Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, wasn’t always an actor. Before becoming a poorly-rendered CGI scorpion alongside bad-actor Brendon Fraser, The Rock was best known for his exploits headlining five different Wrestlemanias. Standing at 6’5″, weighing 260 pounds, The Rock was a monster of a man, entertaining millions with his charisma, and physical capabilities.
Yet, professional wrestling wasn’t the destination Johnson saw for himself in 1991 – when he had just won a college football championship at the University of Miami. Johnson anchored a defensive line for the bruising Hurricanes, and had all the tools to play in the NFL. However, just a year later, he was beset by too many injuries, and Dwayne Johnson was out of football.
A 6’5″, 260 pound frame is good for many things: Moving furniture; being a bouncer at a popular nightclub; fighting bears. While all those professions can pay well (especially bear fighting, goddamn I love a good bear fight), none come close to professional football in terms of wages.
Seven years after leaving Miami, Johnson got a job very similar to shooting gaps in the trenches as a defensive lineman: He was battling men his size, up close and personal. Tens of thousands of fans were cheering for him, screaming his name. His athletic gifts were in full display, as he threw his body around, vanquishing his opponents, building his way to the top of his field. No one will deny that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is(/was) an incredible professional athlete, as he was paid handsomely for his skills. Yet, there is something of a stigma to The Rock’s chosen career path.
That’s because professional wrestling isn’t real.
Perhaps I should rewind a bit before I state that professional wrestling isn’t “real,” because it’s real in many ways, but it also requires fans to suspend their own reality to follow along. Professional wrestling is entertaining, and requires insane levels of athleticism and body control. Moreover, professional wrestling carries an element of acting that other professional sports do not. Wrestlers live their life on the road, like many other athletes do, often being far from their families. Throngs of fans obsess about their skills, and wrestlers gain cult-like followings, maybe to an even greater degree than other professional athletes.
I’m willing to cede that wrestlers are professional athletes; athletes who are paid for their athletic ability. Calling wrestlers “professional athletes” doesn’t, however, cede one critical fact: The outcome is always predetermined, and everything happening in the ring (and often outside the ring) is scripted. Spurious. Moissanite. Fictitious. Not real.
Last night, celestial bodies aligned, and a thought percolated through my brain, as Wrestlemania and ULTRA eclipsed each other. That’s when it hit me.
EDM is no different than professional wrestling.
Over the weekend, the DJ duo Krewella had the veracity of their set at ULTRA hotly debated. EDM-maker-slash-troll Deadmau5 took exception to their DJ equipment being unplugged, was corrected, and then began plugging USB cables into underwear, strawberries, and toilets.
Deadmau5 was one of the first high profile DJ’s to break the fourth wall of his profession and admit the truth about what DJ’s really do. “We All Hit Play” sent reverberations throughout EDM, with DJ’s across the globe chirping their derision. His assault on his own professional only continued on Twitter last night, with the women from Krewella aggressively defending themselves.
Prominent female DJ Dani Deahl (and defender of female EDM artists) was quick to jump into the fray as well – defending the sisters behind the decks, tweeting out a diagram of how it all works. It demonstrated that Krewella was indeed setup correctly with USB cables, even though by that time, Deadmau5 had already just crossed the line into saying Krewella’s set was sub-par.
Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf, the women behind Krewella, are performers, and no one can take that away from them. Their set at ULTRA featured a guitar player and a drummer, which lends an air of credibility to the “live” nature of what they do. Yet, even with the addition of live instrumentation, it’s still a rehearsed and scripted event.
When Wrestlemania 31 stomped its way onto America’s television sets last night, it featured Ronda Rousey – a real UFC fighter. Rousey doesn’t script her fights, and her profession isn’t under scrutiny, save for perhaps putting out a sometimes borderline-unwatchable product. Yet, the fact that Rousey was at Wrestlemania was still very much part of the theater, and no one assumed that Rousey being present changed the suspended reality, or script of Wrestlemania.
The same can be said for the drummer and guitar player accompanying Krewella at ULTRA. Live guitar and drums, when done with a real band, are unscripted, and free-flowing. But as Deadmau5 explained in “We All Hit Play”, live instrumentalists in the EDM world are simply playing along with the script. Ableton is setup for reliability, not improvisation, and breaking the script isn’t going to happen.
Krewella is free to perform some minor improvisations with various knobs and buttons, but their set is still confined to a “script” – just as professional wrestlers are stuck to theirs. Wrestlers, while breaking the fourth wall, will admit that there are certain points of the script they need to perform, and in the ring, they’re often improvising small parts of the action. The takeaway being, those improvisations are still within the realm of what has already been done. Wrestlers train themselves how to fake being hit, and how to jump 10 feet in the air, and feign smashing someone else, while inflicting minimal damage.
Professional wrestling and EDM both look real, because their feigned reality is done by design.
Vince McMahon famously called professional wrestling “sports entertainment” in the 1980s, admitting and recognizing that his product had a higher degree of appeal to a younger audience. The 80s and 90s were a golden age for professional wrestling, much like the late 2000s and early 2010s have been for EDM.
EDM is defined by cartoonish characters, just as professional wrestling is. Deadmau5 has a comically large mouse head. Skrillex crowdsurfs on a life raft, and is known for his hipster glasses and “Skrillex haircut.” Sweden, as a country, has an enormous output of handsome European men, all ready to twist knobs and be semi-intellectual about it. (I’m not going to make any Zoolander references, but goddamnit I want to.) There is a contingent of “trap” producers with more urban and hip hop roots to their character style – complete with twerking models straddling their DJ booth. Daft Punk is two guys in robot LED helmets that cost “hey, that’s a nicely optioned Lexus” kind of money.
The core of everything behind EDM is drama and theater. It’s exactly what professional wrestlers do; call each other out. It’s part of the show to have drama behind the scenes. Fans want to defend their heroes, and hate the “heels” – because it’s just what is supposed to happen. Deadmau5 is a classic heel (“villain,” in wrestling terms), antagonizing his opponents, challenging the integrity of who they are. For his verbal jabs, Deadmau5 is rewarded with success.
Even the ascent is exactly the same: “Undercards” go through the ranks before becoming the big “Main Event” – with increasing levels of skill, polish, production, lighting and sound along the way.
The hierarchy similarities in EDM and professional wrestling are striking. Lower levels are populated by backyard wrestlers, and trainwreck DJ’s who watched a couple YouTube tutorials and decided, “Yeah, I can do this.” The chasm between lower levels and upper levels of EDM and professional wrestling is self-evident. Ask anyone who has ever watched Travis “The Mountain Outlaw” Jones break his femur while jumping off an IROC-Z Camaro, or some local dubstep DJ playing his Darude-Sandstorm-meets-dubstep-trap-wait-fuck-me-seriously-is-that-Diana-Ross-mashup.
Quality of product is something not being debated. The producers/DJ’s and wrestlers who take the time to perfect their craft are brilliantly entertaining. Some people just don’t have the raw talent, or natural ability – it’s like anything else in life. I’m a 6’3″, 185 pound guy, with great athleticism. I can dunk a basketball, and outrun many people – but I will never play in the NBA or NFL, because even though I have similar physical tools, I don’t have what it takes. I just wasn’t born with the magical “it factor”. Not every DJ or wrestler makes it to the top. For every Tom Brady you draft, there are 500 Matt Schaubs.
Then, there’s the production value…
Fireworks start shooting in staccato bursts, while strobe lights flash multi-colored LED lights over the chiseled face of a man. He grabs a microphone and screams, “ARE YOU READY?!” The crowd goes nuts. Music booms through the arena, and smoke machines fill the strobing LED’s with a summer thunderstorm, right in front of you. It’s powerful, puts a smile on your face…
… and I can’t tell you whether or not I’m describing the entrance of a professional wrestler, or the entrance of a big name house DJ. The culmination of all the opening DJ’s/lower-level-wrestlers lead up to the main event. Your headliners are the superstars, and their production is done almost exactly the same way in both EDM and wrestling. The volume is louder, there are more props, smoke, twists and turns. Main event wrestlers get a cage match, ladders, and folding chairs. DJ’s get a live guitar player, or maybe a team of people in elephant costumes on stilts. (I see you, Bassnectar.)
The crowd is brought to a fever pitch by the hype, and the scripted production takes it course. It’s about energy filling an entire arena, with people losing their minds. Having been to both a professional wrestling event, and many EDM events, the climate is largely the same. Fans pay outrageous ticket prices to be entertained by lights, smoke, fireworks, and their favorite performers.
But it’s all theater.
Triple H isn’t really writhing in agony, and Avicii isn’t really making a demonstrable difference by looking like he’s twisting the hell out of the knobs on his midi controller. Triple H practiced taking that fall for months, and Avicii composed that sequence six months ago while he was on an airplane. Their job is to make you believe their live performance is more demanding than it actually is. Triple H knows someone is going to run on stage in 90 seconds and take him down. Avicii knows in 90 seconds, the kick stems from a Little Dragon remix are going to start playing – and he needs to make it look like he triggered that action.
That’s why professional-rich-kid-slash-DJ Steve Aoki can run around stage like a jackass for five or ten minutes, screaming and yelling. Or whatever it is that he does. His set is going to keep on playing whether he’s on stage, or whether he’s at a Benihana, getting some delicious shrimp cooked in front of him. In fact, there isn’t much difference between what Aoki does, and what a Benihana’s does: You’re there to be entertained. You’ve had shrimp before – and you can just cook some shrimp at home if you want to. But you’re there for the smoke, flames, and action.
Same goes for Aoki; you have his music on SoundCloud if you want to listen to it. You know what it’s going to be when you show up live – but you’re there for the spectacle and the show. Perhaps Aoki took his cues from his upbringing. The world may never know – but he sure did follow in the family tradition of creating a spectacle out of something otherwise fairly mundane.
EDM and its proponents just won’t admit the false equivalence, and that’s what I take issue with.
The dichotomy between traditional live music and EDM is something EDM proponents aren’t willing to relinquish. The entire business structure of EDM hinges upon EDM performances being equivalent to traditional live music. DJ’s now occupy a space in live venues that small bands used to occupy. The product is cheaper than booking a band – less back line, fewer elements to sound-check, fewer hotel rooms to book, and lower logistics costs.
The economics of EDM present a hardship to people who actually do perform live music – and let me make this clear, under no uncertain terms: DJ’s are engaging in theater, and not actually performing. Singing, commanding a stage, and playing an instrument in a live setting is a completely different skill set than what a DJ must do. A DJ is just pressing play.
Wrestlemania is a hugely popular event, but it’s not the Super Bowl. There is a certain romanticism of live entertainment that EDM will just never be able to capture. An EDM DJ can’t bring an audience member on stage, stop the show, and do an impromptu cover of that person’s favorite Cheap Trick song. Live bands have to rehearse together for hundreds of hours sometimes, before they have the cohesiveness to dodge any obstacles. Some girl just threw her bra at the bass player, and it got caught around his face? No problem – the band can carry on.
In the same situation, a DJ might catch the bra, and then walk away from the CDJ’s to fling the bra back into the audience. That’s because the script never changed, and music will keep playing no matter what happens. It’s this lack of authenticity that detracts from what EDM culture is really representing itself as.
I think I could be okay with EDM, if DJ’s were willing to admit it was fake.
But… there isn’t a long list of producers out there (aside from Deadmau5) willing to admit that it’s their job to put on a show, not put on an authentic show. The ranks of DJ’s I know all get super-defensive whenever I so much as insinuate their craft is separate, and not equal. DJ’s want to be treated as if their craft is equal to that of real, live, performing musicians – and I have to draw the line there. Your job is a lot easier if you’re allowed a script and you know the outcome.
That’s precisely why Michael Jordan is a worldwide brand, and Hulk Hogan is a cartoon character. Children idolize both figures, but Michael actually had to overcome something real and uncertain. His preparation meant more, because we didn’t know what was going to happen in “The Flu Game“. If a DJ has the flu, their preprepared playlist can stay the same. When Michael Jordan played with the flu, it was a legendary event. I mean, the guy looked like he might die on the sidelines, but his narrative was real – so he became a legend.
My buddies Jordan and Jason are in an electronic dance music act called Cherub – and they’re both incredibly talented musicians. Their crowds are very similar to ones that DJ’s play for, the difference being, at different parts of the show, those two boys are both singing, and slaying it on their axes. I have seen Jordan and Jason mid-tour, when they’re touring with DJ’s – and they look wiped out. The physical demands of singing, playing guitar, and dancing on stage are just more strenuous than the demands of the DJ’s they often tour with. Granted, they won’t speak out about it – but it’s evident if you’re in the same room with them. If we’re in the same green room with a DJ pre-show: the DJ looks rejuvenated and refreshed, and the Cherub boys look like guys who have just played 12 shows in 15 nights. It seems exhausting to do what they do, because it is.
Kids love make believe. That’s why EDM is (mostly) for children. Just like professional wrestling.
I have a few friends who watched WrestleMania last night. Personally, I won’t – but some adults really just love the spectacle of it all. These are adults, mind you, who will readily admit it’s all pretend, but just enjoy the cheap fun anyway. If that’s you, well – good for you.
I’m not one of those people. If I’m going to spend my time watching professional athletes, I want to watch the athletes with something to prove, and not the athletes who read a script and went through the motions. If I’m watching live music, I want to see the guys who really took the time to hone their craft, and spent hundreds of hours committing themselves – not the DJ’s who press play and pump their fists in order to promote the illusion that they’re doing something impressive.
There is something human and imaginative about a live band, a singer, a rapper, or even a Broadway star, baring their faults in front of us. It takes courage to perform without training wheels, and present your art in an unfiltered form. Sometimes, bands have off nights, and things aren’t perfect. Rappers don’t always put on brilliant shows (it might be time to fire your hype man, eh?). Strings on guitars break sometimes, so you might have to have a go at it with five, or sometimes four strings. If your microphone cuts out, well – let’s hope your rhythm guitar player doesn’t mind sharing for a moment.
So this is my message to all the DJ’s and fans of EDM out there…
There is nothing wrong with loving what you love. However, there is something wrong with pretending what you love is something it’s not, and then defending that lie against all logic and reason. You love the musical equivalent of professional wrestling – and that’s totally fine.
What you’re struggling with, is the lie you’ve been told, perpetuated by an industry whose business model is predicated upon upholding that lie. This is that watershed moment for you, just like when I was eight years old, and mom and dad told me that wrestling wasn’t real. I didn’t believe them, because it looked so real. I had all the video games on my SNES. The people were real. The performance was real. The fireworks, the chairs, and all the falling ladders – all real.
But EDM itself isn’t real. So let’s all be adults and move on with our lives.