Catch a few minutes of World Wrestling Entertainment programming, and you'll quickly realize just how crucial its production—the lighting, the video packages, the pyrotechnics, the tailor-made entrance songs—is to hyping the action. Music is easily the most vital element of all. WWE's best themes are more than just earworms; they're songs with instantly recognizable opening motifs—a sinister gong, the shattering of glass, a screeching guitar lick—that help establish the wrestlers' motivations and give crowds Pavlovian cues to boo or cheer.
The majority of the professional wrestling's music can be traced to WWE's Composer/Producer/Director of Music Jim Johnston, who has worked under Vince McMahon's helm since the mid-1980s, back when the organization was the World Wrestling Federation. Before Johnston and McMahon joined up, wrestlers in the WWF and elsewhere rarely entered and exited the ring to anything but crowd noise. Now, theme music is a must for a recurring personality in any wrestling company.
The earliest music assignment Johnston remembers doing for the WWF is a range of themes he made for WWF WrestleMania 2 in 1986. Since then, he's created or overseen some 10,000 recordings, incorporating dozens of genres and instruments to suit all manner of characters, and even become a hit-maker on the charts with WWF/WWE's long-running The Music theme compilation series. His tunes have also been occasionally adopted in other pro sports, with franchises including the Yankees, the Cubs, the Indians, the Spurs, and Newcastle United playing his work during games. During Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, Johnny Damon hit the field to "I Walk Alone," a song laid down by hard rockers Saliva for ex-WWE talent Batista.
The 60-year-old Johnston works out of a studio in WWE's Stamford, Connecticut production facility, and lives in the next town over, only occasionally hitting the road. He's reserved, thoughtful, a tad self-deprecating, and as elusive as he is influential. Johnston, whose favorite musician is James Taylor, has never stepped into the ring on-air, and his appearances have been largely confined to the rare behind-the-scenes vignette.
On Sunday, April 7, WrestleMania 29 airs live on pay-per-view from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Before wrestling's equivalent to the Super Bowl unfolds with Johnston's work scoring the spectacle, the composer spoke with me about his process and WWE's changing musical terrain.
You've spoken before about your process involving just being handed a wrestler's name and having to start making a theme from there. Ordinarily, how much interaction do you have with the talent?
It really runs the gamut. Some people really want to be very involved in the process, and a lot of times on the other end, I never even speak to the talent. It's more through the grapevine [with] the vibe they want. I approach each one of these things like movie scoring. It really is not so important to know the person because in the same sense if I'm scoring a movie, it's not important that I get to know Tom Cruise. It is important that I know as much as I can about the story that Tom Cruise is going to play as that character in this movies. If anything, sometimes, getting to know Tom Cruise can be deceptive because he may start saying, "You know what music I really, really love? I love Beethoven. I really do love Beethoven." Sometimes, that can screw up my head where I want to please the guy and give him something he's comfortable with, but maybe Beethoven is really the wrong direction for his character. It's all about character.
Characters in the 1980s were especially bright and flamboyant, and in the mid-1990s, you had over-the-top gimmicks such as a racecar driver and a trash man. Since the end of the Steve Austin-led "Attitude Era" in the early 2000s, characters are now more subdued and relatively realistic. Has that change made it more difficult for you to make themes?
As with many composers I've spoken with, if something—whether it be a person, an actor, a storyline, an emotion—inspires you, it's really easy to come up with a lot of ideas. It only gets difficult when you're not inspired or when I'm asked to write something for maybe a guy who's brand new and no one really knows where he's going yet. So I'll get a very little bit of information about what the nature of his character is going to be, but I can just feel it in the air that no one really knows where this guy is going yet. That's when it gets hard because it's like being given a movie to score, and the director says, "Okay, I want to score you this scene." "Okay, can I see the scene?" "Well, no." "Can you tell me about the scene?" "Yeah. It's going to be really, really cool. It's going to be a really, really, really good scene."
In terms of someone who's maybe more reflective of the more modern trend of people being more actual guys, like a guy like Randy Orton versus over-the-top, flamboyant wildness, no, that doesn't affect it at all. I don't know why, but it doesn't.
From the early 2000s onwards, there's been an increasing trend of wrestlers having themes played by rock bands in contrast to the classic, clearly in-house-made WWF/WWE themes. Why has that increase happened and how do you feel about it?
I feel good about it because much of the time, it's my idea to get an outside band to do it. It brings a different sound to the table. It takes the pressure of recording that song off of me, so I can work on other stuff, and it's great to work with some of these great bands. Sometimes, it's the most fun working with the newer, younger bands because they're really hungry and they're really trying to do a great job.
Sometimes, the difficulty I run into is because it's WWE, there's a reputation that precedes us. People will play extra especially aggressive. The drummer plays harder, the guitarist wants to play louder, the singer wants to sing tougher. The net effect of that is the song will end up sounding artificially aggressive, and it doesn't really sound like the band and the sound that you went to them for at the genesis of the project. Sometimes, I've had to reach in and say, "Guys, you've got to calm down. This is not about being aggressive. It's about the music. Just play the song."
Have any of your themes really received a polarizing reaction backstage before?
There's been a few themes where I've submitted music that no one was really expecting. I remember with Goldust, it was almost universally hated at first, and then it was universally loved over time. It's a little bit like that wrenching experience we've all had at some point where you lift your glass and you think it's a Coke, and it's a glass of milk. It's just not what you're expecting. Even though it's a perfectly fine glass of milk, you want to spit it out.
Usually, when a wrestler returns from time off or runs into the action, your music is first indication fans get that somebody's going to come out. Do you have any favorite memories of big returns or run-ins punctuated by your music?
The Rock jumps out. We generally know when he's coming back, but he's a very charismatic guy and really knows how to have fun with the crowd.
Also, I always get a kick out of that music because it defies categorization. I can't tell you what it is. It's not really rock, it's not really orchestral, it's not really soundtrack, but there's something about it that really fits that guy.
WWF/WWE wrestler themes have always used all styles of music, but when it came to themes for monthly pay-per-view programs, there was this excess of hard rock and nu-metal starting around 2000. Things have been changing with music by Cee-Lo Green, Kevin Rudolf, Diddy, Flo Rida, and Tinie Tempah being used, but for the period that was so heavy on hard rock and nu-metal, was there any mandate from up top related to to choosing those styles? How did you feel about them being the focus?
It certainly wasn't a mandate. I agree that a little more variety would have been a good idea. I don't really get involved in that part of things, and things move so quickly that it's like the next thing is on you before you've had time to really contemplate the last thing. It was one of those things [where] it was working, and that style of music works because it's high-energy and aggressive. But yeah, it's really a good thing that we're expanding and using really current stuff that kids are listening to and just going with kinds of music that aren't so overtly testosterone-aggressive. They're fun, and that's more what the culture is now.
The interesting thing is even though you're correct that we used a bunch of harder rock—it's sort of stopped now, finally—but for years and years, I would just get these submissions or calls about, "Oh, I got this great band" or a label is like "So-and-so is coming out with a new record. Can you use this single?" of these just absolute Cookie Monster-level metal bands. I was always like, "Do you ever watch our shows?" We never use this music, and yet it stayed with us for so long—this aura that, "Oh, wrestling? Well, that's heavy metal." No, it's not. [Laughs] It never really happened, only in very, very small doses.
Do you have any favorite memory attached to your time in WWE?
Disappointingly, no. I can't remember off the top of my head. There have been so many great moments. This place is a very dynamic thing. I'm a very emotional guy and one thing I like about this place is it's a very emotional place. It's common to feel either very moved by something or excited about something or like "Holy crow, boy, did that work out."
Like many composer/artists I've spoken with and read about, particularly if you're of my personality where you're more about the behind the scenes and creating the music and less about being out front and being a rock star, there's this process where once you've done something, it completely leaves you, like a child. It now has its own life and it goes out there and you are not left with any great sense of ownership of that thing. If I'm at an event and watching guys come out, I enjoy it from a very removed place like any other fan that's out there. I don't sit there and go, "Wow. [Whistles] Man, I did a great job with that one." It's just fun to watch and to listen to.
The closest to something that has been moving is sometimes seeing fans react and seeing that they know the lyrics to stuff that I've written, and that it's really moving them or getting them excited. That's a very touching thing for me to see that maybe I've made a little bit of a difference in their life and gave them a laugh or a smile or whatever.