DDTs and Trash TV: Re-Examining the Attitude Era – Part 1

The WWF’s idea of 90s culture was always a few feet to the left before the Attitude Era.

It seems like just yesterday I was a young boy in Savannah, GA, a soldier on the wrong side of the war. One of the earliest memories of my life, period, was shedding tears at Hulk Hogan losing to Yokozuna at the end of King of the Ring ’93. As an Army brat, Hulk Hogan spoke my language. I loved this country, I loved the over the top, macho, patriotic bravado of the Hulkster and as a young child, I loved the bright colors, crazy characters, whacky storylines and larger than life product the WWF presented. In that sense, I was exactly who Vince McMahon was targeting when he infiltrated the South, land of rasslin’, no-nonsense tough guys and storylines that revolved around who wanted to beat who to a bloody pulp and run them out of town forever – no frills, no pyro, no fancy lasers and outfits, just pure, unadulterated violence. By the time the Monday Night Wars were in full force, I had more than pledged my allegiance to the WWF, deep in enemy territory. I earned my stripes, too. As a child, I faithfully waded through things like “With My Baby Tonight”, The Godwinns, The Smoking Gunns, all of the crap the Federation threw into my face as a kid when my friends all flocked to the admittedly cooler, tougher, more ATTITUDINAL WCW product in 1996. But, this was the WWF, dammit. I’ve long said that the WWF is the Nike of “sports entertainment”, or professional wrestling, whichever term you prefer. There’s Adidas, there’s Puma, there’s Under Armour, but whether you’re in Chicago or Zimbabwe, when you show the Nike swoosh to someone, they’ll say “Just Do It”. WWE has that sort of brand recognition. I’d even go as far as saying that the WWE logo, its most popular stars and many of its trademarks are among the world’s most recognizable, period, right up there with mammoth brands like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. It was going to take more than a fad like a “bad” Hulk Hogan, or cool Mexican stars flying like bats out of hell around the ring to make me give up on pretending the Ultimate Warrior was still cool in 1996. I didn’t care if not a single one of my friends saw Scott Putski beat Recon on WWF Superstars, I was true to my colors.

America was more fascinated with reality in 1996, even if the endings weren’t as happily ever after in 30 or hour-long intervals.

This was 1996, it was the lighting of the fuse of what would be professional wrestling’s hottest period in history. It was also a year in which we saw many of the feel good, innocent vibes of the early 90s give way to good old-fashioned American hedonism, bloodlust and violence – lots of violence. It was a year when Americans decided they wanted less Home Improvement and more ER. The internet was beginning to be more than black and white text, hard to read user groups and actually started reaching our living rooms. It was this dawn of discovery that led many of us who grew up in the “Federation Years” to understand wrestling was…fake. That what happened behind the curtain was usually more exciting than the predictable shtick we had come to see on our TVs and that there was a whole wide world of wrestling out there. There were incredible mat technicians in Japan, some of them from our backyard, looking for an inroad to the WWF or WCW. There was lots to discover in the United States, too. In Philadelphia, people were being beaten to near death and thrown through flaming tables or glass, hit with fluorescent lights, all kinds of ungodly stuff that made my ten-year-old self gasp reading Pro Wrestling Illustrated or browsing newsgroups. Either way, for the first time, the WWF had lost its chokehold on wrestling. There was an alternative and, admittedly, it was often times better.

Goldust vs. Roddy Piper from WrestleMania XII had a car chase mimicking the infamous OJ Simpson Bronco chase.

I’m as big a fan of the Attitude Era as you will find. The WWF has been a part of my life since as long as I can remember and many of my most vivid memories are replaying VHS tapes until they were worn thin rewatching the latest crazy hijinks on Raw. I can also recall many a night as a 12-year-old arguing until I was blue in the face on the internet, defending anything and everything WWF related, even though I knew I was wrong nine times out of ten. WWE has made a killing on rehashing the Attitude Era, in DVDs, in its programming, in video games, in merchandise. There’s no shortage of people who want to relive the late 90s  and the most exciting era in wrestling history. What gets lost in waxing poetic over the Attitude Era is the mounds, and I mean mounds, of pure, unadulterated crap that was wedged in between stunners and crotch chops. The Attitude Era was no different from any other time in wrestling history. In between the epicness were moments that made you wince, cringe and be embarrassed to be a wrestling fan. But, the late 90s were a sort of bizarro world. It was a time where you weren’t embarrassed to tell people to “suck it”, to wear a gaudy #69 DX jersey and where an insurmountable amount of pop culture revolved around a beer guzzling redneck beating the hell out of his boss. I’d say wrestling was “cool” in the late 90s, but that doesn’t do justice in explaining how relevant professional wrestling was in defining American pop culture. The Attitude Era wasn’t the golden age of professional wrestling, it wasn’t even platinum, it was diamond. But, what if the success of the Attitude Era had more to do with being at the right place, in the right time than stellar writing, intriguing characters and tremendous booking? What would happen if the Attitude Era’s biggest stars were created in 2014, as opposed to 1998 or 1999? Is today’s product more an indicator of how the American public’s tastes in media have moved on and less an indictment on the WWE creative staff? This is an idea that came to me after many beers, many hours of rewatching the heyday of the WWF on Youtube and a sudden realization that the Attitude Era is not the pinnacle of wrestling, it’s merely the most cohesive relationship rasslin’ has ever had with the tastes of the American people. If the WWE were to release an identical product today, pretending the late 90s had never happened, there’d be virtually no difference in ratings, sponsorship or revenue. In fact, I’ll later propose my argument that WWE is stronger today than it ever has been, in history. I present to you the Attitude Era, undressed, as only a 1998 bra & panties match could deliver.

Our journey starts in 1996. It’d be easy to give some sort of cliche Tale of Two Cities-esque lead in, but the American wrestling landscape was actually a tale of three cities. In Stamford, the WWF was still reeling from the most disastrous year in its history. The WWF ran its TV out of high school gyms in 1995, pushed a dud of a champion and provided maybe the worst pay-per-view in their history at the year’s King of the Ring. In fact, to date, it’s the only year the WWF did not post a profit. In Atlanta, WCW was slowly, but surely, putting the pieces together. It’s easy to forget, but Bash at the Beach 1996, one of the top 5 or so most important wrestling PPVs of all time, didn’t take place until July. The first half of 1996 was the same old, same old for WCW. The company had found its niche as the last remnant of the fabled territory days and was the most readily available alternative to WWF style wrestling programming, being carried on Ted Turner’s media Goliath and readily available to virtually any home with cable. Hulk Hogan had jumped ship to WCW in 1994, basically taking as much of his intellectual property as the law allowed to the promotion as there was literally no difference in his character in the jump from WWF to WCW. While there were still enough people willing to buy t-shirts and support the same character that had ruled wrestling for a good fifteen years, it wasn’t until July that WCW took the risk that “smart” fans around the world had waited years for. Hulk Hogan shed the red and yellow for black and white. He turned on his millions of fans and sold his soul to the pro wrestling devil.

hogan WCW
Hogan’s act had tired out WWF audiences and it wouldn’t settle well with the Southern rasslin’ faithful who were accustomed to realism and a rougher product than the WWF.

In a vacuum, the wrestling messiah turning into the industry’s most hated villain was a genius move. It’s even more genius when you take a step back and realize that the say your prayers, take your vitamins character had well run its course in 1996. In a world where cable television and the internet had become the norm, the archetype for wrestling’s heroes had become more than stale and predictable. Still, Hogan’s turn might have been more a reflection of American taste than truly innovative writing. There had been rumblings of a heel turn for years, but it wasn’t until the WCW crowd all but said “no more” that the switch was done. Why? Part of it was Hogan finally conceding the turn, but taking a look at pop culture tastes the year prior to Bash at the Beach, it becomes more clear. Movies like Casino, Se7en, Heat, A Time To Kill, Fargo, The Usual Suspects all topped the box office. Albums like All Eyez On Me and Jagged Little Pill ruled the Billboard charts. In 1995, Jerry Springer had a transgender perform on his mild talk show, by 1996, Springer was asking for videos of incestual relationships, infidelity and everything in between. A Donahue knockoff had become a beast of its own. The trial of OJ Simpson had shifted our understanding of the intersection of entertainment and real life into something never understood before. Simpson’s civil trial took place in 1996, refusing to leave the media spotlight. The focus of mass media had shifted towards America’s interest in the ugly underbelly of society. People like Ted Kaczynski or OJ Simpson existed well before 1996…but it could be that this was perhaps the first year that picking at their skin became a source of entertainment. The interest, the fascination, the obsession was no longer with the same heroes we had seen for years and years before. Maybe America didn’t “like” bad guys, but it sure would rather watch them than anybody else. It didn’t matter if it was at a theater, on their Walkman or in pro wrestling, characters who were selfish, violent sociopaths ruled mass media. It became apparent as droves of viewers flocked to WCW’s programming, loving to hate the ruthless band of mercenaries sworn to destroy the company.

Fans smart to the industry understood that the WWF was doing more than appreciating Shawn Micheal’s talent by making him champion. The move came with significant real-life risks.

These concepts seem rather deep to apply to professional wrestling. Yet, it seems that both the offices in Atlanta and Stamford understood that the tastes of the American people were changing radically, into something we had never seen before. The nWo was the most popular faction in wrestling, despite being liars, bullies and cheating their way into prominence. Still, the t-shirt sales spoke for themselves. In the WWF, Shawn Michaels won his first world title in March. To fans, it wasn’t surprising. Micheals had long placed himself as Bret Hart’s peer in providing thrilling, top-notch, world-class performances in the ring. In 1996, he was perhaps the greatest performer on the planet. Yet, more and more of his real life persona became available to wrestling fans than ever before, both on the internet and, later in the year, on TV. Michaels was an egomaniac, a substance abuser, a punk who had by all accounts held back the career of more than a handful of promising young superstars out of selfishness. He was the antithesis of Bret Hart, a selfless workhorse who had given his heart and soul (pardon the pun) to the business of professional wrestling. The WWF’s decision to give the belt to Shawn Micheals was more than an acknowledgement of his in-ring prowess. It was the first of many indicators in 1996 that the company understood that the tastes of its audience were changing as fast as cable packages were expanding. He battled Diesel in a no holds barred match and further built his hardcore cred in an epic battle with Mankind in the fall. The flawed, rude, narcissistic character backstage, yet fully capable champion on-screen, provided a rough blueprint for the promotion’s next several champions. And while he was technically a babyface for most of the year, it wouldn’t be for more than a decade that an archetypal “good guy” would see a world championship, at least similar to the Hitman. Shawn Micheals was the infancy of the Attitude Era champion. After the crowd turned on his “Kliq” babyface routine at the Survivor Series that year, he became a more heelish television character who mimicked the mystique of Michael Hickenbottom in real life. As the year wound down, the WWF’s big star had the boyish good looks and presentation of Jason Priestley, and the no holds barred personal life of Kurt Cobain mixed together.

steve austin
Bret Hart had much to do with the WWF avoiding bankruptcy in the mid 1990s. Still, by 1996, fans were quick to embrace the edgy character of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

June’s King of the Ring also saw the beginning of Steve Austin’s reinvention, something that will undoubtedly be discussed moving forward, well into the 2000s and beyond. Austin had long been considered one of the better workers in America, seeing success in the Hollywood Blondes tag team and as a singles competitor in WCW. Austin was cut loose from WCW and spent some time refining his character in ECW before being wasted for a year in the WWF as the putrid Ringmaster character. In 1996, Austin found his niche in the WWF, eventually turning into the character to be known as “Stone Cold”, a natural heel persona, defying any and all authority, detesting both heel and face alike and leaving nobody safe in the wake of his violence. Yet, there was something in Steve Austin that the audience found endearing. As the company continued to parade manufactured babyfaces to the audience, the crowd sided with Austin, a nudge to the writers and corporate suits that fans wanted to see the company move in a direction behind a top star that would just as soon spit in the face of fans as he would give a stunner to the company’s top heel. Austin was pitted against the WWF’s top babyface, Bret Hart, in one of the more memorable feuds of 1996 and much of the audience stood behind the heel, Austin, in taking it to the WWF’s last remaining good guy. What was happening? Why would so many of the audience hope to see Steve Austin stick it to a man who had given his entire life to upholding the integrity of the WWF title in Bret Hart? These questions seemed foreign in 1996 because to the office in Stamford, they defied conventional logic. Soon, the WWF would realize that defying conventional logic would end up paying back the company in spades.

What happened next on NYPD Blue would change the boundaries of American television forever.

Tough, uncontrollable bad boys were not the only new favorites in WWF television. As easily as NYPD Blue introduced nudity to primetime television, and as easily as the internet made scantily clad women available to millions, so did the WWF in providing an oversexed product as a desperate grab for viewers. Typical attractive blonde manager Sunny became, well, Sunny in 1996. Sable was introduced to wrestling fans at that year’s WrestleMania. Both would go far in ramping up their sexuality by year’s end, becoming little more than objects by 1997, setting a precedent for women wrestlers for years to come, for better or for worse. Goldust, one of the most controversial and ahead-of-his time characters of ’95 was a focal point in 1996 in a few ways. His promos in the feud with Razor Ramon pushed the boundaries of sexuality in wrestling in an area never seen before. An ambiguous character, it was never apparent whether Goldust was transgender, homosexual, asexual or simply playing mind games with the machismo of Razor Ramon, but either way, Goldust pushed the envelope in a way never seen before not just in wrestling, but perhaps cable television. Mankind began giving depressing, lonely, desolated interviews from boiler rooms and heightening the WWF’s willingness to expose the ugliness of its characters. There was something interesting in the frightening nature behind Mankind. It didn’t matter if it was Shawn Micheal’s mortality, Steve Austin’s unpleasantness, Goldust’s…whatever it was he was trying to portray or Mankind’s mental instability, for the first time, there was no clear dichotomy between good and bad in wrestling. Fans were free to embrace a violent psychopath in Mankind or indiscriminate bully in Steve Austin as they please. More importantly, they were allowed to roll their eyes at the umpteenth iteration of the Hitman making a run for the title in the name of integrity and fairness.

boiler room brawl
The boiler room brawl between Mankind and Undertaker was a hint at the more violent and aggressive product the WWF was edging towards heading into 1997.

In more ways than one, 1996 was a year that set the table for the hottest period in wrestling history. For the most part, it went as fast as pop culture dictated. It wasn’t just in pro wrestling, but in music, movies and TV that Americans were just starting to define the tastes of trash and crash TV that would define much of the late 1990s. Whereas ECW had already taken this change head on, years before WCW or WWF, the nation’s two major companies had built upon the extreme revolution and tweaked it for mass consumption. The WWF had pieces here and there in characters like Mankind and Steve Austin, but they failed to really let the dogs out (who? who?) for another year. Was part of it apprehension due to getting so much right for the past few decades? The company had run almost uncontested since the mid 1980s and found itself in unfamiliar territory heading into 1997…but there had to be enough to keep the Titan Towers office hopeful. Luckily, the American thirst for sex, blood and violence wouldn’t be quenched any time soon. The WWF was only getting started. Perhaps 1996 was Independence Day…the company had yet to deliver its Boogie Nights. Stay tuned for the year that was 1997, the catalyst for the WWF’s Attitude Era and the boom of America’s obsession with low brow entertainment.