FEATURE: The Thrill of the Scream! Michael Jackson at Sixty: The Mind-Blowing Sound and Vision of Sibling Unity




The Thrill of the Scream!


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson is presented with a GRAMMY Legend Award by younger sister Janet Jackson at The 35th Annual GRAMMY Awards/PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Mazur  

Michael Jackson at Sixty: The Mind-Blowing Sound and Vision of Sibling Unity


THAT title might be misleading…



and the reason why I have not included a shot from the video as the main image is that they (images online) are all grainy, blurred or bad-quality! I have included an outtake/shot from it but, for the most part, I wanted to highlight one special moment from Michael Jackson’s career. I have talked about his music videos and legacy; what he means to me and how he managed to transform music. Whilst Bad is my favourite album from him and Remember the Time (from Dangerous) is my choice Jacko cut; I have so much interest and fascination for Scream. It was the lead single from his 1995 album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1. The single, actually, was a double A-side – the other song included was Childhood. Scream is cited as an aggressive song that kicks out at the tabloid press. Whilst Janet Jackson was not experiencing the same sort of attention and hassle as her brother; there is a unified anger at the nature of the press and celebrity. Recorded between the Hit Factory, New York and Flyte Tyme Studios in Edina, Minnesota between October and December 1994; Scream seems to be the clash of siblings at very different points in their career. Janet has released janet. In 1993 and songs like That’s the Way Love Goes proved to be a commercial smash.


IN THIS PHOTO: Janet Jackson in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Demarchelier

There was a four-year wait until The Velvet Rope was released and, actually, that record was released after she recovered from an emotional breakdown! It seemed press intrusion, personal problems and pressures contributed and got too much. Michael, on the other hand, faced allegations of child abuse in 1993 and it seemed, for both artists, Scream was an expression of release and accusation – both coming from very different places. If Michael is aiming more at the press and being wrongfully accused; Janet’s aggression seems more personal and inward-looking. Maybe I am wrong...but I can hear nuances in their vocal performances that lead me to believe they approached the song from different angles. I said the title of this article is misleading because, whilst the finished product is siblings at their finest; smashing a song and creating something incredible; there was a bit of tension in the studio and competitiveness – I shall come to that later. The $7 million music video – which I shall address – was the most-expensive video ever at the time and, in 2018, still holds that title!

Scream’s video won three MTV Video Music Awards and the Grammy for Best Music Video. What I love about the song itself is the way Michael and Janet blend. If it was pitched as a Michael Jackson single and the lead-off cut from a new album; you cannot say he steals the show! I am writing to celebrate Michael Jackson’s sixtieth birthday but, for me, Janet’s vocals and input help tip the song over the edge! She brings a balance of warmth and tension that gives the song a palpable rollercoaster feel. Blending with Michael and working alongside him closely; you never feel like these are siblings recording different songs: both are on the same page and determined to send out a big middle-finger to the media! Michael Jackson had a difficult relationship with the press that dated back to the 1980s. What with his changing appearance and his controversial videos; he was courting bad publicity and it seemed, by 1994/1995, it has reached boiling-point! The press claimed Michael was slowing his ageing process by sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and bought a pet chimp, Bubbles. Today, he would have been ripped by social media and I can only imagine how he would have dealt with the abuse. The man, in essence, was being himself and was fed up with the hounding he got – 1989’s music video for Leave Me Alone (from Bad) was a definite shot against accusation and falsehoods. By 1993, Jackson was having bad images of himself in the press – his altering and radical appetence – and he was getting his balls kicked at every opportunity!


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael and Janet Jackson during the filming of the Scream video/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Taking Valium, Xanax and Ativan to cope with the stress; his health was deteriorating and his weight was a worrying thing to see – a very frail man who, once, was beaming and confident. Michael went to rehab and the media’s lack of sympathy and cruel headlines added to that pressure and upset. One can only imagine, as I shall investigate, what his mind was like when he stepped into the studio with Janet to record Scream – a mantra and bellicose mandate that unleashes all the pain and withheld words that he could aim at his tormentors! Critics were impressed by Scream and noted it improved on Jam’s slamming beats – and much of the material from Michael’s 1991 album, Dangerous. Around 1994/1995, even though he was the subject of press scrutiny; Michael was recording a lot and released singles like Earth Song and They Don’t Care About Us. The refrain of “Stop pressurin’ me!” compelled critics and seemed, for both Michael and Janet, to be them at their most alive and angered. The bite and spit both artists display throughout the song staggered journalists and was a big hit. In 1995, Scream’s eleven MTV Music Video Award Nominations was a record and the video has been listed by many critics as one of the best ever.


IN THIS PHOTO: Janet and Michael Jackson in a shot from Scream/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Michael was very happy with the results and stated he had worked very hard on the song and video. The creative influence of the song extended to No Scrubs (TLC) and I’m Out (Ciara). Whilst not on the same financial scale; the futuristic look was quite new to Pop and it opened creative doors for artists. In September 2009, a few months after Michael died; Janet performed the song as part of a medley tribute to her brother. I feel both artists would have liked to have performed more together and the fact Scream has such a legacy and influence makes me wonder what we could have seen if more Michael and Janet songs came together! So, then…what was the actual recording like? I have quoted from this article before but it is worth noting again. Jimmy Jam, Scream’s producer, recalls memories from the recording of the song:

When Michael went into the studio, the idea was that he was going to sing it first and then Janet would go in and sing after him,” Jam recalled. “So Janet’s sitting there, me and Terry are sitting there, and Michael goes in. Before he sings, he’s just real calm and quiet, 'Can you turn my headphones up a little bit?' Then all of a sudden the music comes on and he starts dancing around the room, hitting all his signature moves. When it was over, I swear to God, it was just silence in the room. He said, 'How was that?' We’re like, 'Yeah, that sounded really good.'” This caused a bit of problem for Janet who had planned to follow him into the booth to record her vocals. Instead she decided she'd do her vocal later in Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' Minneapolis studio, away from her brother. “So we go to Minneapolis with Janet, where she does a great job on her vocal,” Jam continued. “We send it to Michael, he goes, 'Wow, Janet sounds great. Where did she record that vocal?' I said it was in Minneapolis. 'I’m coming to Minneapolis.' So Michael comes to Minneapolis to re-record his vocal, and it was a real glimpse into his competitive nature. It didn’t even matter that it was his sister.” According to Jam, 90 per cent of Michael's vocals on the finished version was taken from that original New York session”.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

If there was some rivalry and healthy competition in the studio; it was all loving and, to be fair, it was Michael being himself! It was nothing against his sister: the man has that reputation and legacy and wanted to make sure the song was an emphatic and career-reviving shot! He wanted to make sure this not only got him back on the upper rungs of the Pop ladder – not that he had really slipped! – but it would shut the press up and let them know what was on his mind. Janet was coming from a similar place. She was an artist under the microscope and growing in popularity. She was gaining big respect and, with that, comparisons to Michael and another level of pressure. The song is that resounding and incredible thing that draws you in and involves you. I can listen to it endlessly and find something new each time. One can hear a continuation of Dangerous’ sound and that harder Michael edge; Janet matches him and brings something spectacular to the song! She and Michael weave their voices and have solo moments. The production is polished but allows all the tension and aggression to come through fully. The video, some might see as expensive, is the extravaganza to end them all! The article I have just quoted talks about the video and how the label felt when they received the concept/budget:

“…Needless to say the label weren't exactly over the moon when they saw the final budget, which was likely further increased by the initial three-day shoot running to over a week. “I got on the phone with the head of the record label and he had seen the budget and was apoplectic,” Romanek said. “He started screaming at me on the speakerphone, “do you think I'm the fucking Bank of America? Are you out of your fucking mind?” I said Michael and Janet want something huge, you've given me no time to do it, the song brings to mind images of a spaceship and if Michael Jackson has his own spaceship it's going to be really impressive. There was this dead silence on the speakerphone and then I heard (puts on soft voice) ‘yeah, that's right’ and I realised Michael was in the room on the other end of the line which I didn't know”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Deutsch

If Thriller (the song) was noted for its innovation and breaking ground in terms of concept and cinema; now, over a decade down the line, the King of Pop was taking the music video to new heights – it seemed cost was not an issue and he was willing to go to incredible lengths to stand out and shine! The image Jacko has of himself around the time – a king-like figure that was in a league of his own – made press ridicule easier but who could argue against (Michael’s) impression? The man was still the King of Pop (and is now) and carried the weight of press bile and delivered something stunning. Scream would have been weaker were it not for Janet’s voice and guidance. She is the perfect partner for Michael and someone who could read him and react to his unique voice and style. A perfect combination of D.N.A. and simpatico; two artists who knew each other inside out and wanted to deliver a unified and solid message against the press. I feel, in the one song, both artists unburdened themselves and made it know they were not going to take pressure lying down! Twenty-three years after its release; Scream still stands aside from other songs. Not only in terms of its video and concept but the performances and emotions that crackle and explode on the record! It is another reason why, on Michael Jackson’s sixtieth birthday, we should remember him and realise why his spirit, soul and music…


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

ARE sorely missed.