They want chaos, and they will get it, and it will most likely be the first guy to reach for the folding chair, knock out the referee, or feign a truce before sucker-punching their opponent.
These people have no color, race or creed. To watch the ebbs and flows of a WWE crowd in full throat is to watch the failure of demographics in action. In theory, you should be able to craft a wrestler to fit a certain kind of fan, but attitude trumps everything. Dudes pounding beers cheer straight-edge CM Punk. A long-bearded Arab guy walks down the ramps after the show wearing a Rey Mysterio Jr. T-shirt. A huge black woman leaps from her seat a section down from mine when Stone Cold stuns Hall of Famer Booker T in the ring, and not because she seems unhappy about it.
Diagram this crowd, and it would represent a scatterplot diagram with an emphasis on the scatter. The WWE's demographics are insane, and the crowd resembles nothing more than the illustrations of the 1980s most deliberately multicultural textbooks. The kind of idyllic diversity America is supposed to exemplify? It will show up if you put grown men in their underwear and have them body slam each other for five hours.
The only solid tribal rules seemed to apply to the veteran luchadore Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio, who both got waving tricolores from their countrymen in the audience. Alberto del Rio's ignominious defeat brings up another important point.
LESSONS LEARNED, PART IV: WHEN YOU LOSE A GAME, THE WINNER SHOULD GET TO TRASH YOUR CAR WITH A CROWBAR
The NAFTA match between Canadian Edge and the Mexican Alberto del Rio finished with Edge trashing del Rio's Rolls Royce with a crowbar. Freakonomical types would note that this would be a powerful incentive for performance, but also that one could voluntarily refrain from trashing the car, in theory, setting up a kind of classic dilemma of the golden rule in action: Do you do so and hope to receive leniency from your opponent, or do you trash the car knowing full well that when the time comes for you to lose you will get the worst possible treatment?
In pro wrestling the best part is that the answer is always retaliation, always aggression, and always telegraphing your next move. The argument that "wrestling isn't real" is so obtuse, so dull to the point at hand, so willfully ignorant of the concept of reality. What's so real about any game? What is real in any way about putting men in bizarre clothes, giving them an oblong ball, and asking them to run it across a line for 60 minutes? Worse yet, what's real about paying them millions of dollars to do it?
Is this a sport? Sport is defined as "an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others." There is plenty of that. Is it scripted? Yes, and everyone knows it, and certainly doesn't care. Better still, you don't care, or at least not once the lights go up. With the full knowledge of the script, the crowd gets to participate with a kind of verse-chorus-verse singalong. The hand goes up from the mat reaching for the rope: The Miz will make it and avoid the tap-out, but the screams of the crowd are willing theater.
The crowd's favorite chant on the night is "THAT WAS AWE-SOME" set to the five clap rhythm universally known to all American sports fans. In the stands you can't hear the announcers, but this is nowhere near as confusing as you might thing. You don't need a Greek chorus when the crowd is already doing the job for them and the arena-sized theatrics of the wrestlers fill in the rest.
LESSON LEARNED, PART V: YOUR BRAIN LOVES FAKE SPORTS AND REAL DRAMA
I don't know at exactly what point your common sense governor is disabled. At WrestleMania 27, it happened somewhere in the CM Punk vs. Randy Orton match when my brain shut off and decided that this sports-like substance was actually sport, or a show, or screw the terminology -- it was something worth watching and that was what mattered. The standard dramas occurred: the fake pin, the last minute breaks, Orton clutching his injured leg and hobbling through most of the match, Punk coming off the mat on numerous occasions to nearly defeat Orton.
Then Randy Orton pulled the RKO out of nowhere.
That's a dazzling piece of athleticism, no matter how telegraphed or scripted it may have been.
Better still: See the bro in the Hawks jersey? See the look of incredulity on his face? Do you think scripted mattered to him? Do you think he drank all the beers, or ALL THE BEERS? (ALL THE BEERS, of course.) Do you think baseball is any less rigged for its habitual sharing of the title between five or six cities? Is football no less perverse for cutting each team down to the same payroll, or the NBA for openly rooting for large market teams to win the title? (David Stern is already in effect the Vince McMahon of his league. That he has not been Stone Cold Stunned by Ron Artest is a failure of imagination on the part of the NBA's writing staff.)
Wrestling is by definition a sport. It is a fixed sport, but unlike others, it has no illusions about its preferred outcomes, and the result at the end of the match is the same for the viewer in their seat, and in many ways far better entertainment for your dollar. (And according to the WWE's chattering classes, this wasn't even a particularly good WrestleMania.) It may not be unscripted, but it is not fake, either, and halfway in your brain doesn't even care.
LESSONS LEARNED, PART VI: THE MORAL LESSONS OF "STONE COLD" STEVE AUSTIN
The sound of glass breaking announces his entrance, and I lose my goddamn mind: it's "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the antisocial, angry, beer-swilling redneck who is the living embodiment of a trailer park brawl. There are rules with Austin: He will smash beers, he will disrespect authority, and someone, some unlucky someone, will be kicked in the balls when they least expect it and dropped with the Stone Cold Stunner. It will be unfair. It will be spectacular. It will look like a Pantera song come to life sponsored by a bail bonds company.
Austin rides in on an ATV, a hillbilly chariot used for three purposes: a.) tearing ass, b.) hunting, and c.) killing yourself in dramatic fashion when it flips over and breaks your neck while tearing ass through the back country. Everything Stone Cold represents isn't just bad: It's aggressively ignorant, mean, nasty, belligerent, crass, abusive, and vicious, a cartoonish view of what cartoonishly bad would be. His big crowd move in his heyday was to mount the turnbuckle and flip off the crowd. Tonight, he will wear out the five second delay more so than any other wrestler, dropping countless lip-readable profanities on camera.
And he's the official tonight.
Oh this is a bad idea!
Of course it is.
Won't someone stop it! This will surely go amiss!
Oh, it won't just go amiss. Austin will blatantly cheat by interfering with the match. So will both participants. Austin will, in true WWE official form, miss obvious instances of cheating. He will defy the mysterious commissioner's spokesman. Lawler and Austin will guzzle Keystone Light in the middle of the ring after the match in a manner not recommended by any doctor, with Austin consuming no fewer than four beers in three minutes after the initial match ends.
That can't be a good example to anyone! Think of the children!
It's so not a good example to anyone about anything, and the children cannot get enough of it, and neither can the adults, and for five minutes more past the match it's more group antisocial behavior, just a long communal wallow in everything you're not supposed to do as an adult.
But you already know what's going to happen!
Oh, totally. The anticipation of this makes it even better, not worse: The ref becomes a combatant, the heel acts not just like a heel, but like a cowardly heel, with Mike Cole flopping his feet and everyone pointing and laughing not just because it is inherently funny, but because we all know we're supposed to find it inherently funny, and that we're supposed to point and laugh. This is a group activity. Elbow nudges and winks are implied. Like a joke you know is on the way, half of the value is in the anticipation.
Whence the charisma of this violent mess of confused hillbilly cliches, then?
Because somehow, he's still got his own charisma, much like rednecks themselves? Because the entire character of Stone Cold is based on not caring -- on straight not giving an f -- in a way you or any other human being possibly could without being immediately incarcerated? And doing so while geeked on supplements and God knows what else while wearing tacky-ass jorts? Because at this core, in the right moment, Steve Austin's character is instructive, and that secretly you spend your days waiting for the moment to let your inner red dog off the chain and just rip into someone with redneck zeal? And that even though this will probably be someone at the exchange counter at Best Buy or a Delta Airlines clerk, that when you do this you'll feel just an ounce of that pure shitheel brilliance?
You have me there. I'd love to drop an elbow on Bank of America.
And follow it up by pouring beer on them and riding off in redneck glory like Stone Cold did on Saturday night? Wouldn't we all, sir. Wouldn't we all.