Published on May 5th, 2015 | by Gareth Davies0
Can Billy Corgan Save Wrestling?
When the wrestling world woke up last Monday, the news that a major name would join TNA was the last thing anyone expected. In fact TNA still resembles a half empty Mom and Pop grocery store struggling to keep the lights on, despite signing a multi year TV deal with Destination America in the wake of the Vince Russo/Spike disaster. Even though the on air storylines having improved immeasurably since Russo’s departure, continuing financial struggles (with rumours making the rounds that talent and crew aren’t being paid on time) and the loss of key personnel such as AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Taz, and Christopher Daniels have cast a dark shadow over Dixie Carter’s pro grappling group.
So the idea that amidst all of this chaos TNA would hire a legit superstar to turn their fortunes around is fanciful at best, laughable at worst.
But that’s exactly what TNA have done. Except the person they’ve hired isn’t a headline free agent like Bill Goldberg, nor a young up and comer with unlimited potential like Ricochet or Adam Cole. They’re not even a well respected wrestling legend like Jim Ross. Instead TNA have made the curious decision to employ, well, Billy Corgan.
Yes that Billy Corgan. ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Celebrated musical genius Billy Corgan. TNA have – for reasons yet to be adequately explained – added Corgan to their office staff as the “Senior Producer of Creative and Talent Development”. According to the man himself his role will include creating storylines and working directly with wrestlers and other on air talent to refine and enhance their characters. Just how heavily he’ll be involved remains open to debate at this point, as the Pumpkins are due to embark on a two month North American tour in June. Still the suggestion from TNA’s widely distributed press release was that even if he isn’t directly involved in the day to day details, the overall creative direction of the company is very much in his hands.
It screams of a vanity hire of course, something not uncommon in wrestling circles. In the past even WWE have dabbled in them. In fact “Scooby Doo” actor Freddie Prinze Jr was employed as a writer by Vince McMahon in 2008, even though it was long after his Hollywood star had faded. This brilliant move led to Prinze Jr sitting in on creative meetings, and pitching ideas that were never used for an entire year before he was quietly let go. The only real difference here is that when Prinze Jr was working for the WWE, Titan Sports Inc. weren’t struggling to pay their employees.
Still one could argue that signing Corgan has already been beneficial simply due to the number of column inches he’s generated. Publications as varied as Variety, The Onion’s AV Club, and even The Guardian covered TNA’s announcement of their new acquisition. To put this in to context, the last time wrestling got a mention in The Guardian was a couple months ago when a tremendously anachronistic op-ed piece ironically implored Simon Cowell to bring back “British Wrestling” to our TVs (“Overweight men in their 50s belly bumping each other! What japes!”). Before that was a handful of pieces on Antonio Inoki’s ill-advised decision to promote a grappling event in North Korea in the summer of 2014. So, under normal circumstances, TNA getting a mention in the super serious Guardian is about as likely as Katie Hopkins being named UNICEF’s ‘Humanitarian Of The Year’.
But the initial buzz will only go so far, and currently most of the coverage has been along the lines of “LOL look what Corgan’s doing” rather than people talking about this new must watch wrestling product. Indeed outside of giving headline writers an excuse to trot out variants of “Billy Corgan is a rat in a cage match”, the focus has solidly been on Corgan and not the company he now represents.
There must also be some serious questions raised as to whether Corgan is the right fit for an influential creative position in a company like TNA. As a musician, Corgan has a history of not playing well with others, as any number of public meltdowns and failed reunion tours will attest to. As talented a songwriter and vocalist as Corgan is, there’s a reason why he recently described the future of The Smashing Pumpkins as “murky”, even though at this point the only core members of the band are Corgan himself and guitarist Jeff Schroeder.
However, despite all the potential negatives and raised eyebrows, not to mention the dubious reasons he was hired in the first place, Billy Corgan may be exactly what wrestling needs right now.
In the wonderful Rise And Fall of ECW documentary, Paul Heyman compares the growth of the small Philadelphia based outfit to Nirvana’s impact on the music industry:
“I thought that the business, the industry, the presentation needed to change in the same way music had changed,” says Heyman. “Because music was all about Poison and Mötley Crüe and Winger and all these hair bands, and then along came Nirvana and BAM! The whole industry changed. So in the same way, I thought wrestling needed to change, in that wrestling had become the equivalent of hair bands, and we needed wrestling’s version of Nirvana to come along and just shake everything up.”
Wrestling’s version of Nirvana was ECW. Whatever WWF and WCW were doing at the time, ECW went in the opposite direction. While in 1993 the big two were presenting cartoon characters and tired formulas, ECW saw wrestlers drinking, cursing, and brawling with each other in a wild and crazy style. It helped revolutionise the entire wrestling landscape, and the concepts born in ECW were eventually adopted by both the WWF and WCW leading to the most financially successful period in either company’s history.
Billy Corgan knows this better than anyone. In fact Corgan was once involved in a series of on air appearances for the house that hardcore built, and at one point was even in talks to purchase the company outright. It never materialised, largely because Heyman’s valuation of ECW was much higher than Corgan’s, but it did spark a desire in Corgan and led to him forming his own independent group called “Resistance Pro Wrestling” alongside brothers Jacques and Gabe Baron in 2011. And even though ResPro attendances have never really eclipsed their initial curiosity bump, Corgan was still a big enough name to attract the interest of AMC, with the idea that Corgan would star in a reality TV series about trying to book an independent wrestling show. The show was given a green light in March 2014, only to fall apart a short while later. Then in November last year, Corgan announced on Twitter that he and ResPro had parted ways.
That TNA would offer Corgan a role in their company probably has more to do with trying to impress Destination America than any desire to reinvigorate the art of choreographed violence. But, just like in 1993, wrestling needs to change.
There’s no doubt that the wrestling business, in North America at least, is stuck in both a creative and commercial rut. A hot WrestleMania, featuring a superb main event and a fascinating showdown between The Authority and Ronda Rousey, failed to cover the fact that two weeks later we were right back to seeing the same old faces doing the same old things. This year it will be the 11th anniversary of Randy Orton’s first world title win, 16 years since the Big Show claimed his maiden WWE championship, and 17 years since Kane first wore the belt around his waist. And yet all three were prominently featured at Extreme Rules, and their position on the card doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. While WWE is still generating a substantial income, their earnings have undoubtedly been harmed by this stagnation.
For instance, it’s worth noting that this weekend a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, which every expert predicted would end with a comfortable and boring points victory for Mayweather, was sold on PPV in the States for $90 in standard definition. Such was the demand that a late rush of orders led to several PPV carriers suffering technical difficulties throughout the night. WWE and TNA on the other hand, despite being able to control the outcome of their matches and therefore theoretically chose the result that would generate the most money, have both abandoned the PPV market entirely after a year on year decrease in revenue.
So to say wrestling needs to go in a fresh direction is a bit like saying Chris Christie should choose his staffers more carefully. And even though he wouldn’t be the traditional option, Billy Corgan could be the man to usher in that change. Corgan is obviously an extremely creative individual, and has by all accounts an extensive knowledge of wrestling. He might be different, but maybe after a decade plus of listless paint-by-numbers angles and a staggering lack of bona fide megastars, maybe someone with an alternative perspective could be the shot in the arm the industry needs.
One subject that keeps popping up in his recent interviews is how TNA will henceforth be tackling subjects that wrestling has historically portrayed poorly. As a recent Esquire article puts it:
“If you wander towards a wrestling ring and see a homosexual wrestling character, Corgan says, chances are you’re encountering a 30-year-old stereotype. He hopes to change that at TNA”.
Which is admirable, as even though the WWE has stopped depicting gay characters as if they have the potential to unravel the fabric of normal society, it would still be nice if LGBTIQ issues could be dealt with on a wrestling show without the initial reaction being one of crushing despair.
But it would be naïve to suggest that this could be accomplished easily. Wrestling audiences, whether they’re willing to admit to it or not, have been conditioned to see anything other than straight males as something to be mocked and derided. In fact it wasn’t that long ago that John Cena was using homophobic slurs to promote his feud with The Rock (“You left us high and dry to play a fairy with a tooth?”, “Just don’t go racing to Witch Mountain, Rock, because your mountain is Brokeback”, etc.), and that was only toned down after GLAAD publicly criticised the WWE for it. Meanwhile recent online campaigns from Reddit and Twitter demanding respect for women’s wrestling were emphatically undermined when the Raw after WrestleMania crowd erupted with derogatory chants about the female competitor’s sex lives.
Also there’s a major difference between somebody like Jeffrey Tambor, a well respected and experienced thespian delivering a sensitive depiction of the human journey, and the acting ability of your average wrestler. Unless it’s executed to perfection, all the good will in the world can be washed away the moment Ken Anderson walks to the ring wearing a dress. Because unfortunately the spectre of Orlando Jordan – TNA’s and Vince Russo’s horrific attempt at a bisexual character designed to shock middle America – and others like him still loom large in the collective consciousness. After not years but decades of being portrayed negatively, a positive LGBTIQ character would be difficult even for a seasoned booker to accomplish, let alone a novice like Corgan.
But at least he’s been given the opportunity to try. Following aeons of Vince McMahon’s lowest common denominator storytelling, Eric Bischoff betting the farm on Hulk Hogan and NWO-lite stables time and time again, and Russo’s misogynistic narratives and nonsensical swerves, something fresh and new should be welcomed with open arms. It may fail spectacularly, and the odds are definitely stacked against him. Nonetheless, any fan of wrestling should be pulling for Billy Corgan to succeed regardless.
After all, wrestling needs to change. And this time maybe we need The Smashing Pumpkins more than we need Nirvana.