If, like me, you happened to be working for Shopko in the late 1990s, you would have, by default, spent a lot of time with the satellite radio station they have piped into their stores. Lucky for me, the station was, in fact, a lot more interesting than we normally think piped-in retail music would be. It was while auditing the signage for the weekly ads on Sunday mornings that I was first introduced to Beth Orton and songs from Air’s Moon Safari album. And this radio station was just as repetitive as any normal Top 40 station, so, for awhile there, songs like World Party’s “She’s the One” and Del Amitri’s “Not Where It’s At” were as familiar to me as TLC and Britney Spears would have been. The sad thing was that there was no one announcing the songs and no ready way to know really what they were or who was singing them.Sometimes, I was already familiar with the song – I had that World Party album, for instance – but I was just stunned to be hearing it broadcast in a public place. Sometimes, I would find out what songs were by accident. Like, I’d been admiring Collective Soul’s song “Run” for months without knowing what it was – and then it turned up at the end of Varsity Blues! Huzzah! Other times, I had a guess – that “Oh, How the Days Go By” song certainly sounded like Vanessa Williams – that I could confirm on cdnow. (Remember cdnow?) In some extreme cases, I would try to memorize a few distinctive couplets – for instance “so gather around, see what the day brings, see what makes you laugh, see what makes you sing” – and plug it into whatever pre-Google search engine I happened to be using to discover that, hey, that’s the band Brad, the song’s called “The Day Brings”, and it’s on the album Interiors, which, holy wow, Shopko carries!
But there was one song that got away. I never figured it out. And I loved it. Urrrrgh. The problem was that it sounded nothing like anybody I knew. Which was not to say that it sounded especially distinctive – in fact, it sounded like it could have been just about anybody. Challenging me further, the verses, at least from the sales floor of a discount retail store during business hours, were indecipherable to me, sung as they were in an accented croon that sounded a little like Bryan Ferry. Moreover, the chorus was mostly sung in French, and the only words I recognized were “C’est la Vie”. Approaching that pre-Google search engine with only a potential title and the sure knowledge that I was not looking for a Robbie Nevil song, I came back empty-handed.
I stopped by Shopko recently while killing a little time over a lunch hour only to hear the song still being piped in over their speakers. The frustration came crashing back to me. How could it be that I’ve still not figured this song out? I probably looked a little silly as I tried to isolate myself in one of the less trafficked areas of the store to try to listen closely to what was being sung. I did catch the second line of the chorus – something like “rely on the heart” – but I wasn’t sure if was just mis-hearing a French lyric and “translating” it phonetically. But it was something. And as it turns out, it was enough. Typing it into Google, I came back with dozens of results identifying the lyric as an excerpt from the song “C’est la Vie” by the German synth-pop group Hubert Kah. Switching over to YouTube, I found a video for it too! And watching it, it was like meeting a long-time internet buddy in person for the first time: an old friend whose name I was just now learning.
Hubert Kah “C’est La Vie” (1996)
Digging a little further, I found that Hubert Kah actually scored their biggest successes with an edgy new wave, New Romantic sound in the early 80s with songs like “Rosemarie” and “Sternenhimmel”. Later in the decade, the group started releasing English language singles and even managed to chart four of them on the U.S. dance charts between 1987 and 1990. Meanwhile, lead singer Hubert Kemmler developed songwriting and producing associations with the likes of Michael Cretu, Camouflage and Peter Schilling before he was sidelined by a struggle with depression. “C’est la Vie”, featuring the vocals of Susanne Kemmler, was the group’s comeback single following a five year hiatus. How the hell the song ever found its way into the aisles of the Monroe, Wisconsin Shopko store remains a sweet, sweet mystery.