Grappling with nostalgia: Then, now, forever

by Zach Bartlett

Nostalgia and pro wrestling have a complicated relationship, and fans and the future are affected the most.

On June 12, 2006, for a good minute, despite being an undergrad in college, I transformed into the 13-year-old version of myself, the one who believed with all his heart that professional wrestling was the coolest thing on the planet.

That night on Monday Night Raw, for the first time since 1998, Shawn Michaels and Triple H reunited as Degeneration-X and I remember it more vividly than most major events in my life. Triple H was scheduled to fight The Spirit Squad — a heel stable of five male cheerleaders — in a handicap gauntlet match by order of Vince McMahon as punishment for some offense. Near the end of the match, as The Spirit Squad was going to “break” Triple H’s neck, “The Game’s” former best friend sprinted down to the ring and started throwing out superkicks like it was a Young Bucks match, rescuing his former stablemate.

The two icons disposed of the Squad, and almost as if somehow they could hear the play-by-play over the vociferous volcanism of the audience, the moment Good Ol’ Jim Ross finished screaming in his iconic and inimitable Oklahoman drawl, “ladies and gentlemen, it appears that we have just seen the reuniting of D-X,“ the two performed a double high-five, their arms crossed like an X, confirming the classic commentator’s conjecture. D-X was back. I was overjoyed. Alternating between awe, guffaw and expletives, I paced my living room and called up my wrestling buddies. I watched it again while writing this piece; I still got chills.

It didn’t matter that the storyline leading to the reunion was hackneyed, or that the incendiary antagonists were a group of male cheerleaders, I was ecstatic (note: cheerleaders regardless of gender are fearless and near peerless athletes and I wouldn’t want to get on one’s bad side, but they’re not your typical villain).

The reason it didn’t matter was simple: nostalgia. I was riding a memory high.

Seeing Michaels and Triple H reunite reminded me briefly of the joy I felt as a kid, bereft of responsibility and wonderstruck by these two juvenile and subversive antiheroes. Even if you’re of the same era, that description of D-X may sound hyperbolic, but I assure you, with experiencing art being idiosyncratic and all, it’s not. Seeing D-X tell authority figures to “suck it” was like DMT to my angst-ridden, junior high, Baptist church-going brain, and witnessing them come together again gave me a brief taste of that feeling again.

But that’s all it was, a fleeting feeling. I wasn’t the same and neither were they. That’s the deal we make with ourselves and nostalgia; the sensation, however pleasurable, is empty and ephemeral. As Harvey Kaplan ED.D. stated in his 1987 article called “The Psychopathy of Nostalgia,“

“[N]ostalgia is a universal affect that results in a heightened mental state, an enhancing, uplifting mood related to particular memories of the past. Nostalgia also entails the recognition and acceptance that this past can never return. There is an irrevocability, components of which can be characterized as sad or bittersweet.”

What nostalgia does, in professional wrestling vernacular, is provide a “cheap pop.” Every remembrance rush is the equivalent of Mick Foley saying, ”it sure is great to be back in [fill-in-the-blank city],“ simply insubstantial sycophancy.

Right now professional wrestling as a whole is thriving; NWA is looking for its own TV deal, WOW is about to start its second season, NJPW continues to expand its reach in the United States, IMPACT is doing some transcendent stuff, AEW is launching a weekly show on a national cable channel, WWE’s tertiary programs like NXT and 205 Live are exceptional and there are numerous other examples both mainstream and local.

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However, professional wrestling also has a nostalgia problem. Too often, for sociological and economic reasons, mainstream promotions rely on the cheap pop of nostalgia, valuing it over investing in the future, due to the ostensible success of memory manipulation. Like nostalgia itself, it works but only temporarily.

The past is gone; that’s the point. A central tenet of nostalgia is, as Andrew Higson points out in his 2014 article “Nostalgia is not what it used to be” the requirement of “wistfulness, a hopeless longing for something lost and irrecoverable” is necessary. As the old song goes, “how can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

Yet WWE, and other promotions on occasion, due to the allure of the cheap pop and reciprocating sale or ratings hike, fall prey to what Kaplan, in the article mentioned earlier, refers to as pathological nostalgia —“a longing for the past without accepting that it is over,” often resulting in an idealization of the past at the expense of the future.

Pathological nostalgia can be associated with an atemporal, postmodern approach to wistful longing for the past. By refusing to acknowledge something’s absence, the irrecoverable is attainable, and, as Higson puts it, “the difference between past and present flattened out.” However, by not allowing the past to be the past, the past and present simultaneously become lost. The present never happened and the past loses its significance.

Some wrestling promotions will sacrifice today and tomorrow in order to sell yesterday, and as long as fans let them they‘ll keep at it. After all, they’re a business first and entertainment/art-form second. It’s cheap and it works, until it doesn’t. “Then, Now, Forever,” may be the WWE slogan, but their recent emphasis on “Then,” at the neglect of “Now” could seriously put their “Forever” in jeopardy.

A 1997 article in The Onion joked, “If current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run out of past by 2005,” and mainstream American professional wrestling may prove the satirical paper prescient. One doesn’t have to look much further than WWE’s Super Showdown in Saudi Arabia, where Bill Goldberg and Undertaker main evented, despite a combined age of 106, to see that WWE has near depleted their “past” reservoir. The two legends wrestled for less than 10 minutes in an objectively aesthetically awful match where they nearly accidentally killed each other on a handful of occasions.

WWE’s recent Raw Reunion also proved The Onion just as prophetic. The leader in sports entertainment has returned to the nostalgia well so often that it’s nearly ran dry. It could have been by design, but the majority of the returning legends brought back were too long in the tooth to take a bump, not that people should want them to anyway. The WWE has spent so many years relying on and resorting to cheap nostalgia, especially during WrestleMania season, that they haven’t created more than a few new legends since the Attitude Era to fill the boots of those who can’t lace them up anymore.

The WWE isn’t alone in its reliance on nostalgia. IMPACT Wrestling taped a number of shows in the Philadelphia area not too long ago, and while they were there attempted to raise the specter of ECW one last time, making sure to milk every last possible cent from the vestige of the once obstreperous and transcendent promotion while some of the envoys of extreme are still ambulatory. While doing so, they transferred some of their top-of–the-card players to the back burner, instead opting to focus on worse wrestling, intended to go nowhere, for a quick buck.

The marriage between nostalgia and professional wrestling seems congruous; after all, professional wrestling storylines and characters are intended to relate to fans and nothing is more relatable than performers or story arcs fans are already familiar with. Nostalgia isn’t innately problematic. When used appropriately, and not at the supersession of the present, nostalgic appeals satisfy in a way otherwise impossible.

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It’s like Don Draper says in the season one finale of Mad Men, when pitching nostalgia as a sales pitch, “it’s delicate, but potent.” What causes the problem is the hyper-commodification of nostalgia, at the implied behest of the capitalist, profit-obsessed society in which these organizations operate.

Communication scholar Robert McChesney, in his book The Problem with The Mediastates that, “one great irony of commercial media is that the market, instead of generating experimental content, tends to be quite conservative,” and, ”that smart media owners rarely want to try something the public is unfamiliar with; it is far wiser to do what has worked in the past.” In professional wrestling, it’s this kind of “smart” thinking that leads to Kane main-eventing pay-per-views in 2017, and Triple H having the longest match at WrestleMania 35, despite being nearly 50 years old.

There’s obvious verisimilitude to McChesney’s view, but there’s also sound reason in why “smart media owners” serve up familiarity over and over again, because, to a degree, it works. Consumers prefer the comfortability of the known; it gives the perception of stability and in an ever-changing and uncertain world. Few things are more certain than the past, which is why it’s so hastily commoditized (almost even before it is “past,” in the age of social media).

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia in the late 17th century, describing it as “a painful yearning to return home” and ascribing it to the homesickness experienced by Swiss mercenaries far from their birthplace. It is a comfort for the past and things known, and our associations with those moments and ideas. In capitalism, it’s a need to be exploited and filled. To be impressively reductive, in persuasion and marketing, in order to win over your audience you need to demonstrate you can fulfill their needs in some way.

In a lot of commercial goods designed for disposability, this need is manufactured, but that’s not the case with nostalgia. It’s an innate human sensation and filling it, to quote Draper once more, “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” A Forbes article from 2018, written by Jenna Gross highlights the marketability in the manipulation of nostalgia, describing how it helps reach the audience on an emotional level, “linking your brand message with familiar concepts to evoke feelings of security, comfort and trust.” Media moguls and wrestling promoters like Vince McMahon are acutely aware of this and abuse it to their detriment.

The same article even mentions, that “one way businesses can utilize nostalgia is by tapping into their own history,” and I’m not sure there is anything more WWE than a masturbatory ouroboros, celebrating its history until there isn’t any left.

Because markets favor low-risk imitation over innovation, and content creators respond in kind, we’re often stuck with what media scholar Todd Gitlin refers to as “recombinant culture” — the creation of media content by recycling material for predictable success. In professional wrestling, recombinant culture can be expressed in story arcs, e.g. since Shawn Michaels put Marty Janetty through a barbershop window, tag teams are required to split up, and how Kevin Owens feuding and Stunning a McMahon on a weekly basis is simply Generation Z Austin vs. Vince.

It’s also evident in character types, like how there is zero discernible difference between Lars Sullivan and Gene Snitsky or whomever the monster of the moment is; they’re just a type of villain fans are used to seeing their hero vanquish. Most often, recombinant culture presents itself in wrestling by repetitively spotlighting specific superstars over and over at the expense of creating new stars. When this unimaginative, lazy booking, motivated by cheap success caries on long enough, eventually nostalgia is all that’s left, and then that too is booked into the ground.

Recombinant culture, based on nostalgic appropriation, is different in wrestling than other forms of media entertainment because its performers are athletes, and athletes inevitably fade. Pickering and Keightly, in a 2006 issue of Current Sociology, describe how nostalgia has often been viewed as, “the conceptual opposite of progress,” and “a defeatist retreat from the present, and evidence of loss of faith in the future,” and in its hyper-commercialized misapplication that couldn’t be more apt.

As we discussed earlier, the WWE and other promotions’ repetitive exploitation of human nostalgia for profit has now lead them to a place where their reliable, predictably successful draws are no longer capable of performing anymore, and there’s no one to replace them. They took the easy, “guaranteed” road one too many times and in doing so demonstrably implied a loss of faith in the current product and its potential future. It’s a fight they can’t win. Its successful performers are aging out, but they’re not the only ones.

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From 2000 to 2016, the median age of pro-wrestling TV viewers jumped from 28 years old to 54, according to a study conducted by Magna Global Sports Business Journal, and while that data could be skewed with younger generations cord-cutting, what makes those numbers applicably troublesome is that the marked increase was the largest of the 25 sports analyzed in the study.

Wrestling fans are getting older because that’s whom the nostalgic programming is aimed at. In 2008, WWE turned their programming PG in attempt to lure in younger audiences and families, yet still relied heavily on recombinant culture’s incentivized nostalgia, creating a perplexing paradox of recycled non-PG era characters for a PG audience. The results left much to be desired from the demographic with personal nostalgia towards the performers.

The D-X story that started this piece occurred during this time, and it was readily apparent that the D-X I was wild about as a young teen was not the same one that reunited in 2006. Gone were the rebellious, vulgar, crude dissidents of yesteryear, and in their place was a repackaged “family-friendly” version who were far more D-Generation PG-13, than D-Generation X. The rush I felt was inevitably going to be hollow, but in the guise of this frame, the nostalgia was even less satisfying, and I was a demo they were appealing to directly. Those with only contextual nostalgic relationships were likely even less gratified.

Nostalgic appeals work best when the connection is personal to the audience, and, because of that, WWE, with their heavy-handed reliance on nostalgia-driven by the economic cheap pop, has lost a younger demographic for whom the nostalgia, if anything, is ahistorical. They know it means something, but they’re not sure why.

Hulkamania, The nWo, D-Generation X, Austin 3:16, The Four Horsemen: they’re empty signifiers without resonation to those who’ve only heard of their importance or received re-packaged, incrementally deteriorating versions. When the nostalgia isn’t yours, it doesn’t hit like it’s supposed to, which is why it’s easy to ignore. Wrestling’s insistence on sure-fire cheap pops has lost them a generation of fans in trade for easy money.

Nostalgia has a place in wrestling. The palpable and distinct high it provides is very real, but promotions can’t fall in love with its power in an attempt to acquire mundane monetary gain. Nostalgia is susceptible to manipulation and inherently replicable, thus desirably monetizable, but also like many profit-driven practices, unsustainable. The superstars upon whom promotions rely get older, and today’s fans don’t connect with yesterday’s memories.

Wrestling can use nostalgia, but it needs to realize what it is, an unattainable yearning for the solace of yesterday that can never be fully satisfied, and not give in to the lure of recombinant culture creation. Wrestling needs to be progressive, it must keep its eyes on the future and it must continue to evolve. Wrestling reflects culture. It is, to a degree an over the top, simulacra of life, and, in many cases, life is wrestling — wrestling with the inevitable passing of time and relinquishing of what we hold dear, ourselves included, over to the next generation.

Wrestling, at its heart, understands this. The very notion of “going out on your back” respects the ephemerality of prominence, and the necessity to put over the future as you secede to the march of time. But this future-minded holistic approach, in larger promotions, often falls victim to the “now!!!” preached by capitalist societies.

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I’m not advocating for the abdication of wrestling history — there’s some truly beautiful stuff there and it helped us get where we are today — nor am I championing the dismissal of veteran performers — there’s something inspiring in watching your older heroes get another run, and if wrestlers still love it or need the work, then, by all means, stay in the game. I’m only cautioning promotions to be wary of nostalgia oversaturation brought about by the allure and “need” of cheap, easily replicable  content directed solely by profit.

(I’d like to quickly note here that veteran performers are not uniformly nostalgic acts. Chris Jericho, as an example, continues to metamorphose and adapt to new wrestling landscapes, with his recent work in AEW and NJPW positioning itself amongst the finest of his three-decade-long career.)

There is a home for nostalgia in professional wrestling. It’s just not situated at the top of the card, offering up the future as an oblation to the gods of prosperity for myopic gain. People yearn to go back to the feeling they received the first time they engaged with transmogrific entertainment, and as an entertainment provider, it’s (to put plainly as a possible), a nice thing to do. But its evanescence must be understood.

As an audience and people in general, we shouldn’t feel guilty about nostalgia. It’s part of the human condition, but it’s fragile. We cannot reside there. Progress, evolution and growth are integral to survival. Sports entertainment companies intending to be part of the future should recognize this as well.

Nostalgia doesn’t need to be eliminated from profession wrestling, just repositioned. As Pickering and Keightley express:

“We should perhaps reconfigure [nostalgia] in terms of a distinction between the desire to return to an earlier state or idealized past, and the desire not to return but to recognize aspects of the past as the basis for renewal and satisfaction in the future. Nostalgia can then be seen as not only a search for ontological security in the past, but also as a means of taking one’s bearings for the road ahead in the uncertainties of the present.”

Wrestling fans should embrace what they love about the history of their wrestling fandom and use it to examine the current scene for similar inspiration, but with a modern approach. What we love about wrestling should not be a stopping point; it should refine our taste as we continue to grow as fans.

Wrestling promotions should learn from their past, not relive it, and find a way to advance their product using prior successes as a suggestion, not a law. Reinterpret stories through a modern lens, don’t replay them scene for scene. Demand performers reject stagnancy and don’t hinder their creativity by forcing them to play the greatest hits ad nauseam. Don’t be lazy and manipulative for short-term profit. Respect your audience, respect the superstars and respect the art.

Conservative approaches for parochial profit foster a recombinant culture that rejects change. But here’s the kicker: change is coming like it or not. Time does not care that things are working out for you right now. Now is already gone, and in order to survive in the future, it’s necessary one recognize its inexorability. Capitalism doesn’t always favor this approach — just ask the planet — but easy, cheap pops aren’t the only way to get over. Being creative and forward-thinking is risky and arduous, but it’s the only way to grow and the only way to really receive that “Road Warrior pop.”

WWE and other wrestling promotions are in a fantastic position to be creative and take risks. Their talent pool is deeper than ever, and the fans are hungry for groundbreaking content. Wrestling has a nostalgia problem, but its future is brighter than ever. It just needs to stop reliving yesterday.

Zach Bartlett has worked as a radio host, public school teacher, restaurateur, professor, aspiring indy-wrestler, bartender, and a writer. He plays the saxophone and can still dunk off one foot. He loves the Orlando Magic, against his better judgment, and believes pro-wrestling, music, and basketball are the premier forms of escapism.