Is WWE's Attitude Era Overrated?
A common - and valid - criticism of WWE's current product is that the booking team constantly hypes up stars from the past. Past heroes such as the Rock, Sting and the Undertaker are headlining Pay Per Views, challenging for - and even winning - world titles while the best and brightest in the company are treated like afterthoughts. WWE seems to be living in the past. In addition to pushing heroes of yesteryear, the company constantly shoves its history down the fans' throats - retro nights, constant reunions of groups such as DX and the nWo, resurrections of defunct programs such as King of the Ring, the list goes on.
However, if there is one era that the company holds to a high standard, it would be the Attitude Era. The company has released multiple DVDs, WWE video games feature modes that are focused on the highlights of the Attitude Era. Stars such as Steve Austin, The Rock and Mick Foley are still heralded as trailblazers of the industry. Any time, something is put on a pedestal in that way, it also becomes up for scrutiny. As WWE constantly pushes the Attitude Era as its glory days, more fans are starting to cry out that the era is overrated. Even Dean Ambrose - a wrestler whose personality would have fit right along side of Steve Austin and Mick Foley - has called the era overrated. Are these fans correct or is WWE right in promoting the Attitude Era as the pinnacle of its product?
First of all, maybe we should examine WHY the company holds the Attitude Era in such high regard. The obvious reason would be the product itself: In an attempt to catch up to WCW's ratings, the WWE (Yes, for the sake of consistency, I'm calling it that during this entire article) started pulling out the stops with classic storylines such as Austin vs. McMahon, Rock vs. Mankind, Unkertaker vs. Kane. These feuds begat classic and unique matches such as Mankind vs. Undertaker at King of the Ring 98, and famous promos such as DX invading Nitro. This was during the Monday Night Wars, and both companies were putting their best foot forward to beat the other. After spending years trying to make Diesel and Lex Luger the face of the company and pushing absurd gimmicks like wrestling plumbers and baseball stars, wrestling was a pop culture icon again for the first time since Hulk Hogan left the WWE.
From a business standpoint, it makes sense that the WWE would hold that era in such high regard. With wrestling being en vogue again, it was a good time for business: Attendance was high, TV ratings were making records that have not been met since, and merchandise was flying off the shelves. The company has had nothing like the Monday Night Wars since it ended. TNA tried to regenerate the Wars but building a business on duplicating all of WCW's mistakes just didn't pan out.
From the fan's perspective, the Attitude Era is long enough ago for fans to be nostalgic for it. For some of the younger fans, they may be too young to remember the Hulkamania era. Speaking from my perspective, I discovered the 80's and early 90's era of wrestling long after it happened. I enjoyed it, but I only saw it secondhand. I experienced Austin winning the WWE championship and The Rock's "This is Your Life" segment firsthand. So even though I agree Hogan bodyslamming Andre and Roddy Piper smashing a coconut over Jimmy Snuka's head are classic, historic moments, I - and many other fans my age - can't be nostalgic for them the way we are for events we experienced as they happened.
Speaking of the Rock n' Wrestling era, the company still gives plenty of attention to that era. When Roddy Piper passed this summer, the company gave him the respect he deserves. Highlights are still shown in video packages before Wrestlemania, the annual Hall of Fame ceremony still honors wrestlers from that era. However, that era is still not in the limelight the way the Attitude Era is. The argument could be made that with more skeletons from that time coming out of the closet - Hogan's racist rant, Snuka's murder charges - that the company may want to keep those legends at arm's length. However, since those events are relevant to THIS calendar year, that may not be the strongest argument.
The easy temptation about why the company holds to the past is that its current product just is not as good. Although opinions are subjective and nothing is perfect, the WWE's current product is quite good. And there has been good TV from the E between the end of the attitude era and now - Jericho vs. HBK from 2008, Summer of Punk. Yeah, there have been bumps in the road, but there always have been and always will be bumps in the road - fans have learned to take the good with the bad. However, even with the good, WWE just has not had a boom period on par with the Attitude Era. So with good TV and an unprecedented business boom, what could fans possibly have wrong with that era?
First of all, for the many good things the Attitude era produced, there were a ton of bad things. Nostalgia has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff in people's minds. However, as mentioned, every era has good and bad in it. Look at the Rock n' Wrestling era - Wrestlemania III is still a stone classic, and Saturday Night's Main Event produced hours of classic TV. However, there were low points - Events such as The Wrestling Classic Classic and Wrestlemania IV do not hold up without nostalgia goggles - and probably not without beer goggles either.
However, the difference between then and the Attitude Era is that the Attitude Era was defined by raunchiness, violence, and anti-heroes. So the bad parts of the Attitude Era were UTTERLY AWFUL. Yes, people love looking back on Austin's beer bath, and Mankind introducing Mr. Socko, but how many fond memories do fans have of Mae Young giving birth to a hand? Who looks back fondly at Val Venis being "castrated"? Or the Brawl-for-All? Or Chyna setting up Mark Henry with a transvestite? Fans have decried WWE's decision to go PG, but look back at some of the feuds that happened when the company was still trying to replicate the Attitude Era's success. Fans aren't subjected to feuds built around necrophilia or anyone trying to give the Big Show the runs anymore. Also, any time there is blood, it's legit, and it feels special. So, it is understandable that the truly terrible moments of the Attitude Era may have left a sour taste in fans' mouths.
Another criticism of the Attitude era is the way the line between heroes and villains became blurred. All things being fair, the company was just giving the fans what they wanted. Both Shawn Michaels and the Rock have lamented that fans hated them as white-meat babyfaces, and enjoyed them more as cocky smartasses. The now-classic Austin/Hart feud was the perfect example of the way fans' views were changing - fans were turning their backs on conventional good guy Bret Hart, while cheering the cooler anti-establishment Steve Austin.
Old school fans like to think of the 80's a milk-and-cookies time when good guys and bad guys were clearly defined. But is that truly the case? Hulk Hogan may have been pushed as the ultimate good guy, but - we're talking about storylines, not his real out of ring antics - how good was he? In so many of his storylines, the BAD GUY was right! He refused to give Andre a title shot, he bailed on Randy Savage, and he was a sore loser when Sid Justice eliminated him from the Rumble. I already mentioned the inappropriately named Wrestling Classic. That was an event built around babyface Junkyard Dog cruising his way to a cheap victory - he received a bye in one round, and refereed his own match! And what about the modern era? Recent years have seen Randy Orton ridicule Mark Henry for being a loser and Sheamus beating the stuffing out of refs. Some might say "Of course, those guys are heels!" Yeah, Sheamus and Orton acted that way as babyfaces! Say what you will about Austin breaking into a hospital to rough up a helpless Vince McMahon, that was still in character.
Splitting hairs for a second, perhaps we should examine each year of the attitude era (the short version - we could be hear for years otherwise). Some people consider 1997 to be part of the Attitude Era. Whether it officially was or not, the beginning of the Era was evident. Stone classics such as Austin vs. Hart at Wrestlemania 13 and Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker's first Hell in a Cell were signs of more brutal and violent matches on the horizon. The seeds of fans rooting for antiheroes such as Steve Austin and DX (who were in fact heels at their inception) were being planted. While there were hiccups, 1997 was a pretty solid year. Going back to my previous point, even the bad parts of '97 weren't offensive or insulting to fans.
1998 is when we were officially in the Attitude Era - and when fans think of the good stuff, most of it was in 98. While not every PPV was a winner, shows such as that year's Wrestlemania, Summerslam and King of the Ring are classics that still hold up. 1998 saw the beginnings and - let's be honest - the best parts of the Austin/McMahon feud such as McMahon trying to stack the deck against Austin at Over the Edge '98. Even though Bret Hart had left the previous year, and Shawn Michaels had to exit because of his back injury (which with his then-ego, may have been more of a blessing), the Rock, Mick Foley and Kane were finally entering the main event picture while underrated performers such as Owen Hart, Ken Shamrock and Taka Michinoku were filling the mid-card with decent matches.
Sadly, what goes up must come down. 1999 alone seems to validate every argument against the Attitude Era. Vince Russo's writing style that defined the Attitude Era was built on vulgarity, swerves, and frequent title changes. Vince McMahon seemed to have a good handle on how to reign in Russo's writing style in 98, but 99 was when those things came to a head. 1999 was the year that produced one of the worst Royal Rumbles, one of the worst Wrestlemanias, and one of the worst King of the Ring PPVs. Not everything about 99 was bad - there were still solid matches, some good PPVs and exciting feuds here and there but it was the year that gave fans many of the Attitude Era's lowlights - Kennel from Hell, GTV, angles built on domestic abuse, Bossman's feud with Big Show where he desecrated the memory of Show's fictional father. The bad stuff even tainted the good stuff as there was oft-maligned reveal that the mastermind behind the Undertaker torturing Vince McMahon was in fact... Vince McMahon. Critics of the Attitude Era deride that period for inferior matches, and chances are good these critics are thinking of the 1999 product. Austin, Makind and Taker had a few good matches that year, but injuries were clearly catching up with them,and all three ended up taking time off (with Foley even retiring the following year). The Rock and HHH were still around, but in the mid-card, the booking team was backing mooks such as Test (who ironically had one of his only good matches against Shane McMahon that year), Val Venis, Chyna (who - say what you want about her - was in fact a draw) and Billy Gunn. Oh wait, it wasn't Billy Gunn - one of the most damming indictments of the Attitude Era was that the company was heavily pushing someone who went by Mr. Ass. Anybody who thinks the current Divas division is a farce really doesn't remember the dark days of Sable and Tori matches.
On a better note, 2000 was a much better year. Yeah, there was some washback of Russo's writing - such as Mae Young giving birth to a hand and that infamous Evening Gown Match at the King of the Ring. However, with Russo gone and the company caving under pressure of parents' groups, the company laid off the vulgarity (not that I condone buckling to pressure from parents' groups). As Mick Foley pointed out in his second book, characters such as Kurt Angle, Edge and Christian, Crash Holly's 24/7 Hardcore rule, and Mick Foley's own role as commissioner were giving the WWE a more lighthearted, jokey tone. Speaking of those talents, even though Austin spent most of the year recovering from his neck surgery and Foley had retired, the product was improving: Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, and the Radicals (Sorry, trying to avoid talking about that guy from Alberta... oh wait, I just did) were rising the ranks and putting on some better matches. Edge and Christian, the Hardys and the Dudleys were reinvigorating the tag team division.
So IS the Attitude Era overrated? Yes and no. On one hand, fans and the company do have a tendency to look at the era with rose-tinted glasses, glossing over some truly awful moments. If one can say that about ANY era, then maybe the Attitude Era really shouldn't be treated as some golden age at the expense of other worthwhile eras. At the same time, there were many good elements of the Era - After years of a milk white product, the booking team gave the fans what they wanted and created stars, memorable moments and some good matches.
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