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    Tuesday, August 24, 2021

    Theme Song Tuesday: On the Most Recognizable Wrestling Theme of the Reality Era

    That riff. That pop. That hook, and everybody singing along to it, with tears streaming down their faces...

    To truly understand how one song could have such an impact on an entire fanbase, you'll have to understand its subtext. And in doing so, you could very well be on the way to better understanding the man this song has come to represent over the better part of a decade: CM Punk.

    Let's start with this. What is a cult of personality?

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as "a situation in which a public figure (such as a political leader) is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved." Sound familiar? We Filipinos know this shit all too well. Our culture is very much predicated on the idea of a cult of personality. That's why our political parties don't mean jack. Regardless of your inclination, you should know that every political party needs that one bankable face/name that the masses can get behind. In a very simplistic sense, that's the secret to every election we've ever had. I mean, just look at 2016, 2010, 1998, and 1986 as primary examples.

    Staying within the local context, it also explains why most Filipino sports fans don't really have a favorite sports team. They just root for their favorite player and the team they happen to play for. If you do happen to find someone who supports a sports team through thick and thin across years—or even decades—then they're in the minority.

    Cult of personality figures exist all around the world, but the worst of them are the tyrants. If you want an entire murderer's row of them (pun definitely intended), just watch Netflix's How to Become a Tyrant. It tells you everything you need to know about how these figures come to power and why they're some of history's biggest heels, from Adolf Hitler to Benito Mussolini to Joseph Stalin to the ruling Kim family in North Korea. Even figures generally considered babyfaces like Barack Obama, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Mahatma Gandhi are cult of personality figures because of how significant their influence is across entire countries.

    Image: GRAMMY.com

    Now, let's dig into Living Colour and its impact on music as a whole. They came into prominence in the mid-to-late '80s as a band whose music was overtly political. But more importantly, all four original members were Black. They were a Black hard rock band, which at the time just didn't exist. Sure, there were Black rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz—and Darius Rucker would go on to become the vocalist of Hootie and the Blowfish. But an entire hard rock band being Black? It was unheard of back in the day. By simply existing, Living Colour shattered stereotypes and opened the door for many more Black musicians to find their voice in genres outside of those traditionally associated with being Black. 

    In writing "Cult Of Personality," guitarist Vernon Reid wanted to call out why he felt the cult of personality phenomenon was problematic. The idea was to remind people that following a cult of personality is no different from blind idolatry because these politicians are human, too. In a 2019 Louder feature, Reid explained, "Cult Of Personality was about celebrity but on a political level. It asked what made us follow these individuals who were larger than life yet still human beings."

    The lyrics themselves are sung from the point of view of a cult of personality figure who's openly mocking you. "Look in my eyes, what do you see? / The cult of personality / I know your anger, I know your dreams / I've been everything you wanna be, oh / I'm the cult of personality." There's a level of self-awareness that, frankly, these leaders probably possess to an extent. They most likely know that they exert that amount of power and influence over you. And they know you know it.

    When you get to the second verse, the mockery gets taken to a different level because, at this point, you're the fool who willingly buys what the cult of personality is selling. "I sell the things you need to be / I'm the smiling face of your TV, oh / I'm the cult of personality / I exploit you, still, you love me / I tell you one and one makes three, oh / I'm the cult of personality."

    The beauty of the song is how the persona leaves you an opening to realize that there is (theoretically) a way out of this phenomenon. When vocalist Corey Glover sings, "Only you can set you free," it's as plain as it gets. Only by being aware that you're caught in this phenomenon, being educated enough to see how your very existence is being controlled by a figure like this, and taking action can you be freed from this situation. And if that doesn't anger you, then the outro—which explains how the cult of personality came to power in the first place—should.

    "You gave me fortune, you gave me fame / You gave me power in your God's name."

    As a Filipino living under these dark times, I am getting so triggered right now.

    The beauty of it all is how this song connects to CM Punk.

    Throughout his career, Punk has existed as this avatar of being the antithesis of the WWE mold. Even when he was in WWE, Punk seemed to be the most counterculture Superstar they had. Look no further than the infamous Pipebomb from 2011, which sums up the entire CM Punk persona and everything he stood for in one promo. When he left WWE—and by extension, the industry—back in 2014, his comments on the now-infamous episode of Colt Cabana's The Art of Wrestling served as his way of calling out everything he felt was wrong about WWE.

    When Punk debuted on AEW this past weekend, I saw someone online quip that CM Punk "started AEW even before AEW existed" or something along those lines. I can't say that's entirely wrong, now that I'm thinking about it. AEW's ethos has been to be a place where pro wrestlers can be pro wrestlers, where they can give the fans what they want—something that many ex-WWE talents claim WWE has been unwilling to do. That speaks to Punk's influence and impact on the industry as a whole.

    Considering CM Punk was out of the game for over seven years and that he's largely stayed away from it during that time, it's amazing how we still felt Punk's presence despite his absence. The "CM Punk!" chants at wrestling shows worldwide were the ultimate sign of disrespect to every performer in the ring not named CM Punk who had to hear those chants. But they also symbolized a wrestling fanbase yearning to rebel, yearning for the figure that stood for something larger that they wanted to get behind.

    In being this anti-establishment figure who came out to Living Colour's "Cult Of Personality," CM Punk was going up against the WWE's own version of a cult of personality phenomenon in the wrestling landscape. And that's what Punk was alluding to over the weekend when he said that he ended up getting "sick mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

    The irony of it all is that through everything that happened in CM Punk's career, the love and support he's gotten from an entire fandom in the time since, and the clout he continues to have over the entire industry, Punk himself has become a cult of personality.

    Images from AEW


    Stan Sy (@_StanSy) is the Editor at Large of Smark Henry and is also the continuity announcer of ETC, an events host, voice talent, freelance writer, and the host of On Deck, as well as one of the hosts of The Wrestling-Wrestling Podcast and Now Steaming: A Tsinoy Podcast. He also used to be one of the hosts and writers of The Wrestling Gods on FOX. He enjoys watching WWE, AEW, and the occasional New Japan match. But most of all, he enjoys being the Philippines' go-to host/interviewer for anything involving pro wrestling.
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    Item Reviewed: Theme Song Tuesday: On the Most Recognizable Wrestling Theme of the Reality Era Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Stan Sy
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