Thursday, August 18, 2011

Guest Blog: CM Punk, Social Media and WWE's New Nightmare Era

Florida-based blogger and creative maven Mike Lortz has submitted this guest blog, which is a take on CM Punk vis a vis horror movies and the reinvention the genre underwent in the mid '90s. Please support him via his website, he's a really cool dude.

CM Punk... a less scary Freddy Krueger?
Photo Credit:
Before he created the highly successful Scream franchise, horror director extraordinaire Wes Craven was at the helm for New Nightmare. It was his final foray in the Nightmare on Elm Street canon and the last original movie in which Freddy Krueger is the lead antagonist. Although well-acclaimed according to Wikipedia, Craven’s New Nightmare grossed less than any of the previous six films which include movies where Freddy is resurrected by dog piss or uses a Nintendo power glove to kill a young teen.

Despite its mediocre take, New Nightmare broke ground in a very unique way. Although not as refined in its introspection as Scream, New Nightmare was the first film to break the esteemed “fourth wall” and claim a sense of reality in the movie. To use a Star Wars reference, New Nightmare is to Scream what Episode III’s General Grevious is to Darth Vader - an effective yet imperfect prototype.

In the movie, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and the rest of the cast play themselves as director Wes Craven is “writing” the latest and final chapter in the Nightmare saga. As Craven writes, the actors find themselves dragged back into the world of Elm Street to face a darker, more evil, more realistic Freddy than had ever graced the screen. Until the final scenes, where Langenkamp – then effectively the Nancy character from the series – takes on Freddy in a furnace room, the line between reality and Hollywood fantasy is effectively blurred. The offices of New Line Cinema are as much part of the New Nightmare movie as nightmarish fantasies of the previous Elm Street films.

Recently, the screenwriters at the WWE have torn a page from the Craven handbook. Through one-time indie wrestling star CM Punk and the use of social media, the WWE has created a storyline that has brought reality to pro wrestling and pro wrestling to reality in a way that is both unique and unprecedented.

Back in June, CM Punk made a speech that knocked the wrestling community on its head. Prior to this year’s “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view, he made a speech that called out all the flaws of the WWE, from bad booking and signings to political hob-nobbing. It was as if Punk was reading directing from the “dirt sheets” and other pro wrestling bulletin boards, blogs, and social media outlets. Disguised as Punk “lashing out at the company he hates” before his “contract ran out”, the promo was perhaps the realest staged event in WWE history. Punk was no longer frolicking in fantasy, he was clearly gallivanting in reality as addressed items the WWE had clearly tried to ignore for years.

Following “Money in the Bank”, Punk continued to slide into our reality through the use of social media. His famous tweet of the WWE belt in his refrigerator, while meant to be a slap in the face to the WWE powers that be in their fantasy world, had a much larger albeit more subtle meaning. By putting the belt in his fridge, Punk took the title as far away from the fantasy world of TV as possible. We all have refrigerators; they are as normal as ovens or kitchen sinks. The belt was no longer in a wrestling ring guarded by behemoths of the squared circle. It was sitting next to Punk’s leftovers and protein shakes.

Punk’s use of Twitter was only the latest of a remarkable run of social media usage by company. In the past year, the WWE and their personalities have been praised in multiple publications for using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media forums as a way to continue the discussion of and with the WWE Universe. Their use of the mediums have pushed their stories and fantasies beyond Monday Night RAW and Smackdown and turned them into 24/7 dramas. Kayfabe has become perpetual.

The WWE’s use of social media to push their stars was gradual, but once the company realized the potential, they jumped on the mediums in full force. Not to be underestimated, of course, is the rise in popularity of “Long Island Ice Z” Zack Ryder. Whether through the inventiveness of Ryder or the WWE social media team, Ryder, a one-time marginal character, became an Internet phenomenon through the release of Youtube shorts and influential tweets.

As Ryder became a cult classic for the Internet Wrestling Community, other wrestling superstars were taking more conventional routes to social media stardom. Some used Twitter to communicate fueds, others to promote their products, and others to push motivational catch phrases to fans. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for example, signed with social media maven Amy Martin’s Digital Royalty, a brand that specializes in big-time sports personalities.

As a quick aside, one of the more interesting parts of Punk’s famous promo was his mention of The Rock, who Punk deliberately addresses as “Dwayne”. Through his third/first person addressing styles, The Rock was perhaps the first wrestler to easily switch from his fantasy persona to his real persona and have the crowd understand which was which, sometimes even during the same promo.

But the biggest WWE social media coup de grace didn’t even occur in a WWE ring. It occurred when CM Punk showing up in an indie show in Illinois. This wasn’t Ric Flair wining and dining and limousine riding, this was a WWE Champion hobnobbing with the common wrestling fan and the common indie wrestler in a common forum on a common street in a common town. Punk might have been at All-American Wrestling in Chicago, but he might as well have been in CZW in Philadelphia or wXw in Minneola, Florida. For the wrestling diehard, to see him in an independent ring meant instant credibility. It meant he took their love seriously. Although he was perhaps thousands of miles away, Punk had come to see them.

CM Punk’s visit was also as unscripted and un-kayfabe as possible. It was only possible because he was so real. He was a populist, anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-fabricated anti-hero. He was even more rebellious than "Stone Cold: Steve Austin, a man who frequently flicked off Vince McMahon, drank beer and swore like a sailor. Compared to Punk, who had the WWE by the balls by holding the championship and doing things WWE superstars were not usually allowed to do – like visit indie shows – Austin was as manufactured as Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Hogan could never have visited an indie show. Although he might have started out in relative obscurity in Japan and the early days of WWWF, at the height of his popularity, Hulk Hogan was a cartoon, as fictional as Bugs Bunny and as unrealistic as Pee-Wee Herman. The rest of Hogan’s ilk, especially those of the Rock n’ Wrestling Era, were just as comical. Were we really supposed to believe Junkyard Dog lived in a junkyard and that Nikolai Volkoff was friends with Mikhail Gorbechov?

And can you imagine the Rock n’ Wrestling Connection on Twitter? Would they have tweeted their adventures on the Saturday morning cartoons? In this era of truth and upfrontness, the WWE’s character gimmicks would not have been able to capture the attention of the masses. They would have been dismissed as a gimmicky joke.

Although the masses would have put aside unrealism in the case of Junkyard Dog or Nikolai Volkoff (see the retweeted random “musings” of The Iron Shiek”), Hulk Hogan has become a completely different story. As the years progressed, the once cartoonish He-Man was dragged into reality. He became Langenkamp’s “Nancy”, but instead of fighting the Iron Shiek, Hulk was bearing the Hogan name in VH1 reality shows and hocking rental furniture on the side. And he was dragging his family along for the ride. They were no longer Bolleas, they were and will always be Hogans.

Through social media, CM Punk has been able to become the anti-Hogan and lead a revolution in realism. As Craven revolutionized horror with New Nightmare and even more so with Scream, moving it away from kitschy slasher sequels and over-used one-liners, the WWE has pulled away it’s curtain and used it to catch new fans and re-invigorate the interest of fans who might have fallen off the wagon.

For a business that specializes in fantasy, the CM Punk-Social Media-“Shoot-Reality” Era is a moment that will change the game forever.