70: The Groove Is in Space: Lady Miss Kier vs. Ulala

What could the 1990 dance hit “Groove Is in the Heart” possibly have to do with video games? It’s kind of a weird story, involving the Sega series Space Channel 5 and — in the context of this episode — diversions into Herbie Hancock and the Edgar Winter Group. The fifth installment of my series on VGM and mainstream pop looks at how Sega imposed a major game over on the cult pulp icon Lady Miss Kier.

Listen to all VGM+POP episodes here.

And read the excellent, comprehensive article about the Miss Kier-Space Channel 5 lawsuit.

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

Track listing:

0:18: Groove Is in the Heart / Edwin van Santen
3:26: Groove Is in the Heart / Deee-Lite
5:56: Bring Down the Birds / Herbie Hancock
6:37: Blank TV (Ulala Support Chant) / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
8:04: Mexican Flyer / Ken Woodman and His Picadilly Brass
10:40: Pala Paya (Lounge Music) / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
13:17: Pussycat Meow / Deee-Lite
13:52: Ulala’s Dance 100 / Space Channel 5: Part Two / Naofumi Hataya, Kenichi Tokoi and Tomoya Ohtani
14:13: Mororian’s Base (Strange Path) / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
15:38: Spaceship Trapped in the Galaxy / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
16:25: Mororina the Elegant Crowd / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
19:23: Coco Tapioca, the Huge Dancer / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi
23:03: Evila: Attack of the Perfect Reporter / Space Channel 5 / Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi

Show Notes:

Hello and welcome to the fifth installment of Singing Mountain’s series that looks into the connections between pop music and video game music. So far, almost every instance of interaction between the two has been pop music, or mainstream music, seemingly borrowing from VGM and not saying thank you — not apparently, anyway. But today’s example is different. In this case, it is the video game industry that seems to have come out on top — and at the expense of cult pop icon. And also it may answer a question I’ve been asking throughout this series, that being, “If this thing is so suspiciously close to this other thing, why wasn’t there a lawsuit?”

This is the story about Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite and Ulala from Space Channel 5.

“Who is Lady Miss Kier?” you may be asking, You almost certainly have heard her most famous song even if you do not recognize her name. As frontwoman for the band Deee-Lite, Lady Miss Kier is the woman singing the song you heard in Commodore 64 demo form in the intro to this episode: “Groove Is in the Heart.” This song was a smash hit in 1990, charting throughout Europe and Australia and New Zealand and Canada, reaching as high as number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and number one on Billboard’s U.S. dance charts.

Here is a little bit of that song, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about.

It’s one of those songs that kind of never went away, because it’s catchy as hell but also because there’s a certain timelessness to it. Kind of in the way that The B-52s’ “Love Shack” came out in 1989 but doesn’t really sound like an 80s song or 90s song. It just is — brilliantly upbeat and eminently danceable. Also I’m going to make the broad assumption that since 1990 there has never been a gay pride event where “Groove Is in the Heart” has not been played. It’s anthemic.

I should say that “Groove Is in the Heart” is not just Lady Miss Kier’s alone. The songwriting credits go to her, her bandmates Towa Tei and DJ Dmitry and also Jonathan Davis and… Herbie Hancock, actually. “Groove Is in the Heart” happens to be a song comprised of many samples, including Hancock’s “Bring Down the Birds,” which was composed for the 1966 Michael Antonioni movie Blow Up, for which Hancock did the soundtrack.

If you know “Groove Is in the Heart” it is really weird to hear that brief familiar bit before it goes into something else. I can only compare it to growing up watching those commercials for Time Life Music “Awesome 80s” compilations and thinking that the chorus of “Sunglasses at Night” should go directly into the chorus of “I’m So Excited” and then “Karma Chameleon,” and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, that sentence will make zero sense.

Yes, I know this is a video game podcast. I’m getting there.

Dee-Lite wasn’t exactly a one-hit wonder, though “Groove Is in the Heart” is probably the one song most people would know. The band split up in 1994, and everyone pursued their artistic ambitions individually. I’ll get back to Lady Miss Kier Shortly.

It was in December 1999 that Sega released Space Channel 5 for the Dreamcast. This was a music and rhythm game in which the player has to press buttons in the proper sequence — and along with the beat of the music — in order to make the lead character dance. The lead character is literally a news reporter in outer space, BTW. The game title comes from the network she words for, Space Channel 5. I’ve mentioned this series before, actually. In the first episode about pop music and VGM, this came up because the game features a version of Michael Jackson called Space Michael, and yeah, by the way, if you’re wondering if I regret making the first episode in this series about Michael Jackson, I really do. Can’t change that now.

Musically, Space Channel 5 is interesting. Though it features music composed by Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi, its main theme is not VGM: It’s a song called “Mexican Flyer,” composed by Ken Woodman and performed by Ken Woodman and His Piccadilly Brass on the 1966 album That’s Nice. If it makes you think of Cowboy Bebop a little bit, you’re not alone.

For the purposes of this episode, I think it’s worth pointing out that Sega made a deliberate effort to incorporate non-VGM music elements into Space Channel 5, like “Mexican Flyer” and like Space Michael.

Apparently neither Sega nor Lady Miss Kier dispute the fact that in July 2000, a representative of Sega reached out to her. The exact content of that conversation, however, varies according to what account you read. According to a 2006 appeals court ruling, Sega asked if she would let the company use “Groove Is in the Heart” to advertise Space Channel 5 in England and possibly Europe.

According to Kier herself, and as reported in a Reuters news story about the case, Sega offered Kier $16,000 to use her name, image and songs. In either case, Kier said no. But when she saw footage of the game itself, she suspected that Sega had been more than a little inspired by her onstage persona in creating the game’s protagonist, Ulala, to the point that she filed suit in 2003, saying that Sega was using her likeness without her permission. And thus there is the law case Kierin KIRBY v. SEGA OF AMERICA, INC. According to that Reuters report, Kier sought $750,000 in damages. “The similarities and likenesses are so close that viewers, listeners, and consumers were and are confused or likely to become confused between Ulala and plaintiff.”

(Kieren is Miss Kier’s real first name. Her full name is Kieren Magenta Kirby, and I kind of feel giving a kid a name like that means they have to grow up to be a pop star.)

So since we are talking about names, what do we make of the space reporter’s name, Ulala? According to Sega, that name comes from the Japanese given name Urara, modified to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. According to Miss Kier, “ooh la la” is something of a catchphrase for her. In fact, the music video for “Groove Is in the Heart” opens with her saying that, along with some… pseudo-French, if that makes sense.

And also… “meow,” like the cat noise, which Kier intones in “Pussycat Meow,” which is a track on Dee-Lite’s 1992 album Infinity Within.

Ulala also meows in the game, as part of the 100 Stage Dance Battle in Space Channel 5: Part 2, where typical commands like “chu” and “hey” get swapped out for new ones, like “woof” or “meow” or…. “Toyota.” This game is really weird.

It’s less conducive to good audio, but the suit also alleges that Ulala bites Kier’s style, from a general fusion of 60s-retro and futuristic aesthetics to pink hair worn in pigtails or page boy flips to platform shoes worn with knee socks to astronaut helmets to blue backpacks to pleated cheerleader skirts to midriff-baring shirts emblazoned with a letter, number or word. All of which Ulala does wear.

Sega, however, said this just wasn’t a case of copycat-ism — that not only had the people responsible for developing the game been unaware of Kier but also that Ulala and Space Channel 5 were developed between 1997 and 1999, long before any representative of Sega reached out to Kier.

The lawsuit made news when it was filed, and then it did again three years later, when it was reported on that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant had ruled in Sega’s favor and then the California Court of Appeals upheld that decision, saying that Space Channel 5 “contained sufficient expressive content to constitute a ‘transformative work’ under the test articulated by the Supreme Court,” and that Ulala was “more than a mere likeness or literal depiction of Kier.” It’s worth noting that in his initial ruling, Chalfant didn’t say that Ulala was completely dissimilar to Kier. He actually said there was a similarity, but Sega had added enough to make Ulala different to meet the standard of being “transformative.”

Interestingly enough among the cases cited as precedent was 2003’s Winter v. DC Comics. Edgar and Johnny Winter — of the Edgar Winter Group, known for the song “Free Ride” but also known for being the albino-looking dudes Homer Simpson runs over in the “Treehouse of Horror” segment “The Homega Man” — sued DC Comics saying two characters in a Jonah Hex story, worm-human hybrids Edgar and Johnny Autumn, misappropriated their likenesses. DC Comics won.  

That loss meant a significant financial hit for Kier, because in California, being the plaintiff in a lawsuit such as this one means you have to pay the defendant's legal fees. Sega, being a large international company, spent a lot of money on this case. In total? $763,000. That sum was shortly thereafter brought down to $608,000 which… even for an artist of some renown is still maybe a meaningless difference. It’s like the difference between a bajillion and gazillion dollars.

So I guess that brings us to an obvious question: Should Lady Miss Kier have sued?

Obviously not, because she lost. But let’s say you are her friend, back in 2003, and she’s presenting you with this evidence, asking if you thought, in your non-professional-lawyer capacity, she’d have a chance if she sued? I’m not sure it’s so out-of-left field. It’s just hard to prove.

I do think there’s a similarity between her and Ulala in terms of costume and demeanor and even some catchphrase, though if you look at certain music scenes back in the mid- to late ’90s, you would have seen a lot of examples of that general style. I don’t really get Sega’s explanation of changing the character’s name from Urara to Ulala, because the former isn’t any harder or easier to pronounce for English-speakers. I think it’s maybe more telling that game draws from the world of music outside the world of video game music, with Space Michael and that intro theme song.

In reading about the case, I found a really good summary of it that at one point mentions how... liberal borrowing was very common back in an earlier age of video gaming. For example, Metal Gear’s Solid Snake seems like he’s more than a little inspired by Snake Plisskin, Kurt Russell’s character from Escape from New York. I mean, they are both named Snake. And more than a few elements from another Konami game, Snatcher, seem to be inspired by Blade Runner. The hero even looks like Harrison Ford’s character in that movie. In fact, you can find online collections online of old school video game box art that blatantly rips off movies of similar vintage.

However, they’re not just rip offs, that Sega-16 article points out. Here’s the difference, directly quoting it: “The thing to keep in mind here is that while [Metal Gear creator Hideo] Kojima may have taken direct inspiration from existing works, he ultimately created something original.” And I’m inclined to think that’s the case with Sega. And that may also be the case for the non-coincidental similarities between mainstream music and video game music that I would have imagined resulted in a lawsuit but didn’t, maybe because the standard for infringement is a lot higher than I would have guessed.

For what it’s worth, the story of Sega and Lady Kier doesn’t end with the lawsuit, because “Groove Is in the Heart” was included in the 2008 Wii version of Samba de Amigo, another Sega-created music and rhythm game. And the stage in which it’s heard in? It features Ulala. So how about that?

One more thing before I’m done. I live in a part of Los Angeles where I’m walking distance from the mausoleum containing the body of Michael Jackson. I always thought it was weird to pass over the bridge that takes me over Highway 5 and the L.A. River and see that giant, Zelda temple-looking building on the hill and think about how that’s where the King of Pop was laid to rest. I feel even weirder about it in the wake of that recent HBO documentary. You maybe heard that The Simpsons pulled its Michael Jackson episode from syndication following the producers’ realization that it kind of served as… Michael Jackson propaganda that made them feel a little complicit. For similar reasons, it’s extra gross to think about the Sega game Moonwalker, which has Michael defeating bad guys in an effort to rescue imperiled little kids. I just wanted to retroactively revoke my endorsement of that game, not that it means anything. But yeah, again, I do wish I’d started this series talking about anyone else.

Based on the numbers, it looks like some people are into Singing Mountain just for this VGM meets pop music episodes, so to make it easier to find them, I’m putting them on one dedicated page.

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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.

Special thanks to Amy Smith is the person who cleans up this text after it goes on the website — also so I look less stupid. If you’re in need of a copy editor, hit her up on Twitter.

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 final track. Though I’ve been using the original Space Channel 5 OST as background music for this episode, I’ve mostly been talking about non VGM music, which does the game a disservice because the music is actually quite good. So I’m going to close out by giving one track a chance to stand on its own. Here is Attack of the Perfect Reporter, from the original Space Channel 5, composed by Naofumi Hataya and Kenichi Tokoi.

Drew Mackie