Professional wrestling is no longer just a haven for big guys with cool beards who can act. It is no longer just another diversion for couch potatoes.
It's now a palpable force on the pop charts, too.
This week, WWF: The Music, Volume 3 climbed to #15 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, having sold 71,305 copies last week. The album, a collection of theme music used by World Wrestling Federation wrestlers, has catapulted from #82 in the span of a month.
The album is a mixture of orchestral pieces and loud, aggressive, rock and hip-hop songs. Wrestling fans will notice some signature moments, including the sound of shattered glass starting the antiauthoritarian "Stone Cold Steve Austin" (RealAudio excerpt) and the bass notes kicking off "Oddities" (RealAudio excerpt), co-written by Detroit rap-rockers Insane Clown Posse.
"We noticed they started going aggressive and loud," said Alex Abbiss, who manages the Insane Clown Posse. "We figured they might be interested in working with ICP. They were all about it."
Most of the album was written and produced by Jim Johnston, a contracting musician who has been in charge of the WWF's music for 14 years.
When he started the job, Johnston would put together 10- to 15-second loops that would play repeatedly over arena sound systems while wrestlers entered the ring.
But now he writes complete pieces, with choruses, verses, instrumental bridges and sustained grooves. He said he starts with a "very vague description" of a wrestler's character provided by federation officials, which lets him know whether the music should be, for example, mysterious, goofy or outrageous. He then plays around in his studio to develop a catchy tune that fans can recognize immediately.
"If I were playing 'Name That Tune,' I want fans to name my songs in less than one second," he said.
According to Jay Andronaco, manager of media relations for the Stamford, Conn.-based WWF, the music is part of a package that includes running story lines, pyrotechnics and crude jokes. "It's '90210.' It's 'NYPD Blue.' It's 'Days of Our Lives,'" he said.
That combination has helped turn the federation into a cultural force. The WWF's Raw Is War, which airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on the USA Network, consistently ranks as the most watched cable show in its time slot, seen in as many as six million households, according to the Nielsen ratings.
The album isn't the first time wrestling has reached a pop-music audience. The WWF has released several albums over the years, including 1985's The Wrestling Album, according to Geoff Mayfield, who oversees chart data for Billboard. The Wrestling Album included songs performed by wrestlers Hillbilly Jim, Nikolai Volkoff and Junkyard Dog.
Eighties pop star Cyndi Lauper was a wrestling fan, and legendary manager Capt. Lou Albano played her father in her video for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Albano was also the subject of the song "Captain Lou" by the eclectic rock group NRBQ.
But WWF: The Music, Volume 3 is the first album of its kind to enjoy this much success, Mayfield said. It first hit the chart in early January, a traditionally slow record-buying period, and has continued to do well even as general music sales have picked up. "Now, it's starting to stand on its own merit," Mayfield said.
Johnston said the federation plans to capitalize on that success by starting its own record label, complete with promotion, A&R and publicity departments. He said he hopes to avoid acts who misunderstand what he does.
"Inevitably, what they send me is the worst of what was stereotypical of wrestling 10 years ago," Johnston said. "Rarely is what I do a violent kind of music."
Abbiss said the two members of the Insane Clown Posse -- Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope -- are longtime wrestling fans who know the importance of music to the productions. The two promote their own wrestling cards once a month at a Detroit warehouse, with their friends competing in the ring.
The ICP helped create a hip-hop-flavored funk song for the Oddities, a wrestling team whose schtick involves a reputation as social outcasts.
Abbiss laughed as he talked about the ways the WWF uses music. If a wrestler wins, his music plays. Sometimes, if he "gets the crap beat out him," his music plays anyway, Abbiss said.
Johnston said the album's commercial success is a sign that wrestling has gained mainstream acceptance.
"The popularity makes it easier for wrestling fans to feel comfortable being wrestling fans, to sort of come out of the closet," he said. "The production value of wrestling shows has gone up so much. It's good programming."