'Virtual Insanity' At 20: Did the Internet Kill the Music Video Star?

The music video is dead; long live the music video -- as long as by "music video" you mean visual album.

That was one (admittedly clunky) proclamation that hung in the air last week, as MTV reported dismal ratings for its big annual celebration of music set to film and scripted celebrity drama set to aggressively sponsored content starring DJ Khaled and Nikes and Snapchat. Are those things still called commercials? Let’s call them commercials.

Of course, you don’t have to be an industry insider to understand why the Video Music Awards, an exaltation of the year’s best stand-alone music videos and a onetime cash cow for the cable network, no longer constitute must-see TV. Sure, lots more people are watching via the internet. But our collective ambivalence toward the music video as a medium -- setting aside its place as a unit in the art film/visual album, we'll get to that in a moment -- is bigger than format. Broadly speaking, it's one arm of the story about the splintering death of the monoculture at the hands of the internet, in all its instantly gratifying, personally curated glory.

Whether you view this as awesome or sad or both probably depends on the year you were born. But it's undeniable: when most people are carrying a powerful, fully customizable computer around in their pockets, the idea of 13-year-olds rushing home from school to catch their favorite videos on TRL -- because that was the only way to see them -- sounds as endearingly sepia-toned as suburban families gathering around the radio for the next installment of Hopalong Cassidy.

Pause for a moment, if you will, and watch the music video for Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," which was released 20 years ago this month. Go on. If you're at work, find some headphones. Watch it start to finish.

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"Virtual Insanity" won Best Video at the VMAs in 1997, beating out the videos for Beck's "The New Pollution," Nine Inch Nails' "The Perfect Drug," No Doubt's "Don't Speak," and Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me." (Which: what. She's a babe, but still.)

Perhaps more memorably, if you are a person who was between the ages of, say, eight and 30 in 1996, it was the video that launched a thousand awed conversations. Google was quietly being birthed by young dorks at Stanford in 1996, but regular people sure didn't have it yet. So we asked each other questions instead: How did they make this thing? How did it look so cool? What was up with the hat? 

Now, you can look up 20 years of repeated, detailed explanations for the (still impressive) single-shot trickery. Director Jonathan Glazer has basically spent his entire life explaining how he made this music video. He should probably just print business cards with a paragraph about it on the back and hand them out to everyone he meets.

But it's not just an understanding of the analog magic that makes this video so compelling, such a charmer, 20 years down the line. What is it that makes "Virtual Insanity" so watchable?

It's stark and minimalist without feeling cold, yes. It's intimate -- a cousin to Hype Williams' signature fish-eye, perhaps, but sillier, less self-consciously stylish. There's Jay Kay's delightfully playful way of moving, a Beck-meets-The Jetsons update on the moonwalk. And then there's the fact that he's literally dancing over a rapidly changing landscape as he sings about misgivings with an uncertain, tech-centric future.

Per the song's lyrics, we hear concerns that a preoccupation with newfangled toys and virtual escapism is at odds with humans doing right by each other (keep in mind most Americans didn't even have the internet in their homes in 1996). Per the video, it's up to Jay to move deftly, gracefully enough to make way for the inevitable shifts in the furniture -- to maintain some humanity and humor among the right angles and bright, unthinking lights. Altogether, it's knowing, it's wry, and it's completely of its time: hopeful, but wary about what's to come. As though the medium of the music video itself has become sentient, prescient, and is attempting to shout through the screen about what lies ahead.

What lay ahead, in 1996, was a massive shift in the way we consume music, and videos had to follow suit. Today, "Virtual Insanity" might be released on YouTube, and we would call it a viral video; we know, because OK Go followed the breadcrumbs it left behind -- "make videos people want to talk about and the fascination will transfer to your music" -- to great success. (I would argue that while that band's videos are technically impressive, "Virtual Insanity" holds up better as it ages partially because it's a great song and partially because the video is in service of its message, whereas OK Go videos seem to be 90 percent unrelated yet cool-looking gimmicks, but whatever. People love 'em, understandably.)

Twenty years later, we don't need MTV to get our music videos anymore. We don't need nobody, right guys?

Except when we kind of do: the market tells us that as one type of corporation-dictated scarcity is eliminated, new ones must take its place (that is, if anyone is going to make any money). Enter Beyoncé's Lemonade, a visual album that will go down in the pop culture textbooks as an archetype for how "big" records can still be sold to a streaming-happy public -- that is, with a (somewhat disingenuous) element of surprise; after a handful of carefully timed teasers for viewers to parse; and as a multimedia, cross-genre rollout on at least two different platforms defined by varying degrees of exclusivity, in her case HBO and Tidal. (Pro tip for would-be superstars: bonus $$$ for literally owning one of those platforms.)

Distribution aside, there's obviously no shortage of expensive, highly skilled filmmaking going on in Lemonade. It's a beautiful collection of videos, sweeping in scope yet raw and urgent throughout. That said, 20 years after we were all kids sitting around at lunch asking each other Did you see that new crazy music video with the floor moving?! and Do you know how they did it?, I'd argue the core magnet that draws people in about Lemonade is the same simple and thoroughly human sense of wonder: "Hold Up," which rightfully won 2016's Video of the Year, is essentially Did you see her smash up those cars with that baseball bat?! (Update: a reader has pointed out that "Hold Up" did not win Video of the Year. It won Best Female Video. "Formation" won Video of the Year.)

It helps, of course, that she's one of the most beautiful women in the world, and that she's essentially baring her soul -- ugly parts and all. It's joyful, it's liberating, it feels like we're trespassing. Watch her break that first window and tell me it doesn't release a primal, childlike kind of glee you generally keep pretty buried, maybe by necessity, in adult life.

No one actually knows what's next in the evolution of the music video, or of music consumption, for that matter. It's safe to say that the country's collective attention will never be quite so easy to focus as it was when "Virtual Insanity" had us hooked. On balance, I'm of the opinion that that's probably a good thing.

But some things don't change. A good music video thrills by eliminating the distance between the artist and his or her audience. It removes our power to resist entering the artist's world, and then it surprises us with our own ability to still be surprised by what's there. And if there's an argument for scarcity, that's maybe where it lives: when we don't have that world at our fingertips, when we're not able to conjure that portal nor control when we get to tumble down it, it retains some mysticism, some sense of being unknowable. When we can't Google the reasons behind the magic, the act of being a music fan is just that much more of a thrill ride.

Call it nostalgia for simpler times, sure. But in some ways, I think we're all still that 13-year-old kid sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of MTV, waiting for the split-second rush we get from the start of our favorite video -- from the sight of Jay Kay on one foot, just before the first piano notes hit, as he glides inexplicably toward us to prophesize about the weird, terrifying, beautiful technological future that awaits.

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