In March of 1997, recording artist Paula Cole famously requested the whereabouts of her “beloved” cowboys. At the end of her only U.S. top-10 single, she sang helplessly (yet intoxicatingly) though a breathy melody:
Where is my Marlboro Man
Where is his shiny gun
Where is my lonely ranger
Where have all the cowboys gone
In reality, the song was an ironic feminist mockery of traditional gender roles. This wasn't Paula Cole yearning for a masculine idol. She was jeering them.
To the general public, however, it's a timeless beckoning call. The term “cowboy” is able to be retrofitted and interpreted in countless ways.
Cole’s Cowboys can represent the showmanship and instrumental talents of Motown that have been lost in today’s overproduced electro-funk of the Black Eyed Peas.
They can be respected news anchors, like Max Robinson and Walter Cronkite. Their primary purpose was informing the public of pertinent, factual news stories from a leveled perspective. That cowboy rode off into the sunset, only to be unsaddled by the noisy ratings-baiting propaganda of cable news.
In the case of professional wrestling, our cowboy is the heel. He’s gone from detestable outlaw in a black hat to ambiguous panderer who wears shades of gray.
Perhaps the most iconic purveyor of the (literal) black hat in wrestling history is Jim Ross. Ironically enough, Ross is a cowboy in his own right as the last of the great wrestling announcers. The 2007 WWE Hall of Famer has been vocal in his criticism of today’s villain.
Ross recently spoke at length (for Twitter) about the subject on social media, Tweeting:
I'd estimate that half of today's TV wrestling heels aren't equipped ie guts & toughness to be great villains. Most had rather be cool.— Jim Ross (@JRsBBQ) April 14, 2014
JRsBBQ) April 14, 2014
He’s right. Ross would later hone in on Bray Wyatt, who is often mistaken as a strong heel:
JRsBBQ) April 14, 2014
This past Monday on Raw, WWE booked Wyatt as a self-aware cult leader who embraced his various followers in attendance, just as Good Ol' JR had feared.
One could argue that this is to be expected from a character with the goal of brainwashing a mass audience. But there’s one problem: Fans are not part of the act.
A marketable heel in any era has one goal, which is to elicit a natural disdain from paying customers. When Bray Wyatt says "follow the buzzards," that destination should be so dark and ominous he must be stopped before getting there.
If Bray Wyatt were a real person, there would be outcries for him to be committed. His presence would create unnerving tension. He'd be an outcast with only the bottom feeders of society to confide in. That—not live-arena karaoke—is what must be simulated.
Wyatt's only followers, Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, are on WWE's payroll.
Everyone else should hate his guts.
Since the advent of entertainment, pay-per-views and television ratings have been driven by a villain who is so sinister and/or unlikable, fans are financially invested in his or her demise.
But Monday night on Raw, Bray Wyatt swayed the Baltimore Arena into singing He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands. That same night, fans sang along as Wade Barrett recited his catchphrase “I'm afraid I've got some bad news!”
Meanwhile, Cesaro lived up to his King of Swing moniker by catching Jack Swagger in his Big Swing maneuver to the crowd's delight.
Cesaro is currently being booked superficially as a heel through his allegiance with slimy manager Paul Heyman. In the same vein, he has been rebranded as the King of Swing, stemming from the popularity of his aforementioned Big Swing move.
This immediately speaks to the general disconnect apparent in many heels. The only thing popular about a bad guy should be the inbox for his hate mail. Cowboys and outlaws alike must be restless in their graves.
It’s easy to blame the ambiguity of today's heel on what WWE has officially deemed as the Reality Era.
It would also be lazy.
Now that WWE talent is presented with a fanbase that largely thinks it’s too “smart” to cheer for heels, the villain needs to work harder. To outsmart the hardcore fan is to stake one’s claim as an all-time great bad guy.
If that means needling at internet fans, then so be it. Triple H has been able to turn the so-called smartest of fans against him.
Let’s see a cowboy do that.
Texas is readily associated with cowboys. One of the territories' greatest outputs was Ted DiBiase. DiBiase was so committed to drawing heat, he was named Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Most Hated Wrestler in 1982—five years before his WWE debut as the Million Dollar Man.
The Million Dollar Man was a predatory tycoon who successfully proved an inconvenient truth: Everybody has a price.
It was a mantra and a gimmick that was never too cool to hate. It was equally as detestable in the 2000s through John Bradshaw Layfield, who portrayed a Texas-bred stock market millionaire (10-gallon cowboy hat and all). It didn’t hurt that the gimmick was laced with present-day bigotry toward illegal aliens.
This template could still work today given the controversial debate of the one percent, and America’s ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.
The gap between good and evil in WWE continues shrink. And as long as Bray Wyatt spends time announcing host cities by name prior to his entrance, and encouraging obvious anti-Cena sentiments, it will be difficult for Wyatt-Cena to be passable as a money feud.
To add intrigue to feuds requires more Ted DiBiases, (vintage) John Bradshaw Layfields and more cowboys in general.
This is not me yearning for villainous idols of year's past (afterall, I still can't stand Ted DiBiase because, well, he was a great heel). I'm simply questioning the contemporary Reality-Era heels, with my only question being:
Where have all the bad guys gone?
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