Hear Us Out: ‘Cobra Kai’ Has a Music Problem

Nothing is clear-cut when it comes to “Cobra Kai,” the “Karate Kid” universe of series creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. The line between good and bad is blurry and fluctuating, and you find yourself rooting for characters representing one or the other interchangeably. Similarly, the show is both a teenage soap and an adult drama, often inviting a sort of whiplash between a modern-day narrative and one of pure nostalgia. The sourced music, too, is not immune from this identity crisis as it overdoses on ‘80s kitsch tipping toward hard rock, hair metal and AOR, or album-oriented rock.

Indeed, the needle drops on “Cobra Kai” are so on-the-nose, especially lyrically, that you can practically predict which ‘80s classic is about to be cued up for a scene. Whether this is meant ironically, humorously, seriously or in a tongue-in-cheek way is as indeterminate as whether the viewer is supposed to think it’s a genius choice or face-palm at its corniness, or, Shazam it to get schooled on the genre that soundtrack the decade of decadence.

The series’ relentless grip on the ‘80s — despite not being set in the past — is a huge part of its appeal. But while “Cobra Kai” is counting on its music cues to drive home the story, it lacks a true sense of musical identity. Other shows set 40 years ago don’t run into this problem — “The Americans” and “Stranger Things” come to mind — but the lack of subtlety in “Cobra Kai” does a disservice to the Netflix series, which is currently on its third season, after two on YouTube. It’s nothing to laugh at, or with. You’re more likely to groan.

This tone was set from the start: in the pilot episode, anti-hero Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) speeds off in his Pontiac Firebird — the same car he was driving in the 1984 “Karate Kid” movie — to Poison’s party anthem, “Nothing But A Good Time.” Innocuous enough, but when he’s drinking and driving, and having a flashback montage of all his downfall moments from the ‘80s, it is to Foreigner’s “Head Games.” In contrast, it’s Dean Martin’s jovial “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” with the line “how lucky can one guy be,” that makes it all too easy to groan at every appearance of the always winning Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) — what with the New Jersey transplant’s perfect life and ideal family, coveted Valley home and super-successful business.

As the seasons unfold, young Johnny’s cues include Boston’s “Don’t Look Back,” playing on his foamy Walkman headphones when he comes across the Cobra Kai dojo for the first time; AC/DC’s “Back in Black” for when his Challenger is detailed with Cobra Kai colors; Matches’ “The Ride” plays when Johnny and his childhood buddy — you guessed it — ride off on their motorcycles; and “Sister Sin’s Fight Song” is heard when they get into a bar brawl. The Cobra Kai students training in a junkyard is soundtracked by Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It,” while their karate tournament entrance is set to Queen’s “I Want it All.”

The third season follows the same formula but is slightly more nuanced. Synchs include Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” which revs up a car chase; W.A.S.P.’s “I Wanna Be Somebody,” fueling Miguel (Xolo Maradueña) to get out of his wheelchair; a Johnny dream sequence is set to Whitensake’s “Here I Go Again” complete with video homage; and the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” plays during a holiday scene involving Ali (Elisabeth Shue).

Still, one wonders: when did Johnny become such a metalhead? Barring tracks by Winger and Pretty Boy Floyd in “Karate Kid III,” the last film in the trilogy (which Johnny was barely in), you won’t find any spandex on the “Karate Kid” movie soundtracks. And Johnny really leans into the genre on the series, even passing on his metal mania to his teenage protégé Miguel through Ratt’s “Lay it Down.” Meanwhile, a recurring piece of score is called “Miyagi Metal.”

To be fair, the show does also feature music from current artists, but it’s mostly used in the same way — to translate what’s happening onscreen. To wit: Yungblud sings of “putting sand in their mouth” from “Tin Pan Boy” during a beach volleyball game, while Fifth Harmony’ “That’s My Girl” soundtracks a scene showing Sam (Mary Mouser) and Tory (Peyton List) training. Covers of ‘80s classics work better. Protomen’s “In the Air Tonight,” which closes season three with — spoiler alert — Johnny and Daniel combining their dojos, is one such example. Even more effective: Kari Kimmel’s version of “Cruel Summer” on the first day of school, updating a cue used in the original “Karate Kid.”

It’s worth noting that season three credits two composers (Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg) and the show has cycled through two music supervisors (Michelle Silverman on season one and two and Gary Calamar on season three — both are veterans in the field and their previous work includes “Aquaman” and “The Man in the High Castle,” respectively), not to mention the three creators who double as showrunners. Too many cooks in the dojo? That would explain the hackneyed nature of its musical DNA, but it doesn’t forgive it.

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