On the Phenomenology of AJ Styles and the Mysteries of They Don’t Want None

You might have noticed I haven’t posted to this blog in like three months. AJ Styles has upended my theoretical stance on everything and thus, my affairs are a shambles. I’ve had to completely rebuild my worldview and it’s taken some time. I mean, I have been doing other things and not blogging, it’s true. Life has been on an extreme trajectory as of late. But in fact this hasn’t been writer’s block, I’ve written plenty, just not about wrestling because I’ve been stuck, my mind unable to proceed with wrestling theory until I’ve made sense of the enigma that is AJ Styles.

That’s right, AJ Styles. I’ve been deep in an analytical quagmire. His gimmick refuses to resolve into its component parts, thwarts my efforts to understand it as either metaphor or archetype, leads me on semiotic wild goose chases into a labyrinth of strange cultural symbolism, only to circle me back to to the opening in the shrubs where I entered the maze in the first place, no wiser and in fact, feeling like an ass for having gone looking to theorize. The AJ Styles gimmick is elusive and edgy, it keeps me up at night and wakes me in the morning, a source of anxiety that almost certainly has been nudging my dreams of late into the realms of endless hallways and untended fish tanks. All the while Chris Jericho’s quietly mocking sing-song voice taunts me continually, like a broken record, inside my head: “A-J Sty-les. A-J Sty-les.”

Okay, maybe I got a little carried away there in the last paragraph. But truly, AJ Styles in the WWE version of himself has emerged as a rarity, the sort of wrestler we see only a couple times in a generation: a character rich in meaning but utterly original, not just a gimmick but a timeless persona who changes everything and cannot be duplicated (think Andre the Giant, Chyna, Steve Austin, The Rock or CM Punk). For a wrestling theorist such a character is delicious torment, begging for analysis and yet eluding it every turn.

AJ Styles debuted in WWE at a time when we were restless and cynical: Royal Rumble 2016. It wasn’t yet the New Era, booking was still being sabotaged left and right, everybody was still grumbling hard about Roman Reigns because they couldn’t think of what else to do. We still had that strange Wrestlemania before us in which the most memorable moment of the spectacle was Stephanie McMahon acting out the “There is no Dana only Zuul” scene from Ghostbusters. But there were hints that change was afoot. When the first chords of AJ’s music hit at Royal Rumble entrant No. 3 and the words “I Am Phenomenal” came on the big screen, everything was suddenly changed forever in WWE. Check it:

With those early soulful organ chords, you can hear the crowd’s rumbling of befuddlement and see it the eyes of Roman Reigns in the ring, like “Who pray tell might this be?” When the realization hits that it is really Styles, the titan of independent wrestling, the crowd’s pop is downright primal: it’s the cathartic release of a collective angst that had been building for years over Vince McMahon’s booking tyranny and its widespread damage to wrestling’s artistic expression. AJ Styles was the final blow to wrestling’s old institutions before they came crumbling to the ground so the New Era could be built anew atop the rubble.

That puzzling entrance music, with its lyrics that refuse to reveal their meaning. They Don’t Want None. We don’t usually care so much about the words in these wrestler theme songs, which are composed at the behest of a corporation interested not in artistic merit but in catchy hooks and brandability, many of them by a duo of musicians called CFO$, a name that overtly celebrates the almighty corporate dollar like a big middle finger to anybody who might propose that art is not about money. And yet, this maddening CFO$ song we puzzle over and tweet about. They Don’t Want None. The chorus nags at us, torments us, even as we search it longingly for some kind of articulable meaning. Do they not want none because they want some, or do they perhaps want it all? Or do they in fact want none of it at all? Who the hell are they, anyway? Are they the blue collar country boys mentioned later in the song, or are they their adversaries? Are they in fact us, the audience? And to throw another swerve in the labyrinth, all this double negativity is all prefaced by voices going “yep, yep, yep.” So in fact, the message of this song is “yep, they don’t want none, nope.” They just can’t decide if they want some or none. And I propose that this indecision and double negativity isn’t sloppiness or ignorance, it’s deliberate complexity.

Of course, yes, I know (duh) that they don’t want none is a colloquial phrase that means to hell with that or haters gonna hate, or something to that effect. If you google around, it’s not unusual to find they don’t want none as a component of rap lyrics, and it’s performed in a rap style here too, despite the subject matter being blue collar country boys who, for whatever reason, want us to know that they “do it with their hands muddied.” So we’ve got two more quandaries here when we read it as a set phrase in slang, because a) Is this song really about sex? And if so, do they want some, or none? It comes full circle. And b) Why package a blue collar country boy gimmick with rap lyrics? Professional wrestling’s traditional standards require a blue collar country boy’s entrance to be an homage to “Dueling Banjos” or some such.

The thing is, AJ Styles is anything but some blue collar country boy. Sure, he ratchets up his twangy accent and goes about with a silly overgrown haircut on purpose as a blue collar rejection of bourgeois grooming standards, I guess? But these hints at a country boy aesthetic are merely accessories, and do not a country boy wrestler make. The country boy wrestler template is Hillbilly Jim, Luke Harper, Jamie Noble in his days with Nidia, maybe. The country boy wrestler is a certain kind of underdog brute; we are to assume he learned to fight not on the streets or in a training facility, but in a clearing behind the woodshed or in a bar with Garth Brooks on the jukebox that serves mainly Coors. Country boy wrestlers aren’t formidable flyers with devastating submission holds and Japan-caliber kicks. They wear dirty overalls or wife beaters, not a hooded leather vest with kanji characters on it and tidy sportsman’s gloves.

AJ Styles smashes his gimmick’s paradigm. He is a wrestling character so uniquely himself that he bursts free from the standard WWE template. He does some kind of cheerleader move for the centerpiece of his inexplicably chilling entrance, and he somehow manages to make it captivating and masculine. He is cocky enough to have tattooed his name down the side of his body in huge gothic letters, which effectively prevents any attempts by WWE to brand him with a stage name for their own advantage. The kanji on his vest loses its literal meaning for most of us, but it signifies so much more than whatever it actually means.

AJ Styles’ vest kanji becomes almost a hieroglyph of wrestling politics: it is a vestige of his history as a legend in NJPW, and its appearance in WWE is a revolutionary act. In fact, I assert that the vest kanji ushered in the element of the New Era in which WWE openly recognizes the world of wrestling outside its own universe. This is a monumental revision of WWE’s narrative rules and a huge shift in wrestling’s economic structure. WWE is finally admitting they are competitors in a dynamic global market, not an unshakeable corporate monopoly. The political grudge AJ brings with his kanji feels more like shoot than work, which is the best circumstance in which postmodern kayfabe can flourish and thrive.

Pay attention to storylines: they are beginning to reflect this refreshing new reality. The AJ Styles catalyst changes more than just the narrative: he himself reinvents wrestlers, giving them new life. Heel and face alignments have been thrown into disarray and everyone has merged into the tween. Against AJ Styles, John Cena became an angry frat boy who failed to defend his precious turf against an outsider antihero. He was finally a wrestler epic enough for Cena to have a crisis of faith with and leave his platitude-laden merch in the ring for. Against AJ Styles and the Club, Roman Reigns finally found a way to own his darkness and the Usos found new relevance, and a path to a biting heel turn. Against AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose was able to exit his lackluster championship run with dignity (I’m calling a low blow ending dignified here and you can’t stop me) and return to his authentic position as a renegade, now increasingly angry and desperate (and that’s very good for him too). The chip on AJ’s shoulder is simply delicious, and it causes wrestlers who rest on their gimmick laurels to relaunch with new meaning.

AJ Styles is a catalyst for change, and catalysts are inherently volatile; exhilarating change always harbors dark shadows. You can go read elsewhere about the sinister side of AJ Styles; for the sake of brevity I don’t think it’s something I need to outline here. There’s only one part of it I do need to point out: AJ Styles has broken multiple people’s necks with his Styles Clash finisher, and he’s currently performing this maneuver on all the main eventers in WWE. The Styles Clash is arguably more dangerous than the now banned curb stomp, and yet here we are. We get pretty blasé watching these professionals come this close to killing each other several times a week, but isn’t watching Cena or Ambrose take the Styles Clash pretty edgy television? I cringe and say a little prayer every time.

But let’s be real here—would we have our wrestling any other way? Professional wrestling is emotionally volatile, patently unwise, and necessarily hazardous. We might not like to admit it, but we love it for this. As much as they are necessary, well-meaning attempts to reform wrestling—make it safer, healthier, more just—tend to dull its edge. The dark side of AJ Styles, which appears to be contained for the time being, instills a necessary element of chaos in the gentrified New Era, which is striving to overcome its corporate sanitization and find productive new sources of emotion-stirring conflict and catharsis. The dark side of AJ Styles is best for business.

It is ultimately because AJ Styles is so original and loaded with tension that They Don’t Want None explodes with endless meaning. It is because of his complexity that we question its intentions and explore its semiotic labyrinths. WWE wants both some and none, and it will never rest comfortably, will always be plagued with angst, so long as AJ Styles is on the roster. And that is a good thing for all of us.

 

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2 Comments

  1. John Dvorak
    October 16, 2016

    Upon rereading I noticed two things:

    1) “Phenomenology” as a play on “I Am Phenomenal.” I’m not sure how I missed this in my first reading. I just accepted the title uncritically as a reference to that branch of philosophy., and obviously I got worked.

    2) Your observation of the risky/near-deadly nature of the Styles Clash seems prescient given that Tuesday’s botch almost killed James Ellsworth (thank God for that chin!)

    • Andrea Gregovich
      October 17, 2016

      1) Good eye! Glad somebody noticed that. 🙂
      2) Goodness yes. Part of me hopes they retire the Styles Clash. Though the devil on my other shoulder loves it.

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