56: Michael and Janet in Video Game Land

The first Singing Mountain of 2019 is also the first in a new series looking at the interactions between mainstream pop music and video game music. Though this episode focuses on Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, consider it an overview of the many ways VGM and pop can play off each other. I’m also stoked to say that in addition to the Jacksons, I got to mention Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Carly Simon, Biz Markie, Phil Collins, Sia and The Beatles, and I never thought I’d get to do all that in one episode of this show. It’s super weird, and I couldn’t be happier to be deep-diving into all manner of pop culture obscurities.

Listen to all the episodes in Singing Mountain’s VGM+POP music here.

Cover art designed by Jude Buffum, pixel artist extraordinaire.

Follow David Russell, pop music encyclopedia, on Twitter.


Track listing:

0:12: Title Theme / The Race Against Time / Composed by Peter Gabriel, arranged by David Whittaker 
2:24: Games Without Frontiers / Peter Gabriel
6:12: Ice Cap Zone / Sonic the Hedgehog 3 / Unknown composer
7:15: Who Is It? / Michael Jackson
7:58: Smooth Criminal / Michael Jackson
10:41: Carnival Night Zone / Sonic the Hedgehog 3 / Unknown composer (but probably Brad Buxer)
10:58: Jam / Michael Jackson
11:13: Staff Role / Sonic the Hedgehog 3 / Unknown composer 
11:46: Stranger in Moscow / Michael Jackson
12:38: Hard Times / The Jetzons
16:11: Ending Theme / Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker / Written by Michael Jackson, composed by Tohru Nakabayashi
20:03: Together Again / Janet Jackson
21:30: Bridge Zone / Sonic the Hedgehog / Yuzo Koshiro
25:29: Moonlight City Roa / Legend of Mana / Yoko Shimomura
26:50: China Love / Janet Jackson
31:30: Bayou Boogie / Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest / David Wise
32:34: In the Air Tonight / Phil Collins
35:51: Game Over / Lil’ Flip
40:04: Stage Two / Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker / Written by Michael Jackson, composed by Tohru Nakabayashi

Show notes:


Hello, and welcome to a special episode of Singing Mountain. It’s special because it’s about a subject I’ve tiptoed around a few times before but have yet to dedicate a whole episode to. This one is about video game music and its relationship to pop music. And a heads up: I’m going to talk a lot in this one.

The track that introed this episode is a pop music song repurposed for a video game: It’s the theme to a game called The Race Against Time — released for the Commodore 64, among other systems — in 1988 as part of a promotional effort on behalf of Sport Aid, a charity event in support of famine relief efforts in Africa. But you may know it better as the song ”Games Without Frontiers,“ that Peter Gabriel song that has backup vocals from Kate Bush.

Full disclosure: Until I looked up the lyrics, I thought Kate was saying, “She’s so popular.” She’s not. She’s saying the French version of “games without frontiers,” “jeux sans frontières” — and pardon my terrible French. This doesn’t matter for this episode really, but in case you’re in the grocery store and wondering what this lady is saying, it’s that.

I actually went through a weird period where I couldn’t get away from this song. Like, I’d hear it in the grocery store but also Home Depot and also in a car passing by, and I was beginning to feel suspicious about why it had suddenly come to play such a major role in my life, but that’s when I happened across this Commodore 64 version and was sort of surprised that this Peter Gabriel song got covered… or demaked or demade, depending on how you look at it, and used in a game. And it’s all the more strange because it was actually licensed for the game, if I’m to believe what I’m reading online.

The interplay between pop music and video games is a pet interest of mine, but I’ve refrained from going into it much on Singing Mountain just because... it’s tough to research with any degree of exactitude. And BTW I’m using the broad definition of pop music and should probably be saying popular music, because I’m referring to rock and pop and R&B and hip-hop and everything. Maybe country. I haven’t come to a country-VGM interaction yet, but I’m sure it exists.

It’s a giant no duh that what we hear on the radio would influence what we hear in video games, and I’m sure any of us can think of examples off the tops of our heads — some subtle, some pretty blatant. The thing is a lot of the time the influence is tough to track down, tough to prove, tough to find in the liner notes.

Games Without Frontiers being used in The Race Against Time is an exception, because it was actually, properly licensed for use in the game but also because it was a clear instance of an existing pop song being reworked into a video game and reinterpreted through that system’s sound capabilities. (I’m differentiating here from, say, the radio stations in Grand Theft Auto, where you can hear the actual songs, non-demaked.) If the interplay between pop music and video games is something I enjoy, then pop music being worked into video games after the fact is, like, my drug, especially when you can prove that yes, this VGM composer really, totally, knowingly worked a song into the soundtrack to a video game, allowing you and me to hear a melody you know and love reinterpreted with that chippy, synthy, nostalgic sound you also love.

“Drew, what is this episode about?”

Good question!

The reason this episode started out with… a maybe not amazing-sounding cover of a Peter Gabriel song was because I didn’t want to start this episode out with Ice Cap Zone theme from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which I used to start the previous episode of Singing Mountain late last year. But that one Sonic the Hedgehog 3 track is more interesting than I let on in that episode, and I actually didn’t let on because I actually forgot about the interesting thing until a listener pointed out to me that Ice Cap Zone is very likely another example of this phenomenon: a pop song that retroactively got worked into a video game. Again, probably.

For reference’s sake, here, one more time is the Ice Cap Zone theme, composed by… oh, let’s just say unknown composer.

This track debuted in 1994, when Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released, and there was a point when online speculation compared Ice Cap Zone to the Michael Jackson song “Who Is It?” — from the album Dangerous, which came out in 1991.

Other fans noted that its chord progression seemed to track that of “Smooth Criminal,” also by Michael Jackson, and which came out in 1987.

If you subscribe to this podcast, you probably know that there is a complicated and debated history of Michael Jackson’s involvement with the soundtrack to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. I can’t get fully into this here, not only because it would make this episode at least 30 minutes longer if I explained it in great detail but also it’s been covered pretty thoroughly elsewhere, and I don’t need to retread all of their footsteps.

Among other places, I’ll recommend a pair of YouTube explainers that I’ll link to in the show notes for this episodes as well as a 2016 Huffington Post article titled “The Michael Jackson Video Game Conspiracy.” Also linking to that in the notes, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about.

It’s a crazy interesting deep dive, but if you want the long and short of it, it’s this: Among the long list of people credited with the music in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, five of them had also worked with Michael Jackson: Brad Buxer, Bobby Brooks, Darryl Ross, Geoff Grace and Doug Grigsby.

According to interviews here and there with these men, the king of pop did, in fact, have a hand in crafting the game’s music. Jackson is not credited in the game itself — and his work isn’t acknowledged by Sega. Per the Huffington Post article, Jackson’s music collaborators say this happened because Jackson didn’t like the way his compositions translated through the sound capabilities of the Sega Genesis. But according to a former Sega employee interviewed in the same piece, Jackson’s withdrawal from Sonic 3 resulted from the allegations around that time that he’d molested an underage boy. Sega’s official stance is that the collaboration never happened, and Jackson’s death in 2009 doesn’t seem to have motivated the company to change its story.

(I point that last part out because there was a similar mystery about Jackson’s apparent cameo in the third season of The Simpsons, in “Stark Raving Dad,” the one where Homer goes to a mental hospital. At the time, the show couldn’t outright say that Jackson voiced a character in the episode, but shortly after he died, Fox aired the episode again, which was a tacit acknowledgement. Matt Groening actually finally solidly confirmed that Jackson participated in the episode only in 2018.)

Regardless of which of the stories about Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is true, there are quite a few similarities between Michael Jackson songs and tracks in the game.

Listen to the theme to Carnival Night Zone.

And compare it to “Jam,” which was also on Jackson’s Dangerous album.

Listen to the end credits theme…

And compare it to “Stranger in Moscow,” from Jackson’s 1995 album History.

Because to this day we don’t know who composed the individual tracks on Sonic 3, the show notes for episode 55 credit Ice Cap Zone as being by an unknown composer, but listener Ryan pointed out that the song was likely composed, at least in part, by Brad Buxer, a longtime Michael Jackson collaborator but also before that a member of the early ’80s new wave band The Jetzons, which in 1982 put out an album that has a track called “Hard Times.” Here is that song.

And here’s a mashup of the two, posted on YouTube by a user named Alan Malan.

Via Twitter, I asked Malan if he needed to alter the tempo of either song in order to lay them on top of each other so perfectly, and he said he thinks he only had to slow down the Sonic track by a few beats per minute. That’s it.

Buxer played keyboards for The Jetzons. I can’t seem to find who composed The Jetzons song, but even if it wasn’t Buxer, it would have been something he’d have known and more than likely remembered when he went to work on Sonic 3. None of this is news that I am breaking, though it still seems weird to me to hear that Jetzons song and wonder if I’d consider this too to be an example of a pop song — new wave is a form of pop, after all — reconstructed for a video game.

The connection between Sega and the Jackson family neither begins nor ends with Sonic 3. I feel like we all have at the back of our heads that the video game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker exists, but have you played it? Like recently? There is an arcade bar here in L.A. called Button Mash, and it has Moonwalker, and it is insane. It has a ton of Michael’s music turned into VGM by composer Tohru Nakabayashi, and it’s not bad.

Here is his take on “Billie Jean.”

But the game is nuts because it has the players controlling multiple Michaels as you fight what looks like generic gangsters from Dick Tracy and rescue these children? Who thank Michael by name…? And that’s a little weird but not as weird as the fact that the game’s power up is Bubbles, Michael’s real-life pet chimpanzee, and touching him turns Michael into a cyborg who shoots lasers. And that was a weird sentence to write and that is also a weird sentence to read.

And then there’s Space Channel 5, a music video game developed by Sega and first released for the Dreamcast in 1999. The game’s hero is Ulala — a space reporter who looks like a certain real-life pop star, and yes, the resemblance will be something I’ll be talking about in a future episode — but the game also features Space Michael, a character who looks like and who is voiced by Michael Jackson — officially. It’s… weird.

Space Michael has a role in the sequel too, and the fact that this happened after the first spate of molestation allegations — though before the second one a few years later — makes me think less of the notion of Sega minimizing Jackson’s involvement in Sonic as a result of the scandal. This is pure speculation on my part, of course, but the original allegations ended with Jackson settling with the family of the plaintiff while denying any wrongdoing. His public image took a hit that he kind of never fully recovered from, and I feel like if Sega was concerned about bad optics, even in 1999, there would be no Space Michael in this series.

Anyway, it’s not just Michael. And though I wish I could get into LaToya or Jermaine here — did you know that Jermaine Jackson named his son Jermasty? Because he did — I am going to talk about Janet.

You may know her song “Together Again,” from the 1997 album The Velvet Rope, though if you’re like me you might think the song is called “Everywhere I Go,” as a result of the chorus that comes in at 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Big hit. Hard to not have heard if you were listening to music in the late ’90s, even if you were a strictly alt rock kid like me. In doing some research online about Michael and video game music, I ended up listening to music from a different Sonic game: In 1991, about six months after Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on the Genesis, Sega put out an 8-bit version on the Game Gear and Master System, also titled Sonic the Hedgehog. This is very confusing, BTW, Sega, and I wish you hadn’t done that. This portable Sonic does use reinterpretations of Masato Nakamura’s music from the Genesis version but also features some original tracks by Yuzo Koshiro, who’s the genius who did Streets of Rage but also ActRaiser and a lot of other stuff, to the point that it’s weird thinking of him playing second banana to anyone, but nonetheless this is the case. (He also did Super Adventure Island for the Super NES and that game’s music is so much better than you might imagine. Listen to episode 39 to hear what I’m talking about.)

In this other Sonic the Hedgehog game, the second area is called Bridge Zone and it sounds like this.

This is another variety of interaction between VGM and pop music, and one you’ve probably seen on message boards: the one where someone is like “OMG, this song rips off this other song!” and sometimes it’s the VGM track allegedly ripping off a pop tune and sometimes it’s the mainstream work of pop that is allegedly stealing from video games. But one person’s, “OMG total ripoff” is another person’s, “Well, not so fast.”

I learned how to play the piano years ago and I technically learned how to play guitar, but I’m not musically adept enough to spot the difference between an instance of direct musical influence — homage, plagiarism, whatever you want to call it in whatever case you’re looking into —  and, say, two songs that both employ a common element of music that exists beyond this one similarity. But lucky for me, I have some help in this deep dive into pop music: David Russell. You may not personally know David, but please believe me when I tell you that I’ve never met anyone who knows more about pop music, and in this case I mean general popular music, but also he knows true pop music better than anyone I’ve ever met. He also happens to be Sia’s manager — like, Sia, with the wigs, who doesn’t show her face and wants to swing on the chandelier. That Sia. And also one time I was having brunch with David, and Sia showed up, and it was really surreal. Not important. Just a story I like to tell.

Because David knows pop music on a constructional level but also knows Janet Jackson’s discography really well, I asked him what he thought. In his educated opinion, he says no, regardless of what gamers online might say, Janet’s chorus is probably similar by accident to the Sonic track. Quote: “It’s a pretty standard progression of notes, and those first two trickles down the ivories? It changes right after that. The Sonic theme stays in a midi/8-bit digital melody while Janet goes into a house-y spiritual.”

But here’s why David is cool: He knew off the top of his head that “Together Again” was written by Jimmy Jim and Terry Lewis, along with Janet herself, and he doesn’t think it’s likely that they’d be affected by Michael’s relationship with Sega.

And I also won’t argue with that. Just because Michael loved Sonic, it doesn’t mean that Janet necessarily would have ever played it, to say nothing of her songwriting team. While stranger things have happened, it could easily be true that no one involved with the creation of this song ever came across this one, not-so-very-well-known Sonic track.

But the prospect of a Janet Jackson-Sonic the Hedgehog connection made me remember something else: another time there’d been a mysterious connection between Janet and VGM. In 1999, Square released Legend of Mana for the PlayStation. It featured an amazing soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, and one of the highlights for me is the music you here in Lumina, a town full of street lamps shining down on cobblestones, where it’s always night and everyone just sleeps all day. It’s pretty dreamy. And the music fits the mood perfectly.

Here is “Moonlight City Lumina” — or “Moonlit City Roa,” if you’re going by the Japanese title — composed by the great Yoko Shimomura.

Now, as I mentioned before in a very early episode of Singing Mountain but which I’m pointing out again now, because this makes a lot more sense, context-wise, that composition should sound familiar to you if you are a Janet Jackson fan. In 2001, Janet released the album All for You, which features a track called “China Love,” also written by Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet Jackson. Have a listen.

So that’s the same song, right? And by “same song,” I mean to say that the Janet song features a loop of the Legend of Mana track, sped up a little bit and also maybe pitched up a bit too? Maybe? This is where you come in: I think I’m right on this, but maybe I’m not?  David also heard the similarity, and because he’s the best, before I could even ask, he offered to ask Jimmy Jam himself, because of course he knows Jimmy Jam, because that’s how his life works. As of the time this episode goes up, we haven’t heard back, but I will update this when and if we do.

This year, I’m planning to cover this area a lot on Singing Mountain, so I prepped over Christmas break by doing a lot of research into covers and interpolations and musical quotation and musical plagiarism and sampling, and the legal issues surrounding these forms of homage or borrowing or whatever you want to call it. I’m still doing a lot of reading, but one of the takeaways from all this is that as a result of the 1991 court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. — which pit rapper Biz Markie against the man who composed the song “Alone Again (Naturally)” because Biz Markie’s song “Alone Again” sampled Alone Again (Naturally) — if you sample something, then legally you need the OK to use it, lest you be sued like Biz Markie and lose that suit like Biz Markie.

Which is to say that if Janet Jackson’s “China Love” sampled Yoko Shimomura’s composition of Legend of Mana, then they’d have to say so in the liner notes. And they don’t. But it really, really sounds like the same music. The same bells. Right?

Well, maybe not. One alternate theory for how this apparent sample ended up in “China Love” is that it’s not a sample: Musicians came in and re-created it in the studio, which would be interpolation. But I don’t think this would explain the lack of a citation. The liner notes also credit Lee Blaske with the string arrangements, along with a bunch of people playing string instruments

I had a look at the liner notes for this album, and the album notes that four of the tracks owe debts to previously existing compositions: the title track, which samples the Italian disco band Change; “Son of a Gun,” which contains “resung elements” from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”; Truth, which contains “resung elements” from the Five Stairsteps song “Ooh Child” and finally “Someone to Call My Love,” which features “replayed elements” from the song “Ventura Highway” by the band America. I can’t imagine how bringing in musicians to replay this section of the Legend of Mana song would constitute “replayed elements” like with that America song.

There are quite a few musicians credited in the liner notes for providing music for the track, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they re-created the sample. For what it’s worth, I asked Lee Blaske, the guy credited with the string arrangements, and he said he didn’t actually remember the track, though he also noted that it’s possible that chunks of the song were excerpted from somewhere else.

The really weird thing is that Janet sampling Legend of Mana first came to attention as a result of one of those “songs that sample video games” listicles that explicitly says that the liner notes do credit Legend of Mana. The author puts it in quotes: “Contains a sample from the Square game Legend of Mana.” If you google that phrase, in quotes, there are other hits, but they seem like Japanese message boards where people have just copied and pasted the track listing for various Janet Jackson albums — in English, BTW. And the copy-and-pasted text cites all the samples, like Carly Simon and America, but also cites Legend of Mana, with that same kinda wonky phrasing, “the square game Legend of Mana.”

So what the hell is going on here?

Well, for one thing, at least on the VGM end of things, you can pay homage to a known work of pop music all you want and even admit that that’s what you’re doing, and apparently not get sued. Case in point: Another of my favorite video game composers, David Wise, discussing Bayou Boogie from Donkey Kong Country 2, which I played for my business partner back in episode 48 and she was like, “Oh, whoa, does Phil Collins know about this?”

Just for the sake of the arc of this episode, here is “Bayou Boogie.”

And here is Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”

Obviously, they are very close… though not the same, though close on purpose because when asked on Twitter about Bayou Boogie, Wise said, “No coincidence. I was trying to get the SNES to sound like the Roland CR78 that Phil Collins used for In the air tonight.”

And again that might seem like a no duh, because it’s obviously an homage and not a sample and not an interpolation, but when it comes to when you can say, “Yes, I did it on purpose” and when you can say, “No comment. Please don’t sue me,” I’m still a bit confused.

Legally speaking, if Janet’s song sampled Yoko’s music, then it should be credited as such. It isn’t. Is it an homage re-creation like what David Wise did? I don’t think so, but I’m no expert. But if no, then I can’t think of a good reason why Yoko or at least Square wouldn’t be credited, except for maybe that the collision between VGM and pop music is the wild west still, and rules don’t apply? That might seem unlikely, but don’t forget the weird circumstances around Earthbound, which came out in 1994, after that Biz Markie lawsuit. Nintendo didn’t re-release Earthbound for a very long time and a lot of people guessed that that had to do with the fact that the game’s soundtrack sampled liberally from The Beach Boys and The Beatles and a ton of other sources — listen to episode 4 if you want to hear what I’m talking about and also hear a weird personal story. Earthbound’s composers sampled from all the sources to the point that people guessed that Earthbound’s music had become legally problematic in a way that made Nintendo want to hide it from the world. We thought this for a long time, but then Nintendo surprised us in 2013 and re-released this Beatles-sampling, legal hot potato oddity and did so in more territories than got the original release.

Why? I don’t know. But maybe it has to do something with the fact that as near as I can tell, there hasn’t been a whole lot of lawsuits over sampling and appropriation of music, to and from video games. In 2004, Namco successfully sued the rapper Lil’ Flip and Sony BMG for using sound from Pac-Man in his track “Game Over.”

The suit was settled amicably in 2005, for an undisclosed sum.

That is an anticlimactic ending, I know, but it’s also not the end of this line of research. I want to conclusively find out how and why Janet Jackson came to feature what really seems to be a sample of Legend of Mana in a pop song. We’ll see how that goes, and already I have invented a dozen reasons why someone wouldn’t want to tell some dumb podcaster why he did or didn’t make a tip of the hat something they heard in a video game.

This year on Singing Mountain, I will be doing what I did last year: episodes where I’m playing music that’s all themed around a certain idea but also those Friday episodes where I give you 30 minutes of VGM without me talking too much. But I’m also going to be doing episodes about this whole mess, about the many different ways that VGM and pop music meet up. These will likely be shorter episodes, because each one will be about one of these collisions, whether that be a pop song seemingly paying homage to a piece of video game music or vice-versa, or whether it’s VGM outright sampling pop music or even if it’s one of those lame kinda-sorta-“Is it a ripoff or is it a coincidence?” things that I will see if I can debunk. This series will be everything. I have a ton of episodes lined up already. And I can’t wait to talk about a billion weird subjects that I never thought I would have gotten to on a video game music podcast.

I will say that I’m open to ideas and in particular I’m super open to instances where pop music gets absorbed (perhaps invisibly) into video games or video game music gets absorbed (perhaps invisibly) into pop music. I’m talking about instances like Ice Cap Zone, where you’d have heard it a hundred times before you realized it had roots elsewhere, and where it’s not just sampling but a wholesale reconstruction of the original melody into a new format. If you have any examples of this that you’ve been hiding in your back pocket, let me know. I collect these like Poémon.

This is an on-going research project, and one thing I’ve learned about working online is that often posting what you have so far will get the attention of other people who might be searching for similar information, and sometimes that can actually get the answer sent to you directly. As such, I will be posting a transcript of this episode on singingmoutainpod.com, because Google looks for written out words — not words spoken in audio files. For these pop music-facing episodes of Singing Mountain, you can find all the words I said plus the clips and any other relevant media, though you just listened to me say it all, but do your thing.

As always, you can listen to all previous episodes of Singing Mountain at the website or anywhere you’d normally find a podcast. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms about Singing Mountain, the easiest way to reach me is on Twitter, either at @drewgmackie or at @singmopod. You can also follow Singing Mountain on Facebook — just search Singing Mountain and then click on the one that is not a bakery — and on Instagram. Please subscribe, and if you like the show, give me a rate and review, because those are helpful for the reasons you hear on every podcast ever.

This show was written, produced and edited by me, Drew Mackie. The cover art for this series of episodes examining VGM and pop music was designed by Jude Buffum, a pixel artist whose work I really dig. You should check his stuff out at his website.

Singing Mountain is a TableCakes podcast. TableCakes is a Los Angeles-based podcast network that features some really cool shows, including two others that I host. Check them all out at tablecakes.com. If you want to support Singing Mountain or any of the other shows on the TableCakes network, do so at patreon.com/tablecakes.

I have one last track for you, and it’s another Michael Jackson hit as interpreted by the game Moonwalker, which, in all honesty, I will probably never mention again. But have you ever wanted to hear a VGM take on “Smooth Criminal”? Because here you go.

Drew Mackie