The song, ‘Scream’, which Michael Jackson performed, featuring his sister, Janet, plays on the idea of someone being so bored or frustrated that they want to scream. The video carries this idea on by showing the two in a futuristic setting which draws on dystopian traditions to explain the pair’s boredom. The song itself mirrors the visual presentation of the accompanying video through its use of electronically-altered screams and shouting. The song and its video reflect Michael Jackson’s persona through its relation to teenage and childish boredom where children are literally so bored that they scream and cause trouble. We know from media coverage of Jackson that he was very child-like in his mannerisms and outlook on life, meaning that with this song featuring latterly in his career, he could have been bored with the music industry and the politics that it’s tied up in. This essay will seek to explore the ideas and themes in the music video for Scream and discuss its context in terms of Jackson’s career, his persona and also its meaning.
The opening lyrics to the song are: “Tired of injustice. Tired of the schemes. The Lies are disgusting so what does it mean?” (Harris et al.). Immediately, we are presented with the idea that the speaker is bored and tired of something which he feels to be unjust and immoral. Jackson is literally telling us that he’s frustrated. Later on, Janet Jackson clarifies: “You’re sellin’ out souls but I care about mine” (Harris et al.) she sings. Clearly, this is linked to business and, more likely, the music business which both Michael and Janet had been involved with since early childhood. The song, Scream, was released later in Jackson’s career (May 1995) and so it is fair to assume that Jackson was, by this time, well-versed in the machinery behind the music industry’s glossy exterior and the tabloid press which accompanies them. The song is his expression of his frustration at the lies and deception that accompany his successful career. The video demonstrates this frustration more completely than the lyrics of the song do; throughout the entire video, Michael and Janet are seen to be angry and aggressive with facial expressions and violent, juddering dance moves designed to demonstrate their anger.
The song is more closely identified with rock than pop or R’n’B as Jackson is usually more closely associated with. This is because it is louder, more aggressive and has a fast tempo and a bass-driven beat. Its influences are arguably quite punk-like as we see Michael and Janet Jackson aggressively ‘attack’ the system and shout about how unfair it can be. The song was featured on the ‘Future’ disk of Jackson’s seminal ‘HIStory’ collection and was classified as one of the ‘HIStory Continues’ songs (Michael Jackson). These songs saw a much darker side to Jackson’s song writing and saw him addressing political and social issues. In Scream, Jackson is attacking the ‘machine’ of the music industry and the tabloid press. It is not out of place on the HIStory album and other songs such as They Don’t Really Care About Us also showed him to voice how the system disregards individuals, particularly those who are young people. Jackson himself stated: “The song in fact is about the pain or prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems” (Weinraub). The context of Scream makes it clear that Jackson’s life was at a point where he felt the need to express his hatred of these problems and had decided to do so here.
The music video itself was directed by Mark Romanek who, with the exception of three feature length films, is essentially a career music video director. He has a number of rock associations such as directing videos for Keith Richards, Teenage Fanclub, Lenny Kravitz and David Bowie, prior to the shoot for Scream. In 1994, the year before filming began for Scream, Romanek directed the video for Nine Inch Nail’s song ‘Closer’ which has a similarly subversive sound to Scream. It is easy to see why the choice was made; to make sure that Scream was given the gritty overture it deserved. Romanek was also left to create the set for Scream and came up with a spaceship style setting. Throughout the video, Michael and Janet are seen floating in zero-gravity, playing a space-age version of Squash (where they aggressively smash the ball around), and walking up and down corridors – in short, they are leaving Earth and are in an environment where they can blow off some steam, away from the prying eyes of the press.
The frustration that Jackson felt towards the industry and the press was strongly rooted in the problems he experienced in 1993 following accusations of sexual abuse towards children, something which the singer strenuously denied until his death (BBC News). Understandably, Jackson felt angry about these accusations and his relationship with the press suffered significantly as a result. This anger is seen through the Scream video and Jackson repeatedly screams and pulls aggressive faces directly into the camera throughout. However, Jackson always vehemently denied the accusations and stated that he was “confident the police department will conduct a fair and thorough investigation and that the result will demonstrate that there was no wrong doing on my part” (BBC News), demonstrating his transparency in a bid to clear his name. One analyst of Jackson’s career wrote, “The face we see at the end of Scream is the image he wanted for that shot That haggard, somewhat alien face is precisely what he wanted us to see, and the message of that face was more important to him than appearing attractive to us.” (Stillwater 183). The message being that the accusations and the endless hounding from the press had left him feeling tired, frustrated and like he wants to, quite literally, scream.
The video utilises various dystopian traditions which seems prudent given how his idealised world had fallen apart somewhat, at this point, much like it does in the dystopian novels and films. The futuristic elements suggest a world which is far off in the future with advanced technology and so on, but the video being shot in black and white manages to bring it all back to Earth and its stunted, restricted views of life. Equally, the video being shot in black and white shows the contrast between truth and lies, which Jackson was also arguing the case for at this point. The cinematic atmosphere is cleverly used to bring Jackson and Romanek’s vision to life: the video is recorded as being the most expensive music video ever made with a budget of $7 Million and is recalled by Romanek as being one of his more memorable jobs (Tewksbury). The sheer scale of the video (and its budget) meant that the video has a huge visual effect on the viewer as they are blasted by the huge scale of the production. Almost as is Jackson is trying to say ‘you can throw what you like at me but I still have the power to create this titanic song.’
In short, this video is designed to emulate the anger and frustration which Jackson felt towards the press and the industry at this stage of his career and life. The accusations of child abuse rocked his world and devastated him to his very soul and this song is designed to demonstrate that. The video is massive, on every level, and features Michael and Janet throwing themselves around a spaceship, in an aggressive manner, reminiscent of an asylum patient in a padded cell – the insanity of the situation was clearly not lost on Jackson. It is rockier than most of Jackson’s music and features on an album littered with songs that have political and social messages. In short, it appears to reflect a time when Jackson was becoming jaded with the world around him and, more specifically, the industry he was a part of. The volume, the anger, the erratic nature of the music and images, all imply a man who had been made to feel like screaming by a world who had suddenly turned on him and was baying for blood. The video is dramatic, over the top and extremely Michael Jackson, a man renowned for his epic music videos, but this one is laden with a clear message: back off and leave me alone.
“1993: Michael Jackson Accused of Child Abuse.” BBC. BBC News. N.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.
“In New Lyrics, Jackson Uses Slurs.” Weinraub, Bernard. The New York Times. June 15, 1995. Web. 4 Dec. 2012
“Mark Romanek: 'Never Let Me Go' Director On His Music Video Career.” Tewksbury, Drew. The Record. Sept. 16, 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2012
“MTV Yearbook 1995.” MTV. MTV. N.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012
Harris et al. “Scream.” HIStory. Epic. 1995.
Stillwater, Willa. M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance. Self-published. 2011. Ebook.