Character Select concerns moments in film, television and gaming where music had such a significant impact that it became a character in its own right. Joshua Hughes laces up his boots and dives into the squared circle to observe how Placebo’s haunting cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ matched up with one of professional wrestling’s most compelling story lines.
Pro wrestling as an industry tends to get short shrift when it comes to how innovative it has been over the years. Muhammad Ali spoke in glowing terms about wrestling villains like Gorgeous George and cited them as the main influence upon his interview style. Wrestling popularised the concept of “entrance music”, beginning with Tiger Mask in New Japan Pro Wrestling in the early 1980s and spreading to the United States a few years later. Boxing, baseball, MMA and numerous other sports followed suit. Wrestling was also a key proponent in the rise of story-driven music videos. Know that Joan Jett song, ‘Bad Reputation’, since featured on every rebellious montage in a film made over the last 20 years? Mid-South Wrestling used it the mid-1980s to promote then top-villain Ted DiBiase:
These have since become common place in practically every form of entertainment one can name, but WWE in particular has got it down to a fine art. One of the most memorable examples of this in recent years was the package, set to Placebo’s cover of ‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush, made to promote the Shawn Michaels vs Undertaker “Career vs Streak” match at WrestleMania 26. The storyline, for the unfamiliar was as follows: Shawn and Undertaker had spent many of the previous years as two of the top performers in the company, but rarely crossed paths with one another apart from a memorable feud from August 1997 – January 1998.
In the time following this, Shawn further enriched his reputation as arguably the most talented wrestler to have ever graced a WWE ring while Undertaker made a legacy of his own as one of its most popular and enduring characters. A cornerstone of this was “The Streak”: Undertaker had appeared at WrestleMania 16 times without defeat by the time he and Shawn met at the 25th edition in April 2009. In the match – one of the best in company history – Undertaker edged out Shawn, who maintained he had wrestled a “perfect match” but for one slip of concentration that resulted in his defeat. Michaels, in storyline, was haunted by the defeat and in December 2009 challenged ‘Taker to a rematch at 2010’s instalment of WrestleMania. This is where our piece of music comes in.
The video tells the story, brilliantly and succinctly, of how their eventual rematch came about. ‘Running Up That Hill’ is about one person in a faltering relationship wishing that they could “make a deal with God” and swap places with their significant other so that they might see things from their perspective. I won’t begin to pretend that parallels can be drawn between the complexity of the themes explored in Kate Bush’s lyrics and this professional wrestling storyline, but it sets the scene tremendously and, taken literally, it fits the events depicted in this video well.
The rueful piano notes are used to great effect as Shawn’s mental state unravels. He falters to defeat after defeat as he loses any chance of earning the right to face then-World Champion Undertaker and takes the low road of screwing Taker out of that title in order to goad him into a rematch. This succeeds, with one caveat: if Shawn loses, he must retire. Unable to see any future for himself in the ring unless he gets this out of his system, Michaels agrees. It is more of a deal with the devil, than one with God.
The storyline of the actual match at WrestleMania 26 was that, essentially, Shawn knew that Undertaker had his number but his ego would not allow him to admit it. He was too big, too powerful and too good for him. Michaels throws everything he possibly can at him, to no avail, and the finish features a superb last stand sequence. Undertaker hits Michaels with both of his finishing moves, but Shawn continually manages to kick out before the referee can count to three. He is long since beaten, but refuses to accept it. Undertaker, a man whose character is that he is essentially “undead” and operates with no remorse, is drawn to a rare show of pity by Shawn’s courage and stubbornness. “Stay down”, he implores, as Michaels tries to climb up Undertaker’s body like a drunk man who has fallen over might try to claw his way up a wall to stop himself from stumbling again. Shawn, unable to scale this particular hill, holds himself up by leaning on Undertaker with his left and uses his remaining strength to slap him in the face with his right. Taker, enraged, dispatches him with another “Tombstone” piledriver.
The usage of ‘Running Up That Hill’ is so excellent here because not only does it fit perfectly with the promotional video to sell the match but it also fits well with the events contained within it. One gets the sense that the relationship described in the song itself is doomed: the protagonist is begging for divine intervention to save it. Similarly, Shawn Michaels’ quest to face and eventually beat The Undertaker is filled with similar forbearing. He literally destroys his career to get this one opportunity, one that was doomed from the start. The song’s application here is better thought out than the vast majority of pieces applied to videos across sports and entertainment.