I’m not someone that really keeps up with the world of pop music or music criticism. In part because I have two kids, am running my own business publishing novels and barely have time to indulge in things that I genuinely enjoy. Those days of experimenting with a new artist that isn’t quite in my wheelhouse or wanting to suffer through what feels like a dozen hours of original WWE content a week knowing that maybe an hour or two will be rewarding are over. At least for now.
Yet, I found it impossible to ignore this recent story about singer Lana Del Rey and NPR music critic Ann Powers. Powers goes beyond the cursory criticism found for most modern entertainment and art these days of evaluating the surface level factors and instead strikes at the very heart of who Lana Del Rey is as an artist and what her music means in 2019. Del Ray’s reaction was to go on Twitter and complain, pout and set forth her army of the undead fans into the world because this criticism was difficult and came to difficult conclusions about her work while ending in a complementary place. This led to a wider discussion about the death of criticism in the age of the blogger and I can’t help but think about professional wrestling in this regard.
That’s right. We’re doing this. If you’re not into wrestling, you can probably skip this one.
Wrestling criticism is, for the most part, an absolute dumpster fire of elder statesmen, reactionaries, gatekeepers and people clinging to the idea of uniformity set by those that came before them. While there is nothing wrong with assigning value to a piece of art or entertainment, value without introspection is hollow and empty.
Much of modern wrestling discourse is based around the work of a few select individuals, their personal tastes and their respective cults of personalities. For many, a Dave Meltzer five-star match is the apex of accomplishment in the realm of pro wrestling, a sign that hard work has paid off and that a wrestler has really made it, with the numbers above that in the realm of Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Johnny Gargano and a select few others exclusively. Meltzer himself is a complicated subject to tackle in the wrestling space, but for our intent here, we’re focusing on his taste in wrestling and how he expresses himself.
His taste has become the gold standard for how wrestling is judged, a veritable Roger Ebert of the contemporary wrestling space. If you know Meltzer’s tastes and are curious about a match, seeing his star rating can tell you virtually everything that you need to know about the match beforehand, much like if you followed Ebert’s film reviews you knew his taste and how it correlates with the quality of a film.
The thing is, Roger Ebert’s taste was his own. Most people can agree that The Usual Suspects is a good movie, yet Ebert gave it 1 1/2 stars. He also hated (and seemingly didn’t understand) Starship Troopers and Blue Velvet.
Meltzer exists in a similar sort of bubble, where his opinion is taken as the measuring stick for the quality of wrestling, yet he’s a fallible human being who’s personal taste accounts for how he rates wrestling. I’m not saying that he’s wrong, either, because he’s not. Meltzer is perfectly within his rights to rate and review matches as he does, just like Ebert was in the same position with films. The thing is, Ebert had contemporaries. Ebert had Siskel work alongside him and there were others, such as Leonard Maltin, Gene Shalit, Peter Travers and more that provided counterbalance and their own opinions into the conversation.
Wrestling lacks this same diversity.
Instead, wrestling criticism tends to fall on the shoulders of those who grew up with Meltzer’s opinions as gospel, in turn trying to emulate Meltzer and giving near-mirror opinions to his own. Outside of that, there is little introspection into what makes wrestling magical or interesting. The closest that wrestling comes to cultural critics are people like the ranting and raving Jim Cornette, who’s gimmick of being an old fuddy duddy reactionary screaming about everyone “killing the business” for cheap YouTube uploads likens him more to a Ben Shapiro-esque figure within the world of wrestling, where his value is in calling everyone that he disagrees with a dangerous moron intent on the destruction of everything that should be held sacred.
At this point Cornette is basically a walking, talking (screaming) meme, a boogeyman meant to be tagged by one of his acolytes on Twitter with a GIF of someone doing something that doesn’t fit into his narrow understanding of pro wrestling, with the intent being to rile him up to go off on some rant. It’s impossible to tell if the people tagging him are trying to give him an aneurysm, trolling him or just looking for validation from a man that most of us grew up knowing as the stout guy in the brightly colored sport coats, his signature glasses and tennis racket on television. His—admittedly great—knowledge of wrestling history and good mind for the business has convinced large swaths of fans that his take is the definitive take on everything that is good or bad in wrestling. The irony here, of course, is that Jim is one of the people credited for applying the five-star metric to wrestling before Meltzer adapted it to a wider audience.
Then there are the rest. I’m not sure how to categorize them or if there is much value in doing so. These are archetypes that exist almost everywhere and don’t warrant any unique analyses. The overly positive, say nothing negative types, the overly negative, everything sucks types, the stuck-in-the-past types that think everything modern is bad, the people with zero grasp on wrestling history that refuse to consider anything older than when they started watching and everything in between.
Many try to steer the idea of taste into an objective place, instead of a subjective one, by conforming to rigidity within the framework of the medium, building upon the foundation of critics like Meltzer in an attempt to make definitive statements about the quality of matches. There are few attempts to analyze wrestling beyond the sum of its presentation. Those that do tend to keep to the shadows of smaller blogs or intimate social media circles while mainstream criticism falls into the understandable milieu of the news cycle.
In an age where social media GIFs of cool wrestling spots have become a transactional tool which can make-or-break a wrestler’s career and where every single star has social media, reads the internet and is in tune with what is being said about them and their work, many like to err on the side of caution and not rock the boat. Wrestling finds itself in the unenviable place of needing to breed fandoms like much larger properties do, without the luxury of the reach of a Disney, Marvel, JK Rowling or a popstar like Taylor Swift or even, yes, Lana Del Rey.
You didn’t think that I forgot about her, did you?
Lana Del Rey’s immediate knee jerk reaction to Powers’ criticism of her speaks to the perception of criticism in general these days. The star holds all the power and while Powers is an established name and NPR a monolith in their field, wrestling doesn’t have that sort of foundation in place. Wrestling journalism has its own complications, bad actors and scammers still at every level, but by-and-large there are more and more people in both the journalism and blogging sides of the field that do ethical, good work.
The problem comes when the way that we talk about wrestling hasn’t fundamentally changed in a very long time. There are multiple angles to view something like the rise of Hulkamania, or the Austin era, the bullheaded rise of Cena, the working class underdog story of a Daniel Bryan or the Cena repeat with Roman Reigns in the WWE, yet most conversations seem to default to economics, rigid match evaluations and seldom move beyond the self-referential wrestling world as a whole.
There’s need to be a spark of inspiration to look at topics like why Daniel Bryan, working in a publicly traded company with deep roots to the rise of an ultra-nationalistic conservative movement with Donald Trump at the forefront and the incredibly troubling ties to the Saudi government, with a gimmick of a conservationalist and arguably that of a leftist, makes him a heel. Or how companies like AEW pushing for inclusion as a pillar of their brand need to find a way to walk that tightrope while some of their VPs work as heels sometimes contradicting that image. Or maybe how Kenny Omega made bisexuality an important part of his story with Kota Ibushi only to shy away from talking about his own sexuality when pressed by fans and media on the matter, effectively benefitting from being seen as “out” without ever doing so.
So why don’t we talk about those things?
In part, because wrestling is not inviting to these kinds of conversations. The wrestling world is more insular and inherently smaller than a fandom for a big star, meaning that you, a critic, could be happy with the fact that AEW is promoting inclusivity and that the Golden Lovers could exist in a public realm without being overly patronizing or turning into, well, a Billy and Chuck sort of thing, while still raising questions and valid concerns over these things. Somehow talk about the WWE’s links to conservative politicians or the Saudi government is always just written off as “well, it’s just business,” while any criticism leveled at WWE means a publication losing access to the company for conference calls, press releases, interviews, event passes and more.
I’ve really been enjoying AEW’s weekly program for the first few weeks and I hope that they continue to grow and prosper, but that doesn’t make them immune to criticism. Good criticism can help things grow and get better, for artists to thicken up their skin and create better stuff.
A recent, dead-end discussion about comparing pro wrestling to performance art seems to primarily exist for Jim Cornette to bemoan what he refers to as “cosplay wrestlers” like Orange Cassidy instead of exploring the possibility of wrestling being more than a collision of sweaty, angry figures inside of a ring in front of a crowd of people and that someone like Cassidy serves as an amazing commentary on the work-rate obsessed fans and performers that occupy every space of the wrestling world. Instead, he’s killing the business and exposing that wrestling is fake and not real. Because somehow that is a measuring stick of wrestling in 2019, if the adults in the audience somehow know it’s fake but pretend to not know and that… I’ll be damned if I know what this is about here, it seems like people have no concept of what fiction is or how fiction interacts with reality at all.
If wrestling is filled with Lana Del Rey-like figures unable to handle criticism but few-to-no NPRs willing to level that criticism, what exactly can we expect wrestling to be or for it to grow? Yes, wrestling is goofy, wrestling is something that appeals to children at times and can at times be a reflection of the ugliest parts of our society, there are a lot of talented, passionate people doing interesting and sometimes different things inside and outside of the ring as performers and we’re letting the reactionaries, established critics and every other kind of actor keep wrestling contained inside of a tiny, gilded cage instead of spreading its wings and growing into something different.
The truth is, much like Disney’s MCU can exist as a juggernaut in the world of cinema with its slick presentation, fan-service-filled storylines and toyetic approaches to storytelling while Jim Jarmusch can explore the in betweens with Adam Driver, the WWE style can persevere while Orange Cassidy is giving a lazy thumbs up and Nate Webb can lead a crowd in a singalong of Teenage Dirtbag alongside Marko Stunt while a random, ultimately pointless battle royale unfolds as the perfect criticism of the battle royale and how most of the fun is just the entrances and eliminations, not the match itself.
The only thing killing wrestling are the people that can’t let go.
If you enjoy pro wrestling and want to see more of it in different settings, my Trystero novels feature a plethora of realistic, exciting hand-to-hand fight sequences, some torn from my favorite wrestling matches.
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