Tim Tan Huynh

Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity”

19 Aug 2016 — This music video endures the test of time because of its visual trickery. The minimalist set and the improvised dancing are memorable, too. The song turns 20 today, but its message never grows old.

Jonathan Glazer directed this music video; he later directed the “Surfer” commercial. I don’t know how much credit goes to Glazer for the concept and execution of “Virtual Insanity,” but I do know the secret behind the presumably moving floor. Essentially, the stand-alone set is being moved by people while the camera is fixed to a wall. The floor has a uniform appearance, so the viewer has no visual reference to recognize that the floor is fixed.

I was mind-boggled when I first saw the video, like so many other people. However, Glazer was explaining the trickery while the video was everywhere, a year after the song was released as a single in the UK. The video won four awards at the MTV Video Music Awards, when award shows were relevant, and it was cast in proverbial bronze when it got Pop-Up Video treatment. Most of my knowledge about this video comes from those pop-ups.

Jay Kay, not Jamiroquai, is the star; the latter is the band of which the former is the lead singer and one the songwriters. The guys who look like orderlies are other members of Jamiroquai, though Kay is naturally at the forefront throughout the video. His dancing looks fun to do, and his singing fits the jazzy melody. I can hear a resemblance to Stevie Wonder, but I think that the “soundalike” label is too much.

The song and video are ahead of its time. The 2001-esque set, digitally-added creatures, sharp-cornered furniture, and casual streetwear (minus the Dr Seuss hat) don’t seem outdated, 20 years later. The jazz-funk sound wouldn’t be out of place among the pop and rap songs that dominate today’s charts. The comments on the official YouTube page show that a new generation has been awed by the video.

For me, it’s a reminder of the brief British Invasion from 1995 to 1998. Oasis and the Spice Girls were hugely successful; Bush, Radiohead, and The Verve had breakthrough albums; and Britpop (Blur, Pulp), trip-hop (Massive Attack, Portishead), and electronica (The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy) from the UK had plenty of airtime. Jamiroquai has never been a household name like some of these British acts, but they’ve sold 20 to 40 million albums.

“Virtual Insanity” bridges two periods in pop culture. It has the grimy filter of neo-noir movies in the mid-90s as well as the grey-white palette of Jonathan Ive designs in the early 2000s. It has dire lyrics that reflect the dystopian fear of the angsty decade as well as upbeat music that suits the trendy optimism of the countdown years. It exists between the slow fade of alt rock and the impending rise of former Mouseketeer pop princesses and Lou Pearlman boy bands.

Lyrically, the song indicts / laments our unchecked advances in technology. I agree with the song’s message because I’m something of a Luddite. I’m not excited for, or impressed by, wearable technology, flying drones, VR gaming, or even self-driving cars. I understand their appeal, but I’m always wary of too much change too soon. Technology isn’t inherently good or bad, but it’s never perfect and neither are individual and collective people who use it.

The lyrics also allude to scenarios of technology going too far, like prenatal genetic screening and artificially intelligent entities. Kay sings about a world in which “every mother can choose the color of her child” and “we all live underground.” These scenarios might only be in science fiction like A Brave New World and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but one person can pave a path of darkness for others to follow.

I hope that in 20 years this music video will be more of a clever novelty than an accurate commentary or a sobering prophecy.