Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson's Impact on Professional Wrestling

As the world mourns the death of Michael Jackson, the media is already examining the cultural legacy of "The King of Pop". Like many pop superstars, Jackson influenced culture far beyond his original art i.e. music. One of the areas that some may be surprised to hear about is Michael Jackson's influence on the world of professional wrestling. Not only was Jackson's music used in wrestling but his image was as well. Following the release of Jackson's phenomenally successful album Thriller, Jackson's impact on wrestling would soon be felt in promotions throughout North America.

The early 1980's was a remarkable period of change for the world of professional wrestling. The industry was expanding thanks to the spread of cable television and shrewd promoters were beginning to see the possibilities of incorporating a multimedia approach to the industry, particularly by using music to excite its audience. Like many forms of pop culture, wrestling has never been afraid to use popular things for its own use. Wrestling promoters have "borrowed" things from TV, film, and even the headlines. Consider that promoters wooed TV Superman actor George Reeves to enter the squared circle, used wrestlers based on the Frankenstein monster, and even used a wrestler named after the infamous Zodiac killer of the 1970's. When one considers the success of Thriller, it comes as no surprise that wrestling co-opted it.

The 1980's saw the proliferation of entrance music for wrestlers. Although entrance themes were not used for every wrestler like they are today, they were beginning to become more common. Following up on the fans' positive reaction to entrance themes like Bad Bad Leroy Brown and Freebird (used respectively for the wrestlers Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and the Fabulous Freebirds), more and more wrestlers began using music to add significance to their entrances. The spectacular success of Jackson's Thriller saw songs from the record-selling album used both as entrance themes as well as for shows. WWF fans from the Rock and Wrestling Era no doubt recall WWF Championship Wrestling using Jackson's Thriller as its opening theme as well as WWF Update using the beginning of Wanna Be Startin' Something.

Of course the high energy songs of Thriller made them a natural for entrance themes-one of them even inspiring a tag team! Jeff Jarrett and Jerry Lawler's Memphis territory was a trailblazer in the use of music and music videos to hype their wrestlers (Co-promoters Jarrett and Lawler would create the tag team known as the Fabulous Ones as a test to see if music videos could be used to build stars) . Jackson's dance hit Pretty Young Thing (one of the album's seven Top Ten songs) was used not only as the entrance music but the name of the tag team duo of Norvell Austin and Koko Ware. The innovative Memphis territory paired Austin and Ware, calling them the P.Y.T. Express. Not only did they use Jackson's song but the duo dressed in red leather jackets similar to Jackson's trademark outfit, even going so far as to each wear a sequined glove like "The King of Pop".

With his video Billie Jean, Jackson popularized the dance move known as the moonwalk. Following the video's success, everyone seemed to be doing the moonwalk, even wrestlers. One of the biggest stars of the 80's was Michael Hayes of the Fabulous Freebirds. Hayes would use the moonwalk to taunt his opponents and rile up the fans at the same time. Ironically, Hayes was portrayed as a hard drinking Southern rock-n-roll rebel (the Freebirds of course, deriving their name from southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature song Freebird) but his moonwalk became a key part of his act.

Many other promoters and wrestlers would use Jackson's music to enhance their acts. These are but a few examples. What is noteworthy about Michael Jackson's music is how much it was used. Certainly other artists' work was used by promoters but few if any, were used as much as Jackson's. This is a testament to both the popularity of his music as well as its easy incorporation into the world of wrestling. As Jackson's million of fans mourn their loss, wrestling fans should remember Jackson's subtle but important impact on professional wrestling.

No comments: