The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
One of the only shows I’ve watched every episode of since having kids is Cobra Kai. That show is exactly the kind of extension of a beloved film universe I adore because it so clearly comes from a place of affection from its creators. These guys have clearly watched The Karate Kid as many times as I have which makes the show not only narratively satisfying – fidelity to the characters themselves, logical motivations for them – but littered with Easter Eggs for superfans like myself.
My parents had taped The Karate Kid off premium cable, and I watched that tape all the damn time. There are a zillion things I love about this movie both big and small, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s focus on a small one. After Daniel gets his ass kicked by the Cobra Kais at the beach and tries to hide his black eye from his mother, he heads off to the first day of his new school. “Cruel Summer” simmers underneath the next three and a half minutes as Daniel continues his courtship of Alli, then gets set up by the Cobra Kais again and subsequently kicked out of soccer tryouts. It’s a bad first day of school.
The song returns in the final moments of Season 2 of Cobra Kai in a stripped-down cover version by Kari Kimmel as Johnny sits at the beach thinking about how his mentee Miguel is now paralyzed, his girlfriend Carmen has broken up with him, his friend Tommy has succumbed to his terminal disease (the last we see of Tommy – the “Get him a bodybag!” guy from the original movie is of him getting zipped up in a bodybag, which is amazing) and his dojo has been stolen from him by Kreese. Things are bleak for Johnny, it’s a nice nod to inversion of form to have this song track Johnny’s terrible moment instead of Daniel’s as in the original movie.
In her own words, singer and songwriter of Bananarama Sara Dallin said of her song: “The best summer songs remind you of your youth: what you did in your holidays, how it felt when you first kissed a boy, going away without your parents. For me, our hit, Cruel Summer, played on the darker side: it looked at the oppressive heat, the misery of wanting to be with someone as the summer ticked by.”
I totally get that. There’s very little more miserable than feeling down and shitty when the weather is nice and everyone else seems to be having a good time. Meanwhile you’re isolated and lonely and you find yourself absurdly wishing for school to start back up again. But for me truly the cruelest part of summer is when it ends, which also happens to coincide with my birthday at the end of August. My birthday is between 4 and 10 days before Labor Day, which is generally regarded as the unofficial end of summer, and it always bums me out. My birthday has a small pinch of sadness each year due to its place on the calendar. And that’s why using this to soundtrack Daniel LaRusso’s first day of school hits so hard for me.
I love the summer. I love the sunshine and how it stays light real late. I love pools. I love being outside every day. I love wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals. It seems the only people who despise summer are those who live in some uninhabitable climate like the scorched desert earth of Arizona or the nightmare hellscape of the southern US, and fat people. These people do have valid reasons for despising summer, and I don’t give a shit about any of them. Either move or lose weight and enjoy summer like a correct thinking adult.
Because summer rules. And this song, despite its tinge of melancholy, just SOUNDS like summer. Those marimbas, man! I cannot get enough of the marimbas in this song. When Ace of Base covered this years later, they downplayed the marimbas in favor of some electro-dance beat horseshit, and their version subsequently sucks. The handclaps that are amped up to sound like whip cracks. That squelchy bassline riding subtly underneath the entire thing. Their sweet, feminine voices. The whole thing is just deeply my shit.
I can (and do) listen to this song roughly 50 times a summer. I put it on every playlist I make for the season, and I look forward every year to feeling its vibe and its warmth. Because seasons aren’t just yearly occurrences.
A friend of mine’s favorite season is autumn, and he posited that as he’s aged, he felt firmly that he was in the autumn of his life. It’s an interesting thought experiment. Spring is when everything is new, blooming, filled with emergence and discovery. That’s youth. Summer is your prime. You have the greatest combination of energy, resources and experiences. Your days are long, your appetites primed, and you still have what feels like a ton of road in front of you. Autumn begins to loom in the distance and creeps closer. The days are not quite as long and experience has eroded some of your enthusiasm.
I feel like I exist in the summer of my life, but with each turn of the calendar, I can see the end of the season approaching. I too will soon enough be in the autumn of my life, and while I’m not what you might call thrilled about that, I’m at peace with it. Learning that you stop breathing 50+ times an hour in your sleep and that your blood oxygen level will sometimes drop below 60% will force you to be more philosophical about the nature of life perhaps more than you were before.
But that’s what these surgeries have been about, really. How do I maximize the value and enjoyment of the remainder of this season of life, and all the seasons ahead? Time is undefeated, and eventually comes for us all. Summer is my favorite season in both of the ways I’ve described it here. The cruelest part is that it has to end at all, but on the other hand, if it was all we knew, would we still love it as much?
Probably not, but that makes jamming out to this song while lounging outside with my girls, my wife, and my friends in the warm weather all the sweeter. I will spin this track every summer until I have no more summers allotted for me.
Up next: You know that you’re toxic.