Why Do I Hate AEW So Much?

Until about a year ago, the show I most enjoyed hating was The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO opus about a TV news station where the host, Will McAvoy, was the last man with integrity on Earth. I argued for a long time that the show — completely unintentionally — was the funniest on TV due to its rare combination of sanctimony, casual misogyny, and Sorkin’s thinly veiled belief that he was writing the greatest TV show anyone has ever seen, even as it was often impossibly stupid. The joy of watching The Newsroom is seen in its most distilled form in a scene called “Don Tells the Pilot” (on YouTube at least) where two of the characters break the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death while on a plane. The construction of the scene shows Sorkin’s hilarious contempt for “common folk,” who are all portrayed as aimless sheep who would walk into an electric fence if not guided by the heroic journalists who have all the answers. The women in the scene are hysteric idiots or killjoys who need to be calmed by the intelligent men. And the final capper is one reporter’s bizarre reverence for the airplane pilot, who is seen as a heroic figure worthy of hearing the incredible news that nobody else knows.

The Newsroom was a perfect storm of hate-watching: it was smug, it thought it was much smarter than it really was, and when it tried to be intentionally funny it often revealed the writer’s retrograde sense of humor, which in and of itself was ironically amusing. But lately, it has been surpassed by my new favorite show to hate: AEW Dynamite.

When I last wrote about the upstart wrestling promotion, it was over a year ago, when the show was just getting off the ground. I didn’t like the show but was also trying to be open-minded about it. I respected the challenge in starting a new promotion and figured it might just need some time to work out the kinks. It took a few months of Dynamite getting progressively worse to come to a somewhat startling realization: I hate almost everyone on the show and most of the people who like it. While previous critiques were grounded in an attitude of “I hope they succeed, but it’s not for me,” I have moved to actively hoping it fails and the company goes bankrupt. This would be horrible for the wrestlers and the business as a whole, I understand. But the wrestlers are not me and it would make me happy.

The most positive thing to be said about AEW is that it was promoted and marketed brilliantly. The market leader, WWE, spent years driving off viewers and making many of the more hardcore fans resent the company, a trend that continues as childishly whining about their shows remains a staple of YouTube reviews, wrestling commentary sites, and random people on social media. AEW saw an opening in appealing to these sorts of bitter, resentful, probably lonely fans, and it decided to embrace them and make them feel like they were part of an uprising or a movement, even as the company was funded by a billionaire’s son using his dad’s money, which is about the least radical thing I can think of. AEW also mobilized parts of the wrestling media who influence opinions, making a show that directly appeals to their wishes which has led to consistently strong press. Before AEW even put on a show, they had a base of fans and critics who were convinced the company would replenish the barren wrestling fields and finally provide an alternative to the evil WWE.

To make an offensive comparison that will make most people who read this upset, I liken these AEW die-hards to QAnon supporters. At the start, they buy into an idea because it makes them feel good and like they’re part of a movement. Over time, it becomes more and more obvious that the movement is a load of crap and it becomes harder to justify on any level, but all of the people who bought the lie are in too deep and can’t accept reality or it will shatter the entire world they’ve constructed for themselves. So they continue to move the goalposts. Every seemingly conflicting piece of evidence has to be excused; every arrow that points to their views being wrong is ignored. To these people, AEW has to be good, because the alternative is being stuck with the evil WWE again, and also admitting they were wrong, which people don’t like to do.

This rabid, insane nature of the fan base provided some of the entertainment value of AEW before the pandemic removed crowds from TV. I would watch a segment that was obviously, clearly terrible — like, any rational person would see that it was embarrassing to have it on TV — and the fans would be cheering like it was a Beatles concert in 1964. When I watched Dynamite, I felt like I was learning something about human psychology, getting closer to figuring out how events like Jonestown happen. It was fascinating in a way. The same fans who make it known they despise WWE for its goofiness, bad booking, or subpar wrestling would suddenly be enraptured by all of it.

Being a bad show in and of itself is not a crime or something I would care about. But the smugness and bitterness in the AEW fan base is always there beneath the surface; the fans love to talk about how much better the show is than WWE, how “refreshing” it is to have “real wrestling” back, and how great it is to watch wrestlers who have “creative freedom” instead of being shackled by corporate oppression. This starts at the top with Tony Khan, who is a wrestling nerd that is awkwardly deferential to the viewers. Khan is a joke in the world of pro sports, where his teams all suck and he has shown no capability to lead, but these wrestling fans are giving him the validation he has always craved. In return, he gives them the show they want, full of goofy indie nonsense and matches that are purely exhibitions of moves with no selling or logic.

The way I see it, AEW could have been its own thing, but by constantly talking trash at WWE and insisting they were “the good guys,” they invited the comparisons. So I compare them to WWE and see a show that is much worse on almost every level. The one area where AEW has something going for them is that the show does have a little of that “anything can happen” vibe to it compared to the rigid structure of WWE, in part due to the complete unprofessionalism and cluelessness of everyone involved. Other than that, though, my expectation was that AEW would expose weaknesses in WWE, but instead I find myself appreciating WWE more now that I see an inferior company try to equal them.

I used to wonder why WWE didn’t let its wrestlers really go all-out in their matches, instead favoring a somewhat formulaic and safe style of wrestling. When I watch AEW, with its mind-numbing action, non-stop flips and contrived-looking moves, I understand why WWE limits its talents in order to make the moves register and make sense. Matches in AEW rarely have psychology or a story to them; there is never any sense of pacing or “less is more,” which is part of why the show always feels so indulgent. I always thought WWE should give talent more creative freedom and let them be unscripted on the mic. After watching WWE rejects like Miro utilize their newfound “freedom,” I understand why they didn’t have much creative input — because they’re stupid and their ideas suck. I also used to dislike WWE for being so biased towards big guys. It took watching AEW, where I believe I could beat up half the male roster in a real fight, to understand why Vince McMahon pushes who he does. The wrestlers in WWE look like professional wrestlers, not average nerd fans, and that makes a huge difference when it comes to suspending disbelief and being immersed in what’s going on.

The vast discrepancy in talent between the shows cannot be overstated. Almost everyone in WWE looks cool, has a distinct charisma, and knows what they’re doing in the ring. WWE’s roster is probably the most diverse in the history of wrestling; a look at their current champions shows a wide range of performers from different races and backgrounds. And this diversity goes deeper than skin color: the performers in WWE have their own moves, mannerisms, and quirks. When you watch a big WWE show, there is a little something for everyone; there can be a flippy cruiserweight match, two giant guys standing toe-to-toe, a technical mat-based match, etc. AEW’s roster, on the other hand, is the most bland and vanilla collection of largely interchangeable “talent” I’ve ever seen. Leading the charge are The Young Bucks, the self-proclaimed “best tag team in the world,” who are scrawny white guys who could only exist in a pro wrestling world where nobody believed in anything so it became a contest to see who can do the stupidest moves in every match. Nobody in any entertainment medium has made more money while having fewer positive attributes than The Young Bucks. Other highly featured wrestlers like Orange Cassidy, Joey Janela, and Darby Allin rely on doing horrendous comedy or moronic stunts because they are so not believable as fighters. These are guys who simply would not cut it in WWE, but they are able to carve out a space for themselves in the minor leagues of AEW. Which is fine, but if you go to a Toledo Mudhens game, nobody there acts like they’re watching a team that is better than the Dodgers.

The wrestlers who were in WWE and jumped over to AEW like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, and FTR, have mostly proved that they’re not as good as they thought they were. Jericho has aged rapidly and spends most of his time on the show doing heinous comedy sketches that look like a drunk guy sent in an embarrassing audition to SNL. Moxley is more controversial — I can’t deny that he is very popular and a lot of people like what he is doing in AEW, where he has abandoned wrestling actual matches so he can jump onto barbed wire, swing a baseball bat covered with barbed wire at people, or be in a match where the ropes are exploding barbed wire. I find this kind of “wrestling” ridiculous and silly, and so I’ve come to view Moxley less as a wrestler and more as a stuntman who is good at talking and convincing people that what he’s doing isn’t terrible when it obviously is, which in some ways makes him the perfect representative for AEW. As for FTR, they’re still a proficient tag team in the ring but their storylines on this show are even more nonsensical than what made them quit WWE. They had a feud with The Young Bucks where trying to determine who was the face and who was the heel was like trying to translate a Zodiac killer cypher.

I’m writing this post because I’m enjoying it, which is where most of my fascination with AEW lies now: why is it so fun to hate this company? What does it say about me, and my outlook on wrestling, that one of my current hobbies is trashing them? Are there lessons from this that I could possibly apply to art in other mediums? AEW just hits this sweet spot for me: it is not only very bad, but everyone involved in making it is fully convinced that it is the greatest thing anyone has ever done. This intersection of confidence and incompetence is where prime hate-watching happens. That’s why The Room is so popular, but unfortunately AEW isn’t even close to that level, and for the most part I now just keep up with the show via short clips online when I feel like laughing and being bewildered about what hardcore wrestling fans think is good.

I think AEW is also tapping into my tendency to be a fan of something while disliking a lot of other people who are fans of it, which has been a theme in my life as a nerdier person who doesn’t like nerds much. I land squarely in the coveted 18-49 male demographic that AEW is going after, but I rarely like entertainment that is so obviously aimed at me, and I’ve cringed at AEW’s Rick and Morty tie-ins and the way it has brought nerd culture into wrestling, with guys doing moves from Streetfighter and being inspired by anime. I like entertainment that gives me a different perspective and so have little desire to seriously watch a bunch of nerds make a show for nerds that makes me hate nerds. Of course, WWE also targets young males, but there is more of an attempt to appeal to a wide swath of people, and when shows had fans, the difference between an AEW crowd and a WWE one was stark.

Mostly, I’ve realized that wrestling is my outlet for wanting entertainment that is larger-than-life compared to my increasingly obscure music taste. I like the big stadium shows and the feeling with WWE that I’m watching the best talent on the highest stage. Nobody in AEW touches the likes of Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Roman Reigns, Edge, Drew McIntyre, Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Keith Lee, Bobby Lashley, etc, and the production quality and spectacle of WWE is unmatched. AEW could have made up for this gap if it told really emotional, artful stories with strong characters that you could believe in, but to say they’ve fallen short of that is an understatement. Everything in AEW feels goofy and fake, and the show really makes no effort to engage with the audience on an emotional level. Nobody actually hates any of the heels, or really likes any of the faces, in the sense that they want to see them win more than anything. The show only exists to be “good wrestling” to a portion of the fanbase who hates WWE and thinks wrestling is about doing the most moves and doing the coolest stunts. But if none of the moves or stunts actually make the audience feel something, how is that good wrestling?

Daniel Bryan, who is a wrestling genius, once had an exchange on Twitter with author Naomi Klein, where he argued that wrestling is a medium that actually encourages deep empathy in the audience in contrast to its reputation as a redneck spectacle. He knows better than anyone: when Daniel Bryan got red-hot in WWE a few years ago, it was because the audience really cared about him and wanted to see him be champion. And WWE, while it tried to fumble the story numerous times, was able to string the audience along, to make them have real emotions about what they were watching even though it was “fake wrestling.” I don’t believe AEW is capable of telling such a story, because nobody in the company has shown any capacity for storytelling and getting the audience invested at a level deeper than chanting “this is awesome” after someone crashes through a table covered in barbed wire and thumbtacks. While AEW is supposed to be this “revolution” of wrestling, it is really doing the stereotypical version of wrestling that non-fans make fun of. Until they can tell a story with some actual emotional resonance, the only reason for me to watch will be to laugh at it.

Taylor Swift is Indie Now, Apparently

Taylor Swift wants to live like common people. Her new album, Folklore, is her inevitable attempt at an “indie” album, and to help her capture that style, she enlisted critical darlings Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National to assist with the writing and production. I wrote about my rather unique hatred of Swift a couple years ago, and while the post wasn’t very good, I stand by my read on her psyche: she is a ruthless careerist whose music is marked by an insecurity and a desperation to be loved by all listeners. Folklore represents her final ambition: a chance to prove that she’s a “real artist” who is more than just a corporate pop star.

The target audience for Folklore is critics — not just the music writers, who will undoubtedly salivate over this tedious exercise like they do for Bon Iver and The National, but the remaining holdouts who dislike Swift’s music and don’t take her seriously as an artist. Swift wants people who hate her to hear this and think “you know, she’s actually pretty good.” And honestly, in some ways it succeeds at that, even with me: this album is not bad to listen to, and it’s free from the ego narratives that have previously made her music grate on me. They’re replaced by something that is far more insidious and repulsive.

The whole rollout and presentation of Folklore is meant to portray Swift as an honest, hard-working artist who isn’t motivated by money or status. She casually dropped it into the world on a day’s notice in an effort to show she doesn’t care about the typical P.R. hype cycle. The cover shows her alone in the woods, like Bon Iver was when he recorded his For Emma, Forever Ago album, which created the cliché “indie” playbook she’s working off of here. Most hilariously, the album and song titles are in all-lowercase, which is a common shortcut for people who want to seem emotionally sincere and profound but don’t know how to actually do that. Once they stop using the shift key, that’s when you know it’s something totally legit.

I realize I’m ascribing motivation to a lot of seemingly innocuous aspects of this album. My belief is that Swift is a cunning businesswoman who cares a lot about her brand, image, and career, and she doesn’t make any action that affects those things without thinking a lot about it. It might be happening on a more subconscious level, but she is trying to win over the “haters” she has obsessed over for years by doing her version of the music she thinks they like instead of her. And that is also how these songs sound to me: almost like an alien version of a certain style of “indie” music that has been run through a Swift filter. It’s a hollow facsimile of the real thing.

The tragic part of Folklore is hearing Swift aspire to something that will never be in her reach. She can assemble all the beloved songwriters and producers in the world, and market it in a way to make people think it’s authentic, but she can never capture the traits that make people actually love indie music: sincerity, flaws, lived experience, the feeling of hearing music that is made out of love or need and not just to make money or tick off another chapter in the artist’s calculated narrative. Most of all, those moments when you stumble upon a lesser-known artist who sounds like they make music just for you instead of for a mass audience. None of that can be manufactured.

Swift has always been good at pretending, and she puts in a decent effort with these songs, which check off various “indie” boxes with the stripped-down piano and guitar arrangements, less flashy production, and lyrics that are about like old oil heiresses instead of typical pop stuff. But it’s all an act that becomes increasingly transparent over the album’s egregiously long run time. There is nothing genuine about this; it’s Taylor Swift (net worth: 360 million dollars) cosplaying as an indie artist, presenting her shallow idea of what indie music is to an uncritical public who she knows will eat this up. What she seems to most associate with indie is a total absence of charisma or charm, which makes sense given the choice of Bon Iver and The National as contributors. At least with Swift’s old music, I didn’t like it, but I could understand the appeal of her personality. This is pleasant to listen to, but also very samey and dull, resembling the kind of white-bread Lilith Fair soft pop that everyone usually makes fun of. If Swift is going to go “indie,” she should be compared to other artists in that arena instead of graded on a pop star curve, and no one will convince me that Folklore holds up to the kind of music I typically listen to in terms of artistry, depth, or creativity.

I don’t want to completely paint a picture that every indie artist is legitimate and brave and all pop stars and rich artists have no insight. There is a lot of bad indie music out there and also plenty of good pop music. People would probably be disturbed if they learned how much I’ve listened to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia this year. The difference is Future Nostalgia knows what it is and doesn’t present itself as high art. The pretensions of Folklore are insufferable and the music can’t live up to its billing because Swift can never be what she purports herself to be. So what’s left is an album with a generic pseudo-indie sound, with the admirable values of such music replaced with a sense of calculated pandering.

Swift is co-opting indie values here, and also encroaching on spaces previously reserved for independent music, which makes this more offensive to me than a normal ignorable pop album. The Current is now playing her songs because Folklore appeals to that audience, which is all part of her strategy. Every independent music publication is going to gush over this album because it’s “cool” to loudly show your love for pop music now, and it’s specifically catered towards their tastes. In this way, Folklore is like a musical version of predatory capitalism. This is Wal-Mart moving into a neighborhood and putting mom and pop stores out of business; it’s Amazon bankrupting your cool local book store. Music isn’t quite that zero-sum (it’s not like Swift succeeding literally kills indie music or something), but this album is still going to take up a lot of space that could be spent on independent artists who rely on critical praise and word of mouth.

All of those insults are at least doubled during this pandemic, which has been brutal for independent artists who relied on touring to try to scrape by something resembling a living. It’s one thing to be less successful than a mega-talent like Beyonce who is crafting arena pop spectacles. How must it feel for those artists to see Swift get all the critical adulation for a mediocre copy of the music they make? What if all the energy that will go into hyping and discussing this album was dedicated to artists who weren’t already rich and could actually benefit from the exposure? Swift’s condescending take on indie isn’t just insincere and uninteresting as music — it’s a slap in the face to the artists who actually live the way Swift is pretending she does.

Phoebe Bridgers is “Wise Beyond Her Years,” and That’s the Problem

Phoebe Bridgers is often the subject of maybe my least favorite form of praise: “wise beyond her years.” The implication of that phrase is that if Bridgers (who is 25) sounded her age, her music wouldn’t be noteworthy or interesting. But by adopting a quiet, deadly serious folk style, her work is perceived as “mature” and “sophisticated,” earning her the attention of critics and listeners who want to celebrate young, up-and-coming artists without feeling like they’re listening to “kids music.” When I listened to her latest album, Punisher, I found myself longing to hear music by a young person who actually was willing to sound like they were in their early-mid 20s. That would be more honest and authentic than these listless songs that mistake the absence of joy for profundity.

“Joy” in this case doesn’t mean that Bridgers should make overtly happy-sounding music when that isn’t who she is. What I wanted to hear on Punisher was any sense of creative spark or a feeling that Bridgers loves making music. Artists like Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey made serious music in their early 20s, but there was a life and verve in their performances, even if the subject material was dark. Rid of Me was a messed-up album, but when I listened to it, I knew that PJ Harvey was incredibly passionate about what she was doing and there was catharsis there due to its extreme, daring sound. It’s hard to glean anything close to that from Punisher, which is constantly stuck in a whispery, slow-tempo rut that lacks any feeling of youthful exploration. I’ve also praised contemporary artists like Girlpool and Free Cake For Every Creature for portraying early-mid 20s life with somewhat similar poetry to Bridgers. Those artists were willing to sound their age, with all the vulnerabilities and flaws that entails, whereas Bridgers seems too concerned with proving her wisdom with her unadventurous songs that are obsessively focused on a narrow range of moods (mostly being mopey).

A lot of people love this kind of music, and I guess I just don’t get it. I can recognize that Bridgers is good at what she is doing, but why would anyone want to listen to this? Everything after the album’s high-point, the third track “Kyoto” — in which Bridgers actually embraces some melody and energy — is one-note and dull. It’s one hushed folk song after another, all done in a style very familiar to anyone who has listened to a Saddle Creek album. Obviously, this is getting into very subjective and nebulous territory (welcome to music criticism), and so I don’t want to be overly critical of Bridgers as a talent when this is a matter of taste more than anything. I’m just struggling to see what separates this from any number of contemporary songwriters who haven’t gotten a fraction of this album’s hype. I also can’t get past a possibly unfair gut feeling that Bridgers is performing this world-weary style because her musical heroes (Conor Oberst, I suspect Neutral Milk Hotel) did it, not because these are sounds and feelings she arrived at organically. It’s hard for me to buy into the material when it’s someone who is 25 going on 60.

“Motion Sickness,” Bridgers’ breakthrough song of sorts, was genuinely great, and should probably be canonized as one of the defining songs of the last few years. I wish anything on Punisher jumped out at me like that track, which had autobiographical lyrics that instantly cut deep and some actual hooks. It’s possible that this album is too subtle and will grow on me, but nothing on it even provided that simple level of intrigue that would make me want to revisit it much more. There is nothing exciting going on here, and at some point an album needs to offer more than just being depressing because that’s what “important music” sounds like.