In a time long ago, the World Wrestling Federation had always prided itself on having its finger on the pulse of the culture of the wider world, with the fans in attendance and watching at home being a part of that world. In the '80s, there was demand for a hero - a "good" guy to overcome usually large, sometimes foreign opposition – a "bad guy". This formula, with some variations, would, by all accounts, be wildly successful for the better part of a decade.
What the WWF did not account for was that fans are fickle, wrestling fans moreso than most. Hulkamania would not last forever, and when it died, interest in the WWF would die with it.The early '90s saw this once mighty empire put on shows in high school gyms. Eventually in the late '90s they had stumbled onto a winning formula, and the owner of the company would face a camera and "officially" declare a change in the presentation. This change would lead to what has since been given the name of the "Attitude Era".
Now, Vince may have stood in front a camera to declare the start of this change in the World Wrestling Federation, but many disagree as to when it fully came into effect. You can could see the beginnings of an edgier character as far back as 1995 when Diesel was addressing Vince McMahon as more than just a commentator. Upon close inspection, however, many of the things associated with Attitude were most prevalent in 1998 and 1999 And despite its financial success and its reputation as the best period in WWE history, there were many lasting problems with that time. Listed below are some of the bigger issues with the edge in those "golden years."
5 Realism vs Fiction
The WWF works like science fiction: both mediums create a fictional world that all the characters interact with. These characters move throughout each space in their respective worlds and make up part of the fabric of the tone of each space in their world - the WWE now uses the word "Universe".
The unique thing about wrestling is that its fictional world interacts with the larger, real world surrounding it – the "Universe" includes the fans and other personalities who are not fictional characters but real people, and these people can interact with the characters at any time. Now this can be used to wonderful effect, as it was when real life boxer Mike Tyson met Stone Cold Steve Austin. It had a sequence of events leading to a moment: Vince McMahon would introduce Tyson after the boxer had been hyped throughout the show, Tyson came out with his group and he was interviewed by Vince, Austin then came out and talked to Tyson, addressed Vince, and shoved Tyson, leading to a brawl. Everything leading up to it was the sequence of events, and the shove was the catalyst for the brawl.
This is a double edged sword – for every Tyson/Austin there are 5 examples of this not being used in a productive way. Usually this happens when a segment is set up to be a "real" interview, usually sandwiched in between fictional storylines. When Jeff Jarrett reflected on playing a country music singer on camera, he was doing it during the actual show as part of the fictional story. The rules in wrestling are flexible, but this type of "realism" will always have diminishing returns if the promo is not tailored to the character's specific needs and is done just because it is expected from stars of that time period. This usually leaves announcers unable to fully call a part of the show (a piece of the puzzle is out of place).
4 The Hardcore Title
This is a championship that could only truly serve a function when Attitude is rampant because it embodies Attitude; the expectation is that it can be defended at any point in time without a bell sounding, anywhere in the arena (or outside it) and multiple people can become the champion within minutes. There is no champion's advantage, there are no resonant moments (those require story) and there is no match; you essentially win by catching your opponent by surprise (usually with a foreign object).
There is value in this, it is fun, and a large part of wrestling is about having fun. But too much fun all the time doesn’t allow for any of those fun moments to stand out. Arguably the most resonant moment of Attitude happened when Mankind won the Title, but he didn’t really win the Title; Austin hit The Rock with a chair and dragged Mankind on top. Mankind's moment wasn’t Mankind's at all; the show was set up so that the focus was constantly shifting between Mankind, DX, McMahon, The Rock, Austin, the Austin/McMahon rivalry, etc. When the spotlight is on everyone, it ceases to be a spotlight but instead a light that is being used ineffectively.
3 Overused Tools
Attitude was a time where specialty matches were the norm. Parking Lot Brawls, Empty Arena Matches and Handicap Matches (with Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson) littered the shows. These in themselves are not bad match types if they serve their purpose.
Issues arise, however, when everyone treats these tools the same and they are overused. If "hardcore violence" is used with no thought to the effect repeatedly, such as The Rock hitting Mankind with a chair many times in succession they than at some point each consecutive chair shot will have less effect than the last. They then further limit the entire industry's ability to use those tools effectively, not to mention those tools are used at the expense of the performers – once Mick Foley is thrown off the cell, then falls through it in the same match, where does he (and future cell matches) go from there?
2 Lack of Resonant Moments
Attitude is not conducive to the type of stories that create truly lasting moments that only specific characters can experience. This is because characters have to work together – usually in pairs – to create a sequence of events that set up a moment.
Elizabeth was The Macho Man's manager on camera long before he proposed to her.
There was history that lead to Shawn Michaels throwing Marty through a window being the catalyst for Shawn's career.
You could say Austin had The Rock, but they're moments were just a result of 2 big stars colliding and they were not specific to those individual characters shared history – having 3 WrestleMania matches together does not mean they will have a moment like Hogan and Andre did. In fact, needing 3 high profile matches like that points to their history not being set up to deliver moments (can you name a moment between the pair that is replayed the way others are?)
The truth is, all of this starts - and ends - with Austin. Though there are things that happened prior to the rise of the 3:16, Austin embodied Attitude more than any other character: from wrestling style to his theme music to his catch phrases, Austin was Attitude. And he was hot. Very hot.
Maybe a little too hot.
Austin was the type of character that was overtly a caricature. The WWE has a tendency to go with what works until it doesn’t work anymore, and they applied this when handling The Rattlesnake.
His most high profile matches were extended brawls, a number of his matches started out with him outside the ring, and he would spend the vast majority of his time working against Vince McMahon, which spotlights that story instead of Austin's individual story. If he's constantly fighting McMahon for years on end, there's no way to build to a meeting that has resonance.
Austin spread his caricatures influence throughout the entire company, and it was evident in every aspect of the show; from the camera work, to the props to all the stars themselves. And this lead to the introduction of ideas and methods that have caused noticeable issues with that time period and problems that stretched into the period we're in today, if you are willing to look without rose-colored glasses.