Sonic the Hedgehog, Johnny Gioeli, and the Right Amount of Cheese

Written by Alma Ramsey

My buddy Will has this stump speech about his “Pizza Principle” — like pizza, you’re doing it wrong if you don’t make music with at least a touch of cheese. Neither of us make particularly cheesy music, but that makes cheese all the more critical as a garnish. If Will and I are making tomato pie that needs its dusting of romano, Crush 40’s “Live & Learn …Main Theme of Sonic Adventure 2” is that Detroit-style pizza Dan Bejar was right to flee. I’m so averse to cheese that I’m casually namechecking Dan Bejar, yet I unabashedly adore “Live & Learn” - and not just because I loved Sonic Adventure 2 as a teenager. Nostalgia can’t conceal that the game got its inch-deep cheese blend exactly right only once, and the secret ingredient is Crush 40 vocalist Johnny Gioeli.

Gioeli may be thought of as the voice of Sonic’s lost years. He debuted on 1998’s Sonic Adventure, the aspiring killer app for the doomed Dreamcast. His Brooklyn squawk graced intro cinematics and final boss fights all the way through 2009’s dismal Sonic and the Black Knight. The franchise was infamous during this period for bizarre tonal shifts, overstuffed lore, gimmicky gameplay, and an overall sense of identity crisis. In the aughts, flagship Sonic titles called for world beating anime melodrama, brooding end-of-history angst, and the cheery didacticism of kid’s media all at once. Their soundtracks are littered with session vocalists and metalcore mercenaries felled by this task while Gioeli held firm.

Sonic Adventure 2’s vocal offerings run the gamut from forgettable guitar dreck to intermittently respectable industrial goth to would-be hip-hop and jazz bangers defaced by what-the-fuck rapping and overwrought scatting; brave these ordeals and ye shall reap “Live & Learn”’s rawk transcendence. Sonic Heroes found hair metal veterans Ted Poley and Gunnar Nelson unable to land pandering lyrics explaining the gameplay, yet Gioeli manages to soar while literally singing the game’s title. Vegas post-grungers Magna-Fi turned in a profoundly blah credits sync for Shadow the Hedgehog, the most 2005 video game ever made. The next year, on the next game, Gioeli made the same song into a keeper.

But my man Johnny’s finest single moment in the series is actually his very, very first, in Sonic Adventure’s deranged opening animatic. This toyetic cartoon children’s property opens the 128-bit era with images of an eldritch water god carrying out a massacre, and just as we get our first clear glimpse of the monster, we hear a tiny snippet of Gioeli’s howl.

To me, this split second encapsulates the talent - nay, the craft - that J-man invests in cheese: the fragment is so short that you can’t even make out words, and yet the force of his cheese-mongering comes through as loud and as clear as when the game’s theme song gives us the full line, which is - yes, really - “gotta open your heart, dude.”

Listen closely to his delivery on that full line. He emphasizes the rhythmic weight of both the offbeat stagger downward and the slow portamento back up. The impression is of his voice as a physical object interacting with and against the song’s breakneck straight-eight momentum, a point driven home when he snaps into lockstep for the chorus. In other words, here Gioeli sings the way playing a Sonic game should feel - closely folding the cringe into the material’s strengths makes it stick out less.

Cheesemaking lesson #1: if there’s a lot of it in the sauce, you’ve gotta make sure it’s properly emulsified.

He pulls a similar trick for Shadow the Hedgehog’s “I Am…All Of Me” - beneath specters of 9/11 and 326 individually named story paths, this is a game for 15-year-old boys about having a lot of rage and being confused about where to direct it, a feeling Gioeli pours into every swelling vowel. Compared to other songs about Shadow, Powerman 5000’s “Almost Dead” tries and fails to capture this same feeling without Gioeli’s grand dynamics. Julien-K’s “This Machine” leans into its most respectable moments while breezing through the cringe parts, in an attempt to render them forgettable, a strategy familiar from that warmed-over “Africa” cover you just heard in the supermarket. Gioeli shows no such hedging on “I Am…All of Me,” savoring a juicy character beat on a long drawn-out “I AM” and then immediately attacking the “here we go, buddy” filler with identical gusto.

Cheesemaking lesson #2: The weird gross mold is where the flavor comes from. Try to skip that part and be skipped in return.

Beyond demanding technical nuance and commitment, I think cheese is simply very particular. It carries with it specific compositional and performance requirements which one can purposefully disregard or subvert, but which I think musicians like myself who use cheese sparingly tend to overlook. Circling back to Dan Bejar, I think this is how Destroyer’s second act as adult-contemporary Steely Dan stuck the landing - the slap bass hits and loungy horn solos are as carefully calibrated as the cruelties Bejar hisses between them.

But we needn't look so far afield to learn this third cheesemaking lesson. Johnny Gioeli’s voice is a near 1:1 hybrid of Bryan Adams and Chad Kroeger, and while researching this, I thought of Adams’ own take on soundtrack cheese, “Here I Am” from the Dreamworks horse movie you forgot about. I’ve heard this song every single time I’ve ever walked into a Bed Bath & Beyond. It perfectly complements the late retail chain’s hellish vibes: just as a burnt orange keurig can’t really make your personality funkier, “Here I Am” has Jam and Lewis on the boards and an uncredited gospel wailer, all of which congeals horribly when Adams’ sleepy delivery doesn’t follow through. “Here I Am” barely manages even half the panache Gioeli brings to even his A-minus Sonic cuts like “Free,” and the real heads will taste the difference. Nobody is a connoisseur of cheese like weeby retail managers, and they’ll be blasting Crush 40 through the hijacked store audio of their next gig long after Adams has fallen silent at the end of BBB’s liquidation.

Alma Ramsey (they/them) is a musician and writer based in Philadelphia. They're stuck 43 nested tangents deep, please help.