Every Tuesday, On the Apron takes you through the latest in pro wrestling news, with an emphasis on the current state of WWE.
So Fandangoing happened. Last week, easily the biggest story coming out of the post-WM29 Raw was the New Jersey crowd’s hostile takeover of WWE narrative for one night only, booing the hell out of stale characters like Randy Orton and embracing all the guys we’re normally conditioned to not like. This was the good kind of takeover, in which the crowd cheered for what was good and booed what sucks; the bad kind, if you’re wondering, is when Pittsburgh starts cheering on Jack Swagger for beating up a Mexican man because MURICA. Anyway, for one night, against all logic accumulated with respect to how WWE works, fans genuinely hoped this would be the beginning of a new moment, a time when WWE would build shows around the wrestlers fans actually want to see instead of forcing John Cena on us until total submission is achieved.
Instead, we got last night’s Raw, in which WWE definitively showed us where the dick goes and made sure nobody ever has the audacity to boo the 57th incarnation of a boring-ass match ever again.
Easily the biggest takeaway from last week’s show was the moment when, during the aforementioned 57th bout between Sheamus and Randy Orton, the crowd got so bored that they started chanting for former WWE stars, referee Mike Chioda, the entire announcers’ booth and even themselves. When that died down, somebody had the idea to start singing Fandango’s theme. Fandango, if you’re unaware, is the batshit stupid/goddamn brilliant new gimmick of Johnny Curtis, a long-developing rookie talent. Fandango is a ballroom dancer who happens to also be adept with a top-rope legdrop, and will not wrestle unless his name is announced with adequate panache. (FAHN-DAHN-GOHHH.) It’s idiotic, but in the fun way that wrestling sometimes manages. And whether the Jersey crowd was rooting for him because he’s fun, or because of some ironic level of appreciation, they made Fandangoing a full-blown meme. From the Houston Texans’ cheerleading squad posting a group video, to the fact that the song itself (called “ChaChaLaLa” and courtesy of longtime WWE music virtuoso Jim Johnston) temporarily ranked huge on the UK download charts, this moment permeated wrestling fandom, however briefly.
Fandango is an anomaly for many reasons. For one, such a character harkens back to an earlier era of pro wrestling, specifically the dark time that was the early 1990s, in which an evil sanitation engineer (Duke “The Dumpster” Droese), an evil hockey player (The Goon) and a man in a turkey suit (the Gobbledy Gooker) were all roles that grown men sat in a room and agreed should be played for paying audiences. Every once in a while, the gimmicks would work (Doink The Clown comes to mind), but as time has gone on, those that start with a gimmick and show enough promise eventually shed it into something more neutral and main event-worthy. Even if it’s ironic, people are responding to Fandango, which is better than guys like “Pirate” Paul Burchill ever did. Another reason Fandango is such a strange case is that he’s pretty unconventional by breakout star standards. Setting aside the fact that he doesn’t have the typical jacked WWE build (you know, the kind that makes you tear half your muscles after five minutes of headlocks), he’s also pretty in a way most male wrestlers aren’t anymore.
WWE doesn’t exactly have a sterling history of dealing with gay-baiting. It’s an old wrestling tradition going back to guys like Gorgeous George, who’d appeal to the basest instincts of the old wrestling audience for heat. More recently, there was Billy & Chuck, who were more or less Saturday Night Live’s Ambiguously Gay Duo as a pro wrestling gimmick. That idea actually has promise, inasmuch as using a pro wrestler to make the audience examine their own approaches to queerness is intriguing. It’s also pretty much impossible in an era where Damien Sandow (who’s quietly one of the best things in WWE right now) is booed for using big words and wrestling in pink trunks. (See also: the Rock-Cena 2012 buildup, which was basically six weeks of “LOL U A HOMO” -> “NO U R,” and made lots of money.) Fandango is the latest appeal to said base instincts, a virile man with soft features who’ll seduce your women while undermining your masculinity. It’s brilliant, so of course WWE’s first instinct is to ruin a good thing by taking it away from the crowd, in the form of last night’s overlong segment. I’m not sure if that was supposed to humble him, or if WWE really thinks that having him make up nonsensical catchphrases like a poorly programmed John Cena toy was the way to keep the train rolling, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
The biggest issue with WWE trying to make Fandango a narrative victory instead of a spontaneous thing that happened is how shortsighted it makes them seem. For as often as people lament the end of the so-called Attitude Era (roughly 1997-2002), a lot of it was horrendous. Sure, the characters were consistently great, and there have never been so many main event-quality wrestlers at one time in WWE, but there was also Trish Stratus being stripped and forced to beg like a dog in the middle of the ring. The one thing Attitude did to perfection, though, was make WWE listen to the crowds. When Rocky Maivia came out as a smiling, white-bread hero in the Hulkamania mold, the crowd hated him so much that it turned him into The Rock. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was a heel that happened to tap into the pre-dotcom collapse zeitgeist, the “screw work/bosses” aesthetic, and became a working class hero. Mick Foley, a guy who wasn’t great at wrestling but very great at talking and destroying his body with reckless abandon, became a beloved star. I’m not saying Fandango is anywhere near any of those guys yet, or that he necessarily ever will be, but if WWE isn’t careful, they’ll define him down so thoroughly that he’ll never get the chance.