Simplicity is Success in Music and Wrestling
by Ite Lemalu
This article talks about understanding pro wrestling from a musician’s perspective. I have been a wrestling fan since the age of 9, and at an earlier age; I was blessed with a gift of playing the piano by ear. A certain feature attraction that I enjoyed about wrestling were the different musical themes that played while the wrestlers walked to the ring. I thought I was the man for being able to hear these wrestling tunes and then play them on the piano, I remember ringing up a friend from school just to play Macho Man Randy Savage’s theme, “Pomp and Circumstance’. I was 11 when during a school assembly, my neighbor made me get up in front of the school to play an impromptu piece on the piano, the first song that came to mind was the Macho Man’s song followed by the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers’ “All American Boys” theme. My confidence in performing in public came partly from playing these themes. Music and wrestling went hand in hand so much that when I moved away to study music, I took with me my collection of wrestling tapes; in between my studies, I would watch a tape or five as a way to de-stress. The qualification I worked towards was the first of its kind for a university in New Zealand, the focus of the curriculum was contemporary rock and the outline included lectures that discussed how Eminem’s lyrics and American accent were cleverly crafted to music. In addition to lectures; students were put into bands and taught to work together. This was a valuable tool for the reasons that we were at the start of networking with other musicians, each of our skills developed from playing with other band members and listening skills were honed from hearing the other members playing their instruments. This exercise ensured that we complemented each other and the overall sound. Being in a band was similar as being in a family unit or a very small community where each member had a certain skillset that was necessary for the community to function. As out of town student, the band also served as a support system.
A few years ago, I came across this Facebook status that was posted by a pro wrestling veteran:
“Watching some Hulk Hogan matches before bed. Selling makes matches. Hogan was good at selling. I hate when I see guys on the Indies think they’re “too big” to sell. André the Giant sold for people … stop being marks”.
This post was a response to the internet wrestling fans’ criticisms about Hulk Hogan’s wrestling skills being limited – according to their definition of limited skill; Hogan would only use a handful of moves and his matches were the same order of format. The wrestler defended Hogan’s skills; eluding to examples when Hogan would take a thrashing from his opponents, he [Hogan] reciprocated the beatings by showing great vulnerability, as if he was on the verge of defeat. Wrestlers refer to it as ‘selling’, and a ‘mark’ is a term used to describe a fan that overly regards a wrestler, wrestling company or wrestling style to be superior. This simple sells formula which Hulk Hogan mastered for many years has a large part in the WWE’s success in attracting and maintaining new fans. Hogan’s detractors would explain his ‘lack of skill’ by comparing him to Kurt Angle or Daniel Bryan, wrestlers that were built to display a scientific style that came with an unlimited move set. This style is what the opinionated internet fans regard as the superior craft. The judgment made against Hogan is unjust as he was not equipped to perform this technique. Hogan also wrestled two different styles in the United States mainstream and the highly respected leagues in Japan where he had the freedom to demonstrate more of his abilities that suited his 6 foot, 8 inches, 300-pound build; that’s rarely acknowledged by those fans. Their ideology is that the most purist scientific wrestlers should be at the top of the card.
I played in several bands during and following my studies, the experience helped me to identify with the wrestler’s Facebook status and subscribe to this ‘simple sells’ logic. I recognised the similarities in the way pro wrestlers and musicians worked their craft; this revelation is not too surprising as these two worlds share the aim to perform to their audiences. As a ‘band’, Hulk Hogan was the front man of the 1980s WWE, the wrestlers in that time were the band members, and the opponents served as part the songs. Like a great front person, Hulk Hogan’s role was to gain the trust of the fans so that they see themselves in their hero and invest emotion into Hogan’s matches and safety. In reality, Hulk Hogan’s gift to connect with others as a vehicle for the WWE to generate revenue; encouraging the customer to attend the matches, watch their television shows and buy merchandise. The WWE roster of that time was stacked with the talent that wrestled a variety of different styles; the internet fans viewed wrestlers like Ted Dibiase and Curt Hennig as uncrowned champions who should have been in Hogan’s place because they ‘did more in the ring’. As great as some of these wrestlers were (and it applies to the current WWE), there is a definite place for these ‘uncrowned world champions’ in the band, in most cases that place is not situated at the front. You’ll find these great workhorses supporting the lead singer from the side where their instruments are of greater use.
The Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase was a notable foe of Hogans. The Million Dollar Man was aggressive in opposing Hogan’s values of integrity and justice with greed and selfishness, their conflicts brought about many memorable matches/songs. Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig embodied an unattainable quality on the surface and was unreasonable in his disputes against Hulk Hogan’s message of inclusiveness. A lot of great songs speak about the main character being stuck in conflict and vulnerability, and the listener can relate to that story through their own experience. The front person singing the part of the main character then connects with the listener; this method applies in wrestling when the fans see themselves vicariously through the hero. Mainstream wrestling relies on stories of conflict and an empathetic front person for the fans to resolve those challenges. The Million Dollar Man and Mr. Perfect demonstrated where Ted Dibiase and Curt Hennig were of most value to the WWE band.
I look at WrestleMania 3 is an illustration of how Hulk Hogan’s drawing power helped to enhance the WWEs visibility and the careers of the wrestlers. WrestleMania 3 (29 March 1987) is regarded as the event that established the WWE as the top definitive wrestling promotion in the United States. The event attracted the largest wrestling crowd in the United States (93,173); this record was sustained for almost 30 years. The advertising leading up to WrestleMania 3 was hyped around Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant main even. Hogan and Andre generated much attention that when it came time for the event, the matches on the undercard, in particular, the classic Ricky Steamboat/Randy Savage match, had gained massive exposure – witnessed by a large audience and covered by media. Steamboat vs. Savage was of a higher quality to Hogan vs Andre, however, the level of publicity that was achieved by Hogan and Andre helped Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage and others to a new generation of followers.
Since its beginnings, the WWE band have stayed close to the ‘simple sells’ practice; requiring the wrestlers to slow their pace during the matches. This method was vital for their top stars such as Bruno Sammartino, Hogan, Steve Austin, the Rock and John Cena. The reason for this is that the wrestlers can tell better stories that understood easily by diverse audiences; it also conserves their bodies to keep up with the travel and demand of wrestling several nights a week. This, of course, applies to a sensible front person that looks after their vocals and lifestyle.
Although Hulk Hogan was nicknamed the ‘Real American’, he was able to appeal to an international audience; other American based characters like Sgt Slaughter and “the American Dream” Dusty Rhodes had certain barriers to their characters which limited their appeal to southern Americans. A fruitful band and wrestling roster can depend upon the maturity of a great front person and the members whose skills are used for a specific purpose; for the WWE, their purpose has been to reach a broader audience by using the right person at the front.