Scoring with Cheese

By Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson  •  August 2, 2018

scoring-with-cheese
Leo Birenberg (l) and Zach Robinson, cheesing around in the studio. Photo by Larry Mah.

The web series Cobra Kai karate-chopped expectations when it debuted on YouTube Red earlier this year. An essential part of the show’s addictive combo of nostalgia and relatability is the score by ASCAP composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson. The two complemented that mix of old and new with their music, equal parts ‘80s throwback and cutting-edge orchestral composing. But how did they overcome the “cheese” factor inherent to a show based on the beloved AND over-the-top Karate Kid franchise? Read on, as Leo and Zach wax (on) philosophical on how they used musical cheese tastefully - and how you can do the same.

Composers don’t like their work being labeled as “cheesy,” therefore as composers, we often struggle to avoid cheesy-ness in our writing. That process however can be fraught with frustration and limit the creative process. Cheese is generally viewed as a form of inauthenticity or insincerity, when in many cases, it represents the utmost forms of sincerity, admiration and an unbridled connection to the truest emotions. In this essay, not only will we discuss how we “flipped the script” on cheese to utilize and exploit it for our Cobra Kai score, but we’ll also talk about how to creatively and appropriately approach cheese, and more importantly why cheese matters in the creative process.

What does it mean to write with a “cheesy” aesthetic?

“Cheesy-ness” is identified differently by everyone. It sometimes connotes an idea of datedness: styles and aesthetics that the cultural status quo has collectively decided to leave in the past. Other times, it’s a knock on sentimentality: “This piece of music makes me feel too warm and fuzzy, so therefore it’s cheesy.” Whatever its definition, cheese is utilized most successfully when it’s owned. If you’re working with cheese, you need to identify what you’re trying to communicate, and determine whether cheese enhances or detracts from the narrative. As creatives, we can transcend cliché by being honest and sincere about our work, and it’s a misconception to think cheese and sincerity are mutually exclusive. In fact, what we found is that authenticity in approaching a potentially “cheesy” moment is what makes it work, triggering familiar feelings in the audience that they may have felt decades ago (even if they weren’t alive) from a similar experience.

Cheese and the world of Cobra Kai

There’s no denying the original Karate Kid franchise checks a lot of boxes under what many people consider to be the cheesy checklist:

Made in the ‘80s
Young love
A message of perseverance and determination
Feel-good ending
Synthesizers

And of course….

A training montage

So naturally at its inception, Cobra Kai would be imbued with the cheese inherited from its adapted material. The creators were aware of this, and as composers, we needed to be too. Lest we forget, we were dealing with a continuation of one of the world’s most beloved cinematic stories. There was a lot of pressure on everyone to honor the legacy of the Karate Kid saga but to bring something new to the table. We also knew going in that we wanted the music to connect the pasts and presents of these revered characters. Both Johnny and Daniel yearn for the glory days when they ruled the school (and the karate mat). Our music needed to not only connect their pasts and presents, but also connect to the newer generation of karate students. Let’s hone in on one of these checkbox items and relate it to a cue from the show.

The “training montage” cliché, for example, is so overused that it’s become the easy lay-up to get comedy points (we get it, you put an ‘80s style track over someone doing menial tasks and it’s FUNNY!). In Cobra Kai, we knew there was only one way to approach scoring Miguel’s training montage, a full-stop, all-out voyage into the ‘80s-verse. Out of context, our track “Slither” could easily be labeled as cheesy, but we were able flip the cliché on its head by exploiting the “dated” musical references. To us at least, Miguel’s training montage doesn’t feel like the modern montage parody. It feels sincere, appropriate, self-referential, and a true enhancement of the story being told on screen. Veritably, we believe if we had scored that training montage with a more modern aesthetic, it would have come across as the bad kind of cheesy, the type that takes itself too seriously.

We stretch the idea of cheesiness not just through our synth-laden cues, but through our orchestra cues such as the “Final Match” and the production of our series finale end credits cue, “King Cobra.” Orchestral cheese is a different angle on the same feelings of an authentic training montage: classic, nostalgia-tugging films are often remembered for their sweeping thematic and often very on-the-nose orchestral scores. By using a big presentation of the melody, usually in the moment of a character’s arrival, possibly accompanied by a corny one-liner and a quick smile, a full orchestra brings a deliriously buoyant lift to the audience’s hearts in a way that only can be described as “cheesy.” In our finale for Cobra Kai, we had the perfect moment for such scoring, when it is announced that Daniel will coach Robby in the finals. It had all the makings of the perfect feel-good cheese moment: Daniel’s ageless smile, the shots of the cheering crowd, the dialogue yanked straight from the original film, 34 years prior. So we took our nostalgic Daniel theme and gave it a cheese-worthy presentation.

Until this moment, this theme was always used in a very understated fashion - muted strings with a koto accompaniment and some synths and electric pianos for color (take a listen to “Miyagi Memories” on the album for reference). The harmony involved a lot of extensions and suspension. It was nostalgic, but in an appropriately modern way. Here, however, we took the same tune and gave it all the hallmarks of a cheesy sports movie plot twist: an energetic march rhythm, strings churning on a repeated pattern, reharmonizing so that it's simpler and happier (lots of I and IV!) and horns and trumpets blaring on the melody in octaves (we find trumpet on the melody especially cheese-inducing).

The result was perfect. At first we were almost sheepish about how it was turning out. Was it too much? Did it not feel like a modern show? Was it bad cheesy? But even we were filled with that same fluttering feeling while watching it back. We realized this was the only way to score this scene. It wasn’t a rip-off or a joke, it was an authentic presentation of the material that would be just as home in the emotions of the audience today as it would be in 1984. You can hear this moment in all its cheesy glory on the album in “Final Match.”

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Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña (Miguel), Leo Birenberg, Zach Robinson and actor Martin Kove (evil sensei John Kreese from the original Karate Kid series). Photo by Mark Sacro.

Collaborative Cheese

When we first started showing other composers our score to Cobra Kai, one of the most consistent comments was, “How the hell did you guys get away with this?” Many composers try to work with cheese, and many fail. Indeed, we knew what we wanted to accomplish through our developed sound, but we owe a lot of credit to the creators of the show (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) for not only being open to these somewhat radical score ideas, but more importantly understanding them. One of the first cues we sent them was called “Strike First.” It’s Johnny’s first on-screen fight since the original Karate Kid and naturally, he’s beating the s**t out of a bunch of teenagers in front of a shopping mall. To us, this was the first chance to introduce the audience to the true tone of the show and the score. It was a big cue.

We were nervous what the reception would be like, but in our hearts we knew that “Strike First” was how Johnny would have scored himself: like the ultimate badass. To accomplish this, we zeroed in on the mid to late-‘80s action palette which included the most digital sounding patches of Korg’s M1 and Roland’s D50 (shout out to the M1’s digi-shakuhachi), bone-crushing drum layers and dual galloping guitar-chugs, all playing in a driving and fast-paced tempo. Just describing this soundscape reminds us even still how this could have been an uphill battle to get this cue approved for a 2018 TV show. Fortunately, it was never an uphill battle, nor was it any type of battle. Josh, John and Hayden immediately understood what we were going for, were supportive of our vision, and most importantly were f***ing pumped. This allowed us to move forward in developing the tone for the show and served as a bit of a thesis for some of the bigger score cues.

The Cheese Plate

It may sound like we had free reign to write cheese wherever and whenever we desired, but there were many conversations (especially in the beginning of the process) where we discussed how far we should go, and how much we should pull back. There’s a fine balance between self-reference and self-parody and scoring with cheese always presents the danger of tipping the scale towards the latter. Cobra Kai might be labeled a comedy, but at its core, it’s a true drama with a mighty legacy. It was paramount we not come across as making fun of the characters or the story. Our solution to this was picking one, maybe two, musical set-pieces to fully explore any musically cheesy ideas (generally these were our ‘80s throwback type cues like “Strike First” and “Slither”). The rest of the score would utilize elements from the “cheese plate” so to speak. If writing a hair metal cue was not appropriate for a certain moment, we might borrow specific elements from the hair metal cheese plate: 12-string acoustics, harmonized metal guitar riffs, or big ‘80s arena drums did the trick most of the time. Maybe in an action scene that needed to be scored with a more modern flavor, we’d throw in a Roland polysynth playing the chords for a moment or double (maybe triple) our real bass with a Korg. Grabbing from the “cheese plate” helped us fully form the score for the universe, not to mention it was absolutely delicious and tasted very good with baked brie.

Cheese First, Cheese Hard, No Mercy      

Cobra Kai gave us the opportunity to explore a lot of different musical palettes and breathe new life into a beloved franchise, and in the process work with material and emotions what could easily be brushed aside as “cheesy.” But in approaching the score, we realized that the best way to approach potential cheesiness in scoring was to embrace it fully in moments where it was needed.

To other composers facing a similar project, we have the following advice: lean in. Embrace the cheese and learn to wield it. There is a thin line between a joke knock-off and an authentic execution of cheesy material, and in this new era of post-nostalgia television and film, the one that will effectively bring your characters and story to life is the latter. It’s something to constantly be discussing with your collaborators, but we’d encourage would-be cheese-lords to not water their impulses down. We didn’t let the idea of being cheesy scare us and ultimately felt like we connected with the audience on a more consistent and deeper level by not self-censoring. Those moments of unbridled “cheese” become some of our favorite music in the season and we have been so excited to share them with the world.

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Visit Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson on the web. 

Watch Cobra Kai on YouTube here