Michael Jackson - Scream
by Catia Faranda
What would you do if you had the chance to spend one day in space? Enjoy the liberty, jump and fly around maybe loosing yourself in weightlessness? Or enjoy the view at the globe, which would certainly be unique and not repeatable. This could all be possible options. In the music video “Scream” from Michael and Janet Jackson, the siblings use their trip into outer space for the purpose of soul purification. Something seems denied to them on earth so that they need to go far in order to free all their anger. The reason for the latter we are going to get to know during the analysis.
This paper will give an overview about the content of the music video “Scream” with focusing on specific details, connected to the lyrics and explaining the reason for Michael Jackson to write “Scream”. Then having a closer look at the music video watching only at the filmic material and the theme of space and Science Fiction, this examination will introduce an African American tradition called “Afrofuturism” that is also applied in the music video. In conclusion the question arises how much this music video is the artists or the directors work and what should be kept in mind while watching and analyzing.
Even before the first image on screen appears an electronic sound initiates a Science Fiction scenario. A space shuttle in the shape of a massive portable CD player advances. The inside of the space ship is empty and automats with ‘drinks’, ‘sushi’ and ‘stress caps’ are exposed. In the beginning Michael and Janet are lying in their cabin in a secure position since the space shuttle is starting just now. While trespassing the sonic barrier the glass of Michael’s cabin breaks into pieces and makes him scream. The next image shows the siblings in the same outfit looking angry and addressing their direct message to the camera
The music video shows Michael and Janet letting off steam, while destroying guitars or playing squash in shattering vases. According to pop cultural theorist Diedrich Diederichsen the song “Scream” is a mixture of justification, paranoia, anger and grudge, frustration and resistance. All these emotions find expression here conjoint.
As a matter of fact the siblings use their space trip to escape from the world’s negativity, a relief that is not possible on earth.
“Scream” was released in the early summer of 1995 when Michael had been accused of sexual abuse by the tabloid press which had started two years earlier. This song is primarily directed to the media industry that had initiated on purpose to create the image of a freak and a monster of Michael Jackson in favor of selling.
The sibling’s gestures are clearly symbolizing their anger. The refrain goes: “Stop pressurin’ me”. Michael is making a definite statement. He is making clear that he has had enough by all the accusations and insults. And this music video shows how fear can turn into aggression. Both are trying to cope with an unpleasant situation and to give vent to their anger.
The filmic material
The colorization of the music video is all in black and white without using any colored special effects. The black and white character does not convey the impression of watching a vintage music video but on the contrary succeeds in creating a futuristic image even watching the video nowadays. The rooms inside the shuttle are empty and designed very clear and linear. Nothing looks familiar or suggests being from a specific era. The black and white character fits perfectly into the Science Fiction genre and creates a distance between the world the audience knows and the world that is presented on screen. By leaving out color and letting the protagonists fly through the rooms inside the spacecraft creates a feeling of alienation.
“Space is the place”
Looking at the personal background information and the lyrics of the song it becomes evident why the spatial character is used. Michael and his sister want to escape from the real world, escape into an illusionary world where only those two exist. In this spatial surrounding they can do whatever they want but especially they can express their feelings and they can get rid of all negativity that humanity is putting on them. This is expressed in their gestures and their physiognomy. Janet is jumping around and crawling at some parts of the video like a wild animal. She wears a very dark make up and addresses her haters with her clear statements.
In one scene Janet is standing in front of a toilet bowl and is surprised by seeing the camera filming her. This symbolizes how much their life is in the center of full attention. Even in such a private and intimate situation they are filmed. Actually it is Michael sitting behind a wall of glass who seems to control his sister.
In one scene Michael is meditating on his space shuttle and depicted as Jesus or as Holy Mary with a halo around his head. This statement is to express his innocence and to show how fragile he is. But his calm turns in exasperation and finally in rage. He screams and the oculus breaks into pieces and falls on him.
Dazu passt, dass Michael Jackson sich – wie gesehen – als eine Art Heiliger präsentiert, der zwar Ruhe und Ausgeglichenheit in der Meditation sucht, vom vernommenen Unrecht in der Welt jedoch bis zum Verlust der Beherrschung gequält wird.
Michael Jackson who has been regarded as a fashion icon, a music icon, the pop icon and finally the King of Pop was a public character with no personal identity. He was at the center of attention from childhood on and used as a product for marketing strategies. The booklet of the single “Scream” takes reference to his childhood. A picture shows a child huddled in a corner of the room with the following sentence in Michael’s handwriting: “Before you judge me, try hard to love me, look within your heart then ask, have you seen my childhood.”
Michael was a public iconic figure treated and sold as a product, ready to make the music industry, the television industry, the press produce profit and to make them run a business. Obviously this led Michael to the desire of total isolation and to escapism. Michael was under constant optimization. On the one hand this was his personal maxim and on the other hand the people expected him to come close to perfection.
Particularly because he gave so deep insight in his personal life he managed to attain a huge fandom what Keazor explains as follows:
[…] so gestaltet sich das durch »Scream« definierte Verhältnis zwischen Idol und Fan sehr viel komplexer. Denn vorgeführt wird nun ein Star, der sich zwar in einer technisch überlegenen und mit allen Raffinessen ausgestatteten, entfernten Umgebung aufhält, sich trotzdem jedoch sowohl durch das eigene Leben wie durch das Unrecht in der Welt gequält zeigt, beides zueinander in Parallele und z.T. sogar in eins setzt und sich als potentieller Erlöser präsentiert, so dass seine Fans in ihm nun eine Figur haben, die sich in gleich doppelter Weise zur Projektion anbietet.
Although Michael had changed during the years and looked so different after all his interventions, Michael was on the one side as vulnerable as his fans and on the other side he was ready to take all the pain in order to turn it into something positive as for example his song for Africa.
Science Fiction & “Afrofuturism”
Kodwo Eshun claims Michael already looked like a cyborg through all his plastic surgery procedures. He was a kind of a person one had never seen before. He was neither African American nor white nor Asian. He was some kind of prototype of an extremely rich person. In the video interview “Fantastic Voyages – Eine Kosmologie des Musikvideos” Kodwo Eshun and Diedrich Diederichsen speak of an “Afrofuturistic Narrative” that is also found in the music video “Scream”. Afrofuturism is a specific Science Fiction tradition deriving from African Americans. Initiators were Mark Dery who published an article in 1993 named “Black to the Future” and Mark Sinker who had published an article for “The Wire” called “Loving the Alien: Black Science Fiction” one year before. Ytasha L. Womack defines Afrofuturism as follows:
Whether through literature, visual arts, music, or grassroots organizing, Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total reenvisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.
Mark Dery argues that African Americans “[…] are the descendants of alien abductes […]” and that [S]peculative Fiction that deals with African American topics and uses “twentieth-century technoculture” and “images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” shall “be called »Afrofuturism«”. The connection between African Americans and aliens is that one group has been brought on slave ships forcibly and the others have landed with their space ships on foreign ground/terrain where they both are not welcomed and where they will always feel strange.
Further the Afrofuturistic idea is a biblical one, their future is to leave the foreign country and to return to the mother ship one day. Diedrich Diederichsen and Kodwo Eshun claim that these descendants define themselves as displaced persons and comparing to an alien space phantasy they have been brought to a false planet and somewhere must be a space ship waiting, a kind of mother ship, which is going to pick them up in the future. For Diederichsen this idea is the mythical basic figure of Afrofuturism. So the alluded departure, to leave the planet and to be brought into another sphere has to do with an upcoming space ship.
The inside of the space shuttle is considered as very tiny room where all the necessities have to be reduced to the essential. Diederichsen draws the connection between the space ship as a capsule and the womb in which one could survive for eternity. The total isolation of the world where one can feel at ease. One gets the same impression while watching the music video “Scream” because the siblings use the shuttle as a place where they can do and be what they cannot on earth. Michael and Janet have to travel far away and need an isolated room in order to give room to their emotions and feelings. That is the reason why Michael and Janet burst out with their feelings as soon as they have passed the threshold. If the space ship in “Scream” can be regarded as the mother ship it makes clear why Janet and Michael are fleeing to get there in order to let all their emotions free in a motherly surrounding without being judged anymore.
Das dabei angewendete Kontrastprinzip – es wird einerseits Schwäche, andererseits aber auch Stärke vorgeführt – setzt sich im Wechsel der Perspektiven fort, die den Star einmal fernab der Erde in seinem »super sleek spaceship« zeigen, dem Zuschauer dann aber auch scheinbar einen Einblick in das Innenleben des Schiffs und seiner Passagiere gewährt.
Diederichsen presents one possible Science Fiction motive that qualifies for a Pop Narrative. He compares the journey to nowhere or to the outer space as the needed distance for a travel into the inner space. That is exactly the narrative that is used in the “Scream” music video. Michael and Janet need the distance and isolation to recover from the world’s evil. This is also implied by the “stress caps terminal” seen at the early beginning of the video where the siblings can easily help themselves.
The relation between the protagonists and the world is one of interdependency. Michael and Janet though being in space still listen to the live news coming from earth and when Michael dances he mostly has a window behind is back where the world seems to dance with him or to get in contact with him.
But one should keep in mind that music videos originally were conceived short films used as pure advertising medium. So how far is “Scream” the idea of the artist or the work of a director and his team? The director in “Scream”, Mark Romanek made no secret of having been inspired by the movie “2001: Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick in becoming a film director. So it can be assumed that Mark Romanek took the opportunity to make a music video for the King of Pop with an immense huge budget and realized his personal dream.
Doch Romaneks Wahrnehmung ist hierbei sicherlich auch durch den Wunsch gelenkt worden, einen Clip oder Film in diesem Genre anzusiedeln, erzählt er doch an anderer Stelle, dass es der Besuch von Stanley Kubricks »2001 – A Space Odyssey« im Alter von neun Jahren gewesen sei, der in ihm überhaupt erst den Wunsch weckte, selbst Filmregisseur zu werden.“
“Scream” is known as the most expensive music video ever made and it holds an entry in the Guinness Book of Records and scenes and setting resemble Stanley Kubrick’s movie from 1968 so this may be a personal homage from fan to artist.
Although being together on the “mother space ship”, Michael and Janet seem rather lonely. While they are playing a computer game behind them all the seats are empty. In each scene they do not fill the rooms having at their disposal. They have all the authority to dispose as is depicted in the “gallery” area of the space ship. They are able to switch by remote control between a selection of paintings and sculptures but Janet and Michael are annoyed by all their possessions and possibilities that is why Janet lies on the armchair and zaps through the art sculpture “channels”. This implies that although they can afford everything, it has no high priority for them.
The song itself incorporates elements of pop and electro. There is a concentration on the moment when something breaks, for example when Michael smashes his guitar on the floor or a vase breaks it is emphasized through slow motion pictures. The sound of breaking glass is integrated is seen in the images and heard in the song. An alarm is also integrated in “Scream” which signifies that a border has been crossed unauthorized. Michael sets new limits: “I've got to get stronger. And I won't give up the fight.” This intention is even strengthened in using profanity for the first time in his song. It foreshadows a new Michael has yet to come, who is not going to accept the injustice that is done.
Whether the artist or the director had originally the idea of doing the music video does not make a difference for the analysis. Music videos can be regarded as an independent art form and not dependent of the songs’ lyrics as Keazor explains:
Tatsächlich jedoch dürfen bei einer Analyse von Videoclips nie die kommerziellen Interessen außer Acht gelassen werden, die meistens bedient werden; allerdings ist es hierbei angebracht, eine Unterscheidung zu treffen: […] Denn tatsächlich stößt man immer wieder auf Musikvideos, die über ihre Funktion als Werbeträger hinaus sozusagen einen ästhetischen Mehrwert aufweisen […].
In the case of “Scream” both interpretation approaches work. The lyrics fit to the music video and it might be coincidence or providence that Mark Romanek got the chance to make a music video that resembles his favorite movie.
The idea of “Afrofuturism” shows how the Science Fiction scenario suits to the lyrics and the desire of escapism. Obviously the space shuttle is a protective mechanism for Janet and Michael that grants the siblings shelter from additionally attacks. The electronic instruments create a futuristic sound that combined with the breaking glass and the alarm signifies that a barrier has been trespassed and that a given situation is not tolerated anymore. The space ship scenario gives the protagonists the requisite distance to their antagonists and in the same time gives their fans the chance to projection and recognizing themselves in the pain of the artist. Although having the whole world at their feet the siblings show a very human side of their being. The anger and pain they feel is transported through the images in their music video. It is impressive that they succeed to display a fragile part of their being while they are represented as powerful extraterrestrial figures without any spacesuits flying into space.
Keazor, Henry and Thorsten Wübbena. Video thrills the Radio Star. Musikvideos:
Geschichte, Themen, Analysen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2005.
Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism : the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture.
Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.
Eshun, Kodwo and Diedrich Diederichsen. Fantastic Voyages. Space is the Place –
Weltraumfantasien in Musikvideos. Deutschland: ZDF, 2000. Film. <http://www.fernsehserien.de/fantastic-voyages/folgen/space-is-the-place-weltraumfantasien-in-musikvideos-385392>
Dery, Mark: “Black to the Future. Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and
Tricia Rose.” Flame wars: The discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. America: Duke University Press Durham, 1994. p. 179-222. <http://thenewblack5324.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/mark-dery-black-to-the-future.pdf>
Sinker, Mark. “Loving the Alien: Black Science Fiction.” The Wire. 2007. Issue 96
(1992): p. 30-34. <http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/loving-the-alien_black-science-fiction>
 Eshun, Kodwo and Diedrich Diederichsen. Fantastic Voyages. Space is the Place – Weltraumfantasien in Musikvideos. Deutschland: ZDF. 2000.
 ibid., p. 356
 Ytasha, Womack L. Afrofuturism : The world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 2013, p. 9.
 Dery, Mark: p. 180
 Keazor, Henry and Thorsten Wübbena. Video thrills the Radio Star. p. 357.
 ibid., p. 350.
 ibid., p. 14.