THE ART OF MY WAY: A RETROSPECTIVE ON STEVE AUSTIN VS THE ROCK
Just one more fight
About a lot of things
And I will give up everything
To be on my own again
These are lyrics from the Limp Bizkit song "My Way", the musical accompaniment to a WWF vignette focused on The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in 2001. Limp Bizkit attained mainstream success in the late 90s and early aughts, but it's this particular song that still holds up due in large part to the way it perfectly captures the essence of Steve Austin's rivalry with The Rock.
This song, and the "My Way" vignette that helped build Rock & Austin's fateful main event encounter at WrestleMania 17, was so effective that it is permanently embedded in the minds of the wrestling fans who witnessed it.
I cannot separate my own adolescence from The Rock & Steve Austin's feud, and particularly the song that helped define it. It plays on a permanent loop in the hallowed halls of teenaged angst in my mind, recollections of doing things "My way!" because The Rock & Steve Austin did things their way, giving and taking Rock Bottoms and Stunners to my brothers (on mattresses, of course), walking through my high school purposefully locked away in my own little world of catchphrases and iconic gestures, a Rock-like twitch to my neck and a bad-mother-fucker bravado to my stride.
I didn't have the height, the defined muscles, the sunglasses, or the steely blue gaze but I did have the conviction, the sense that I was stomping down the entrance ramp ready to take on the world.
These men, working in their prime, building to the most important match of their careers at the time, with the massive WWF-machine assisting them, created an entire world for me that was so believable and aspirational that it was undeniably real.
I found strength in their confidence, direction in their determination, and hope in their ability to overcome adversity.
Before I went back and re-watched the "My Way" vignette and some of the segments it highlights, I considered if nostalgia had clouded my perception of its excellence. If I looked on it with adult eyes, far-removed from those angsty teenaged-years, would it hold up?
Does "My Way" and Steve Austin's rivalry with The Rock stand the test of time?
With unwavering confidence, I easily write that it does. It is an eloquent, testosterone-fueled spectacle that embodies the absolute best in the WWF's specific brand of storytelling during The Attitude Era, and it was every bit as captivating and well-crafted as anything else on television or in film at the time.
Even now, it's as good as the content offered on screens small and large, using iconic imagery, sound, and music so expertly that even viewers who do not know the entire context of Rock & Austin's rivalry will immediately comprehend their story as goosebumps inevitably wash over their bodies.
"The song is also different from the rest of Limp Bizkit's library; it carefully builds to the blaring, metallic chorus after several somber, haunting lines..."
Those goosebumps are the result of an experience of greatness.
To fully appreciate why that's the case, it's important to first understand exactly what a vignette is and what a vignette is supposed to achieve (this article is as much for the diehard wrestling fan familiar with the ins & outs of the business as it is for newer or prospective fans who might not).
A vignette is a relatively short collection of video clips (in this case taken from the WWF's various segments and matches on RAW, SmackDown, and pay-per-views) edited together in a stylish, exciting fashion, often accompanied by a song that fits the desired tone or mood of that imagery.
A vignette is meant to capture the heart of an "angle" (pro-wrestling story), and serve as a segue into a significant pay-per-view match. A vignette is also meant to function as an exciting form of cliff-notes, familiarizing potential pay-per-view buyers who'd missed RAW or SmackDown with a match's backstory so that they can understand the stakes of that match.
The vignette also builds anticipation among the fans who are familiar with the story, acting as the visual and auditory representation of their emotions; it brings to life the WWF-world they've been imagining beyond what they see on television. The good pro-wrestling vignette is one that treats the world of pro-wrestling as though it's real, encouraging viewers to become even more immersed in the theatrics of an accompanying match. It's not just a recap of events, it's a chapter in a long-form story.
It becomes implanted in the viewer's mind, and assists in maintaining the "work" (fiction) of wrestling. It's like a well-executed wrestling move; it's hard to "see through" and it helps maintain the credibility of a match or a rivalry.
The "My Way" vignette does everything a vignette is designed to do with the utmost efficiency and style. Even the way the visuals transform from black & white to color accentuates the escalating intensity and intrigue of the story.
Great works of art succeed because the various elements of a particular medium work together rather than against each other. If one aspect of the "My Way" vignette was unclear or inconsistent with the way The Rock and Steve Austin behaved or inconsistent with the way WWF represented their story on the show then it would lead to a disconnect with the viewer and undermine the potential power of the vignette. The music does not contradict the imagery, the imagery does not contradict the story, and the tone does not contradict the reality of what will inevitably take place in the ring. All of it represents a cohesive entity. It's not better than the match itself, it is simply an essential component of the match, and at no point does the focus deviate from the intended goal of creating a decidedly serious, deeply emotional fight between two bitter rivals.
Limb Bizkit's song is made all the more effective by the fact that its lyrics were never directly referenced by commentary or in speeches by The Rock or Austin. Today, one can easily imagine Michael Cole or even the wrestlers themselves repackaging lines from the song in a scripted fashion.
"I'm going to do things my way!"
"There's going to be just one more fight at WrestleMania, ladies and gentleman, about a lot of things, most importantly the WWF Championship."
This is the difference between "showing" and "telling" in a story. "Showing" is more engaging, assuming the best of the viewer. Telling insults the intelligence of the viewer and robs the artists of their agency. Paul Heyman, on commentary, "gives props" to Limp Bizkit after the vignette plays at WrestleMania, but his enthusiastic direct address to the band itself isn't grating in the least; it actually reflects the emotions of the viewer, adding to the excitement of the experience.
This vignette is so enduring precisely because it's subtle, manipulating viewers on a subconscious level. The audience is encouraged to use their imaginations, interpret how the song relates to Austin and The Rock, rather than think and feel in a prescribed manner. Everyone watching and listening is permitted to experience the song and the imagery in their own way and so the emotional bonds are made stronger; hence why I'm still inspired by it fifteen years later. Likely without realizing it, the editors created a work that proves its own point by encouraging the audience to "do things their way" and form their own specific attachments to the song, the imagery, and the characters.
The song is also different from the rest of Limp Bizkit's library; it carefully builds to the blaring, metallic chorus after several somber, haunting lines. It doesn't rush toward a barrage of intense riffs, heavy drums, and screaming lyrics. It's like a good match, starting slowly but interestingly, adding layer upon layer of intrigue until exploding in a series of high spots and low spots, all the while building toward an exciting, logical finish (climax).
The first word "Special" reverberates, overflowing with utter disdain.
"You think you're special...you do...I can see it in your eyes...I can see it when you laugh at, look down on me, walk around on me..." the song continues with complimentary imagery - Steve Austin's murderous gaze, a bloodied Rock pulling himself up from the corner.
Not once did Steve Austin or The Rock directly infer that one or the other thought he was "special". During their build into Mania they only ever talked about defeating the other, and needing to become WWF Champion. Their focus was always on the competition, and the underlying professional resentments were always present, lingering just below the surface.
"Although that heel-turn isn't fondly remembered by pro-wrestling fans...it's a twist that's actually in keeping with the psychological state of the character..."
Austin (the top man in the industry for a number of years prior) had been out of action due to injury long before this particular program with The Rock started. In Austin's wake The Rock rose to prominence, becoming the new "top guy" of the WWF. When Austin returned, it was inevitable that the two titans of the industry would collide at pro-wrestling's grandest stage. It was understood by viewers familiar with the characters that beyond their shared need to be champion remained a deeper disdain not only for the way the other behaved, but for the way the other was attempting to steal the "top guy" position. It's easy to imagine Steve Austin sneering at The Rock and saying, with disgust in his voice, "You think you're something special, don't you? You think you'd be where you are if I hadn't been out of action, Rock?" or The Rock saying, "You think you're so special that you can come back here and take the spot I earned while you were at home washing your tights?"
The line "you think you're special, I can see it in your eyes..." perfectly embodies the mental state of these two characters, which is precisely why it's so integral to their story; their matches, promos, and interviews on RAW and SmackDown emphasized their actions where the song emphasized their psychology. That parallel representation of action and psychology helped create this incredibly tangible world where The Rock and Austin characters thrived, and where wrestling fans wholeheartedly believed. It's so easy to recall this feud because it was so complete.
"You're gonna see things my way! It's my way! My way or the highway!"
This line embodies not just the bullheadedness and alpha-male mentality of these two characters, it reflects their desperation. The Rock is desperate to prove himself to the world, to demonstrate that he is, in fact, the absolute best in the business and the only way he can do that is by defeating the man who previously held his "top guy" mantle. Steve Austin is desperate to regain that mantle and so he's operating at a deficit. He is more desperate than The Rock.
He needs it more.
And so he turns heel.
Although that heel-turn isn't fondly remembered by pro-wrestling fans (Austin himself has opened up about how "hindsight being 20/20" he'd "call an audible" and not turn heel), it's a twist that's actually in keeping with the psychological state of the character.
On The Smackdown before WrestleMania, where The Rock & Austin participated in one of the most intense segments in WWF history, Steve Austin ends the show by stating that he needs the title more than anything else in the world, and then he glares menacingly into the distance, an evil look in his eye that told viewers exactly what was coming if only any of us were willing to see it. But we didn't want to; no one wanted to believe Steve Austin would stoop to such a despicable level and side with his nemesis Vince McMahon just to regain his former glory.
"But you never know, you never know, until it's too late..." Limb Bizkit's refrain ends, weirdly poetic in how true it is.
Viewers see both the benefit and the detriment of doing things "your way". It can lead to creation and hope, but it can also lead to destruction and disillusionment.
In looking back on the "My Way" vignette and The Rock & Steve Austin's feud, I'm instantly transported to that impressionable age. The ache for that bygone era is strong, but rather than use the excellence of The Rock/Austin feud and the greatness of this particular vignette as a means of dismissing the efforts of today's roster, it should be used as a hopeful guide.
The enthusiasm for wrestling remains in our culture, regardless of how the world and the business has changed. That enthusiasm can be intensified if the spirit of what made this feud and this vignette a success returns in a new, equally powerful form. Today's collection of talented wrestlers deserves the same forum that The Rock & Austin had, the same creative freedom to find their voices or to push their voices to the forefront of the business by any means necessary.
When that happens, those voices shall inspire similarly excellent vignettes or, better yet, a form of pro-wrestling storytelling we have yet to see.
No matter how the future of vignette-production and rivalry-building reveals itself, all storytellers can look to this moment in pop-culture history and the performances of The Rock & Austin and see the essence of greatness.
In that greatness they will be inspired to find their own, and to do it their way.