WWF and Simon Cowell tag team the charts [December 6, 1992]
Plus: Take That, Prince, Wreckx-n-Effect, and Dr. Dre
Greetings, Time Traveller! 👋
It’s December 6, 1992 again
📰 Charles and Diana close out the annus horibilis by confirming their separation.
📽️ Kevin does his 😱 face when he meets Donald Trump in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. 📺 On TV, David Jason puts Del Boy behind him (for a while) to solve crimes in the first episode of A Touch Of Frost.
🎶 I Will Always Love You remains at Number One, and it’s going to stay there for a while. In the meantime, let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 4: ‘Slam Jam’ — WWF Superstars
Wrestling was not my thing when I was a kid. My younger cousin loved WWF, but I would always sneer at him and say, “you know it’s not real, right?”
In my early 20s, I got completely sucked into WWF. Turns out, it’s perfect post-pub entertainment, and drunkenly shouting at Smackdown became one of my favourite pastimes.
This was around 1999, during the early days of the internet. By day, I used to browse wrestling-themed Geocities pages and jump into WWF Usenet groups. That’s where I discovered that wrestling fans speak in a rich and strange jargon.
Wrestling-speak is a whole other language, kind of like Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. For starters, the most popular wrestlers fall into two categories: “Faces”, the heroes, and “Heels”, the villains.
A Face can become a Heel, or vice versa. This transition is known as a “turn”—Hulk Hogan made a “hell turn” in to a bad guy in the mid-90s. However, fans decide whether or not to accept this turn. You have to “go over”, which is when fans embrace a new persona or storyline.
The wrestlers will choreograph their moves in advance, and those set-pieces are known as “works”. If someone improvises a move mid-fight, that’s a “shoot”.
Shoots and works both depend on the recipient being able to “sell”—to convince the audience that they’ve been badly hurt. Selling is an artform in itself, arguably the hardest part of wrestling.
All this leads to my favourite wrestling term: kayfabe.
Kayfabe is the collective mythos around each wrestling match. It’s what’s happening in the ring—the works, the shoots, the sells—but it’s also the broader story, including the various rivalries and relationships.
But kayfabe is also about the suspension of disbelief. Wrestling isn’t trying to trick you. Nobody pretends that this is a documentary. They just want to create a coherent story, one so compelling that you “mark out”—briefly forget that you’re watching an entertainment show. Kayfabe is consensual; you choose to go along with it.
All of this language is about the viewer’s relationship with the spectacle, how they deal with the blend of fact and fiction. Wrestling is not only real, it is about reality. It is the ultimate Reality TV
That said, WWF helped launch a new wave of Unreality TV, through no fault of its own.
The best there is, the best there was
Simon Cowell spent much of the 80s as a stereotypical yuppie asshole. He owned his own record label, drove a Porsche, and showed up at every London party. All this, despite the fact that his label only had one hit single: Sinitta’s camp classic ‘So Macho’.
Here is kayfabe in real life: act like you’re successful, and people will go along with it. Especially if you are a white man with a firm handshake.
In 1989 the French label BMG begged Cowell to be their new A&R man. He joined them and became perhaps the worst A&R man in history, turning down Take That (40 million records sold) and Spice Girls (100 million records sold.)
Cowell was more interested in his own theory of pop music, which he explained in a radio interview:
You can have the more credible serious stuff, but why shouldn’t a younger audience be able to buy the music they like? It isn’t necessarily the most artistic form on Earth, but they love it when they buy it. I’ve never seen the sense of being snobbish about music. You either like it or you don’t.
This is his way of saying: we put too much effort into the music. We are making a product. Like any manufacturer, our goal should be to minimize costs while increasing sales volumes.
Cowell’s had a vision: form partnerships with recognised brands, and then sell music-related merchandise to that brand’s audience. This was how you reach an untapped market, such as pre-teen kids.
Slam jam, thank you ma’am
Cowell’s found the perfect brand partner in August 1992.
The World Wrestling Federation—wrestling’s biggest franchise—made a rare foray outside of the States that year, holding their SummerSlam pay-per-view event at Wembley Stadium. Over 80,000 fans screamed in joy as Lancashire boy Davey “British Bulldog” Smith pinned Bret “The Hitman” Hart for the WWF Intercontinental Title.
A few days later, Cowell read a newspaper report about the event and was stunned at the numbers. Wrestling had shifted 80,000 tickets, and it had sold out in under an hour.
In his autobiography, he wrote:
There’s not a rock band in the world that can do that. And I also found out they were selling about 2.5 million videos a year to fans…It didn’t take long to realise that if they were selling that many seats and that many videos, there would be a lot of kids who would buy an album from the wrestlers as well. It was just common sense.
Cowell got in touch with Vince McMahon, wrestling CEO and insanely awful human (we’d be here all day if we started listing Vince’s sins.) McMahon has the same “cha-ching!” sensibility as Cowell, so this was a match made in heaven.
The music itself didn’t have to be good, it just had to be good enough. Cowell asked his mentor Pete Waterman for help. Stock, Aiken and Waterman were effectively finished at this point, so Pete was probably glad for the extra cash.
Pete Waterman and Mike Stock whipped up some generic early-90s dance beats, with vocals from some session singers. Colin “Einstein” Case—who disgraced himself a few weeks ago on that Super Mario Brothers song—added a bit of hip-hop flavour.
For the wrestling part, they mostly just sampled promos from the WWF TV show, although Bret Hart did insist on doing some original vocals. He speak-sings his way Shatner-style through uptempo ballad, ‘Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye’.
The resulting album was called Wrestlemania, and the first single was ‘Slam Jam’, which burst into the charts at Number 4. Cowell’s bet had paid off—as predicted, lots of kids spent their pocket money on the single, while lots of parents bought it as a last-minute stocking stuffer.
Wrestlemania went on to 1.5 million copies on its first run. That’s twice as many as Screamadelica.
Here it is for the good, the bad, and the ugly
And so, a beast was unleashed upon the earth.
The other execs at BMG had pleaded with Cowell not to disgrace their good name with a novelty record about wrestling. And now, ‘Slam Jam’ had almost been Christmas Number One.
The following year, Cowell actually did capture the festive charts with a novelty song, the godawful Mr. Blobby.
A few years later, he almost did it again with Teletubbies, although ‘Too Much’ by Spice Girls managed to cling on.
2000 saw a pleasingly ironic reversal of fortune. Cowell had signed Irish boyband Westlife, and he thought he had the Christmas Number One sewn up with their soggy ballad ‘What Makes A Man’.
But they were beaten—by Bob The Builder.
When reality TV became a big thing in 2000, it attempted respectability by pretending to be a social experiment (like Big Brother) or a fly-on-the-wall documentary (like Pop Stars.)
Simon Cowell couldn’t give a shit about respectability. He saw an opportunity. Instead of making novelty songs based on TV shows, he would create a TV show that generated hit records.
Pop Idol introduced glitz, soapy drama, relatable characters, and audience involvement. It was soon replaced by The X Factor, a massive live spectacle with Cowell as the main character.
When I first watched The X Factor, something about the rhythm of it felt familiar. After a few episodes, it struck me. This was wrestling.
The X Factor replaces fighting with singing, and KOs are delivered by an audience vote. Apart from that, it’s exactly the same. The plotlines, the relationships, the sudden twists. The works and the shoots. The heels and faces.
Vince McMahon writes himself into WWF storylines as the ultimate heel. Fans love to hate him; he loves their attention and their money. You see where Cowell gets his inspiration.
The difference is: most people didn’t realise that The X Factor was as fake as wrestling. X Factor fans didn’t have the same language of works and shoots, of heels and faces. They didn’t have the concept of Kayfabe.
Here’s an example:
Jedward were heels in their X Factor series (although they are now iconic and we love them.) They couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, the other contestants hated them, and Simon kept berating them for wasting everyone’s time—but the audience kept voting to keep them in the show.
During this time, a grown-ass adult with a job and a college degree said to me, “I keep voting for Jedward because it annoys Simon so much.”
Voting cost £1. Cowell made £5 million from phone-in voting that season alone.
Wrestling is real because it encourages fans to question the reality of the spectacle. When you understand the nature of kayfabe, wrestling actually becomes more enjoyable.
Reality TV is the opposite. It’s all about illusion. The X Factor was cancelled in 2021 after a long decline, and that decline happened because they couldn’t maintain kayfabe. After all, how many times can you listen to some golden-voiced street urchin talk about their recently deceased granny before you go, “hang on, is any of this real?”
Reality TV did substantial cultural damage during its time, and eventually led to the Trump presidency. And it all started here, in 1992, when a soulless record exec decided to cash in on wrestling.
Enough of Simon Cowell! Please tell me about your favourite wrestler in the comments. Mine is Mick Foley. I got to meet him a few years ago and he is delightful.
And please share this if you liked it!
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘Could It Be Magic’ — Take That
Simon Cowell did indeed pass on Take That. He admits himself that he said, “I’ll sign them without the fat one,” despite the fact that Gary was a rare find: a boyband boy who could write hit songs.
‘Could It Be Magic’ is not a House of Barlow original, of course, but it is a very jazzed-up and fun version of a Barry Manilow classic. In a year plagued by cover versions, this is one of the least egregious ones.
The irony is that their previous single, ‘A Million Love Songs’, was by Barlow but sounded like Barry Manilow. Another irony is that ‘A Million Love Songs’ probably had a better chance of being Christmas Number One. Hindsight is 20/20.
Number 21 (New Entry): ‘One In Ten’ — 808 State vs. UB40
UB40 were a cracking band in the early days before they morphed into an anodyne adult-contemporary outfit. ‘One In Ten’ shows them at their peak: a compelling pop-reggae sound, and lyrics fizzing with class consciousness.
808 State don’t do anything especially interesting with it, but they also don’t butcher it, and sometimes that’s good enough.
Number 26 (↓ from 24): ‘Rump Shaker’ — Wreckx-N-Effect
Hip-hop was still really struggling to cross the Atlantic in 1992.
‘Rump Shaker’ was a big deal in the States, peaking at second place in the Billboard Hot 100. However, like ‘Baby Got Back’, it fizzled in the UK and left no trace in Europe.
Part of it was, I think, because of the soaring popularity of dance music over here. We liked techno beats and hip-hop was kind of a niche or a novelty. The reverse seemed to be happening in America, where hip-hop was growing while EDM was kind of a fad.
But a sea change was coming. Dr Dre had achieved a crucial breakthrough, as discussed in this week’s album review (keep scrolling).
Number 27 (↑ from 38): ‘7’ — Prince & The New Power Generation
Warner Brothers really wanted this to be the lead single off the Love Symbol album, but Prince insisted on ‘My Name Is Prince’.
I’m on the WB side here. ‘My Name Is Prince’ is good fun, but my ‘7’ is a shimmering, textured stunner with an outstanding vocal performance. However, This Week In The 90s is a democracy! Let’s do another poll about it:
Number 38 (↓ from 27): ‘Close Every Door’ — Philip Schofield
Is this an attempt at the Christmas Number One? I’d rather have Mr Blobby.
Album of the Week
The Chronic — Dr. Dre
If you’ve faithfully read every This Week In The 90s this year, then—well, thank you, glad you enjoyed it! Hope you come back next year! Also, you’ll be aware that hip-hop was in kind of a weird place in 1992.
Rap’s most respected names —Public Enemy, Tribe, N.W.A., and so on—had peaked without achieving massive chart success. 1991’s best hip-hop album, The Low End Theory, sold only half a million copies.
What did sell were pop-rap records, some of which bordered on being novelty songs. As pointed out in a previous newsletter, by 1992 the biggest hip-hop single of all time was probably Kris Kross’s ‘Jump Around’.
And then, in November 1992, MTV started playing a new video by N.W.A. escapee Dr. Dre, featuring a tall, bug-eyed kid called Snoop Doggy Dogg.
In 1991, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ split rock music into a Before and After.
‘Nuthin But A G Thang’ did this for hip-hop, but its impact went beyond a single genre, and beyond music entirely. The whole cultural conversation began to shift. Within a few years, moral panickers forgot about heavy metal, and instead focused all their Maude Flanders energy on gangsta rap.
Meanwhile, America’s children—including the valuable white suburban teen demographic—bought rap CDs by the armful. Death Row Records was making $100 million per year at its peak.
Question is, what’s so radical about The Chronic?
First of all, it is a masterpiece of production. Dre mixes vintage samples with original beats he crafted in the studio, building up layer-by-layer with drums, bass, keys, and guitars. The result is a brand new genre he called G-Funk.
G-Funk is a rejection of the edgy, scratchy East Coast sound. Instead, this is laidback and funky, although never lazy. It’s driven by throbbing, porny basslines, and carried along by that weird high-pitched squeal that buzzes like a mosquito through every track.
But Dre also helped to mold the myth of the G. Gangstas are a compelling bad-boy archetype, as quintessentially American as cowboys or mafiosos. And you don’t even need a horse or a suit to be a G. You just need the right attitude.
And hey, listen, there’s an awful lot to unpack in the concept of gangsta, from the response to the Rodney King beating and L.A. Riots, to the misogyny and homophobia found in a lot of records, including The Chronic.
But right now, we’re just focusing on why so many people bought this record. Part of the answer is: because Dre made G life sound extremely cool.
Plus, Dre found the perfect collaborator. The Chronic features a whole roster of talent including Nate Dogg and Warren G, but the A Star Is Born moment belongs to Snoop. The record is sometimes as angrily political as classic East Coast or N.W.A., as heard on tracks like ‘The Day The N*ggaz Took Over’. Snoop is the one who takes it in a new direction, adding humour, horniness, and a laid-back stoner charm. The fact that he’s a kid (barely 21) makes it all feel more accessible.
Nevermind didn’t literally kill hair metal, but it’s true in a figurative sense. Like, Nirvana didn’t not kill hair metal, if you know what I mean.
And The Chronic didn’t launch rap as a commercial genre. It didn’t invent gangsta rap, which had already been around for years. It didn’t make the old school obsolete, or make novelty rap look ridiculous. It didn’t give rap a new spiritual home on the West Coast.
Nor did The Chronic single-handedly set off a sequence of events that meant, by the end of the decade, hip-hop had dethroned rock’n’roll as America’s primary cultural mode.
But… The Chronic didn’t not do those things either.
Thoughts on The Chronic? A classic, or is its role in hip-history overstated?
And if you enjoyed this post, please share.
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"He speak-sings his way Shatner-style through uptempo ballad, ‘Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye’."
This is likely the wildest sentence I'll read today. The Hitman? On a single? Wild.
I wasn't too into wrestling as a kid, but decided to like it once my parents said I couldn't watch it on TV. Macho Man Randy Savage was probably my favorite (with a nod to his frisbee flinging brother Leapin' Lanny Poffo), with Superfly Snuka not too far behind.
P.S. In what universe is 1990 Gary Barlow "fat?"