The WWF Attitude Era: A Counterculture Archetype

In all my years on God’s green earth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as hot as the WWF Attitude Era. Spanning from approximately 1997-2002 and led by Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Attitude Era was must-see TV. Night after night, week in and week out, the WWF (now WWE) put on unforgettable shows that kept you on the edge of your seat. You laughed. You got pumped up in the action. You constantly kept saying “oh shit!” You wanted to see the pay-per-views and gladly paid for them.

Coming during the Monday Night Wars, the Attitude Era was the response of the WWF to WCW and its nWo storyline, which was clobbering WWF RAW in the ratings in favor of WCW Monday Nitro. Nitro’s success in 1996 and 1997 forced the WWF to rethink its approach and innovate its showmanship. The resulting Attitude Era allowed WWF to not only win the Monday Night Wars, but it also bumped its ratings, merchandise sales, and pay-per-view buys far ahead of anything seen before. While Nitro rarely ever got a 5.0 rating (even in its best year of 1997), RAW got that and higher, up to 6.0 and above, routinely starting in 1998.

Why was the Attitude Era so successful for the WWF? Because it boasted several core ingredients that proponents and bringers of an emerging populist counterculture would be well advised to take heed of. In fact, the parallels appear to be striking with what the WWF did with the Attitude Era and what we’re trying to do now.

Organic Growth & Promoting New Talent

The WWF was suffering some big problems in the mid-90’s. WCW was poaching its top talent. Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and even Bret Hart eventually found themselves working in the rival promotion. The other marquee name, Shawn Michaels, found himself suffering a bad injury in early 1998 that forced him to take a four year sabbatical that was thought to be permanent at the time. The WWF had to look elsewhere instead of relying on what worked for them in the 80’s with the over-the-top cartoonish-style characters. WCW was introducing a grittier, edgier form of entertainment with its nWo angle.

WWF responded with a sort of A/B testing. It adapted and looked to see what got the most reaction from the crowd. To this day, this is why I still appreciate the art of professional wrestling. It lets you see crowd dynamics and what gets responses in real-time.

WWF was forced to promote and test its new talent, allowing them to run with their own gimmicks. For instance, Mick Foley, wrestling as Mankind, began as a twisted, lonely soul, but eventually determined that a comedy gimmick would be better suited for his character. The result was Mr. Socko and hilarious segments that got better traction with crowds.

The Rock too, was allowed to ditch his initial babyface “Rocky Maivia” persona (which was very unpopular) and become simply “The Rock,” a heel in the Nation of Domination who began A/B testing, creating the core of the persona we all know and loved so much in the Attitude Era.

As a result of this A/B testing, where the WWF took their talent and let them go, experimenting with what worked, the Attitude Era would boast an all-star lineup of main eventers: Mick Foley, The Undertaker, Kane, The Rock, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, and so on. Even the mid-carders and tag team division boasted must-see TV. Some of the biggest highlights of the Attitude Era were tag team matches between the Hardy Boyz, Dudley Boyz, and Edge and Christian. The APA were hilarious. Everyone remembers the 24/7 hardcore title rules which led to classic segments. Simply put, no part of RAW, or later, Smackdown! on Thursday nights, was wasted.

WWF Attitude Era Roster

Leading the way peaks apart from the rest of the WWF Attitude Era roster however, was Stone Cold Steve Austin.

The Populist Superstar

In the mid-90’s, The Ringmaster debuted in the WWF. It was a lame gimmick, and the man behind it knew that the Ringmaster would never become a marquee name. It would never sell tickets or merchandise, or headline WrestleMania. So, after he got his foot in the door, he began to brainstorm a new character. He watched a special on serial killer Richard Kuklinski and came up with a “cold-blooded, ruthless heel” character. Showing the 80’s mindset that hadn’t quite yet abated, the WWF suggested names like “Otto von Ruthless,” “Ice Dagger,” and “Fang McFrost.” After none of these were satisfying, his wife at the time told him to drink his tea before it became stone cold. And with that, Stone Cold Steve Austin was born.

Stone Cold Steve Austin started out as a heel character in 1996. Taking full advantage of the primacy effect, Stone Cold Steve Austin uttered these infamous words at the King of the Ring that year.

Nothing like this had ever been heard in the WWF before. It was a clear departure from the cartoonish gimmicks of the 80’s, and many people consider it to be the beginning of the Attitude Era. Right at the start, Stone Cold Steve Austin had put an indelible stamp on the zeitgeist to come by going to the edge, by willing to be shocking. In fact, his victory at the 1996 King of the Ring wasn’t supposed to happen, because Triple H was originally slated to win it, until the infamous MSG incident put him on the backburner. But by innovating a new character and having the balls to push to the edge, Stone Cold Steve Austin made it easier to take off when luck found him.

Afterward, the act began to prove surprising. Though a heel, Stone Cold Steve Austin began to get more and more cheers. As 1997 rolled on, they became louder. The A/B testing continued.

This took place in late 1997 (skip to about halfway in if you only want to see him). Note the cheers.

By itself, the Stone Cold Steve Austin character was a success, but success alone rarely amounts to True Glory. You need to go above and beyond success to get there.

What really took Stone Cold Steve Austin into the stratosphere was his feud with his boss, Vince, “Mr.” McMahon. This was the feud that would be the centerpiece of the WWF Attitude Era. When Stone Cold Steve Austin began feuding with Mr. McMahon, the crowd instantly responded with a glee that had never been seen before. Contrast the reactions in the above video to these:

And of course, the most famous of all Attitude Era moments, the beer truck.

Why was this storyline so white hot? It was because there was an element of self-identification and populism to it. Most people hate their jobs and their bosses, and every week, they got to see Stone Cold Steve Austin beating and humiliating his boss. They identified with him. He personified their dark fantasies. Stone cold Steve Austin was the guy who broke free, who did what he wanted, who literally gave the middle finger to a stultifying establishment. He would strike whenever and wherever. He didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him. He was the ultimate rogue who fought hard and got back at anyone who did him wrong.

A/B tested to perfection, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any character quite as hot in any medium since. While WCW’s nWo storyline, once hot and innovative, began to grow stale and became the company’s stultifying establishment, the WWF, led by Stone Cold Steve Austin, constantly slew the father and continued to innovate in the Attitude Era.

Austin vs. McMahon feud WWF Attitude Era
Austin vs. McMahon was the cornerstone of the WWF Attitude Era.

The Deep Bench

When Stone Cold Steve Austin was injured in late 1999, the WWF not only survived, but thrived, and the Attitude Era arguably had its best year in 2000. The Rock found his wings in 1999, another result of A/B testing and organic growth from genuine crowd reaction, and he would soar like an eagle in Austin’s place. Listening to the crowd, The Rock’s character, too, began to draw intense fan devotion because of his wizardry with words and his palpable charisma. The feud between The Rock and Triple H in early 2000 was just as much must-see TV as that between Stone Cold Steve Austin and McMahon.

The WWF didn’t let the success of one guy interfere with the careers of others, in stark contrast to WCW at the time and, arguably, the WWE now. One star shining bright didn’t stop others from being born and burning brightly as well. The better each one got, the brighter the Attitude Era would blaze as a whole, and if one star was lost, the others still shined.

Stone Cold, The Rock, and the Undertaker


The massive success of the Attitude Era teaches the culture creator, I think, these things:

  1. You have to be innovating constantly. Never rest easy on previous success. Don’t let your past define your future.
  2. Organic growth gives you the most potential to be white hot. A/B test to see what works. Don’t insist on something with no staying power. Stone Cold Steve Austin is the best example in his transition from the Ringmaster to the character that defined the Attitude Era.
  3. Your bench should be deep. No matter how hot one act is, don’t let it stifle other acts.
  4. Push the boundaries. Have the balls to be shocking. Nobody remembers the character that falls in line. The dominant lion stands out, and standing out is what you need to have your name remembered.

The potential is there for you. In a world where social justice warriors are attempting to strangle all the fun out of everything, there’s never been a better atmosphere for another, broader Attitude Era. How many Rocks are among us? How many of us can become a Stone Cold Steve Austin? The Revolution of 2018 is brewing, and Stone Cold Steve Austin type politics would be a massive hit if only anyone dared decide to run that way. A movement in popular culture to flip the finger the the SJW gatekeepers could prove white hot if we listened to the audience and promoted the bench instead of forming cliques to keep others down.

All you have to do is try.

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