Once upon a time, professional wrestlers entered the ring to simple, instrumental entrance themes. Only real stars like Hulk Hogan and Ted DiBiase were granted theme music with lyrics; even then, the songs were cartoonish and silly. As pro wrestling became flashier, catering to both children and television audiences, these themes added a bit more spectacle to those previously bland few minutes when the wrestler walked down the aisle. If your senses weren't being assaulted at every moment by blaring music or some kind of visual stimulation, whoever was producing this particular wrestling event wasn't doing his or her job.
This continued, relatively unabated, until the Attitude Era of the mid-90s. That was when themes started getting a bit more serious. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin came out to his glass-shattering intro, maybe the most recognizable entrance of all time. The Rock's music helped him become a all-time legend. Themes began to focus on riling up the crowd; a catchphrase or recognizable cue in the first few seconds got fans to their feet, cheering or booing their favorites. It was a kind of Pavlovian response that the WWE became extremely proficient at inducing.
But at the end of the day, these entrance themes were still instrumentals, remarkably appropriate but relatively forgettable tunes put together by legendary WWE composer Jim Johnston for the sole sake of introducing wrestlers. Sweeping changes didn't really occur until the introduction of D-Generation X. WWE hired a real band, The Chris Warren Band, to record their theme; a trend had begun. Vince McMahon adopted "No Chance in Hell," the 1999 Royal Rumble theme, as his own. Triple H's solo efforts received the awful "My Time," also by The Chris Warren Band. The wheels were in motion.
Chris Jericho's debut in August of 1999 was also a watershed moment for wrestling themes; "Break the Walls Down" sounded like a real song that Jericho co-opted as his own. Themes were getting a little more serious, a little more real. WWF The Music, Volume 4 included a few more themes that could've doubled as popular music. Soon there were efforts like WWF Aggression, an album of theme covers featuring Run-DMC, Method Man and other famous rappers.
And then there was Lemmy. I know he doesn't deserve to be lumped together with the other, far crappier rock and rollers that turned entrance themes into what my friends and I like to call "butt rock," but Motörhead's new Triple H theme, "The Game," really changed the course of wrestling themes forever. All of a sudden, real musicians, real purveyors of butt rock, started contributing music to the WWE. Vince McMahon had begun to outsource entrance theme production.
I suppose some people might not use the term "real musicians" to describe bands like Alter Bridge and Downstait, groups that aren't exactly beloved or critically acclaimed. But they are real-life bands with record deals and thousands of fans, and by using them to put together new themes, the WWE was taking advantage of an already-existing market. Somewhere along the way, McMahon and his music team realized something: Pro wrestling and butt rock go together perfectly. Wrestling wasn't a real-life cartoon anymore; its fans had grown up, and the target audiences for the WWE and hard rock clearly had some crossover. Hence, the "legitimization" of wrestling entrance themes.
It proved to be a great economic decision for both the WWE and the bands themselves: Produce a bunch of recognizable themes that could also exist as standalone music, sell the songs on iTunes, keep pumping out theme compilation albums, strengthen the link between hard rock and sports entertainment. And, occasionally, suck in casual fans like myself. Normally I would never listen to the bands WWE brings on for these entrance themes, but I do admit to enjoying some of the songs they've produced. I add them to my running mixes, I listen to them at work. They're legitimately catchy. It might not be good music, but it's certainly butt rock done right.
Now even the shittiest wrestlers have real entrance themes. And on occasion, McMahon and company are willing to take the entrance theme business to a whole other level. Late in 2011, CM Punk debuted a new theme: "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour. Punk had used this as an entrance song in his earlier indie wrestling
days, but it fit his current WWE character so perfectly that the music department ponied up the cash to buy the rights. This was the old
ECW method: Find an existing song that suits your wrestler perfectly and link the two. And to his credit, McMahon went against his usual entrance theme principles and shelled out.
Pro wrestling is silly in many ways, but the dynamics that go into planning and executing the development of storylines can be surprisingly detailed and complex. Entrance themes have become a big part of how characters are defined; tracking the evolution of those themes, from cheap synthesizers to epic butt-rock anthems, offers real insight into the how the WWE climbed to the top of this billion-dollar industry.