Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Absence, Empathy and Punk Rock

CM Punk continues to be one of the main characters on Raw – even in absentia.  When Paul Heyman appears, he’s accompanied by a guy who is cool, but decidedly “not Punk.”  Crowds chant Punk’s name at least once per episode.  And as fun and talented as AJ is, to substantial number of fans, she’s now known as “Punk’s wife.”

Six months after getting okie-doked by El Torito at the Royal Rumble and vanishing, Punk still has his hooks in us

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You can’t argue with the fact that he’s always been a compelling performer.  There are the obvious elements of his character that drew audiences in – the pipe bombs, the naturalistic in-ring style, etc. – but a lot of guys cut a lot of quality promos and have good matches. And it goes beyond the standard heel vs. face dichotomy.  People still supported him even when he was a bad guy.  Remember the buildup to Mania 29 when Punk assaulted the Undertaker with an urn full of Paul Bearer’s ashes?

That’s a pretty despicable thing to do. But if you watch the video, you’ll notice that Punk’s never booed – and there are even some cheers supporting him.  Against the Undertaker – a universally respected character.  We, as an audience, are in pretty deep with this guy.

Why is that?

One of the reasons we watch wrestling is to look for narrative ruptures.  Cracks in the storylines, parts of the show that push the envelope, the “it’s still real to me, dammit!” moments.  Things we’re able to connect with on a more interesting level.  Punk personifies these ruptures in a number of different ways.

Punk as a musical/artistic movement is inherently revolutionary and opposes the status quo.  So that alone positions our boy as a rebel and iconoclast (and read more about Punk as “punk” in Martin Douglas’s great essay “The Ballad of CM Punk”).  By calling himself “Punk,” he’s setting himself up to be disruptive.

He also acknowledges the “real” world – the one that exists outside the WWE.  Not only with his “Oops - I’m breakin’ the fourth wall” and “How you doin’ Colt Cabana?” comments, but his connection to straight edge culture and bands are something that you can track down and get into yourself.  They’re real things that operate independently of WWE.   

And Punk looks different from the other performers.  He looks like a real person – albeit  a really big, strong person.  You could feasibly look like Punk if you hit the gym hard, started seriously running, and got some tattoos.  It may take a while, but it could actually happen.  Compare that to a guy like John Cena.  You could go to the gym all day, every day and you’re not going to look like John Cena. John Cena is a freak.  You will never look like him in a million years.  John Cena looks like something Michelangelo carved out of marble.  Punk looks like a real dude. 

And you have to compare these two guys – Cena, the official protagonist, and Punk, the actual protagonist.  Quantitatively, Cena sells more merch, probably puts more butts in seats, and generates more cash for Vince.  But qualitatively, creatively, Cena is a tough sell.  Whereas Punk has connections to reality, Cena exists in the WWE vacuum.  We can admire Cena, but we empathize with Punk.  And that’s what makes a compelling character.

WWE audiences have to put up with a lot of nonsense to get to the good stuff.  And when the good stuff comes along, we tend to value it.  There are a lot of reasons why CM Punk continues to resonate with us.  He’s a character that is so powerful that his absence – the fact that he is not there – is still a major part of the show.