Pin It
Michael and Janet Jackson’s "Scream" music video
Michael and Janet Jackson on one of the seven soundstages of the “Scream” music video

How ‘Scream’ became the craziest video of the 90s

Michael and Janet’s track turns 20 this week – here's the inside track on the most expensive video of all time

By the release of 1995's HIStory album, Michael Jackson's music – often imbued with something close to pure joy – had become polluted by solipsism. Released two years after Jackson was accused, and subsequently cleared, of child molestation charges, the album's full of bitter songs like “Money” and “D.S.” that feel alienating to anyone unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the allegations (“D.S.” for example stands for Dom Sheldon, which is a non too subtle allusion to Tom Sneddon, the district attorney who brought the charges against him). While his often toxic relationship with the tabloid media had been tackled before in his music – most notably on Bad'sLeave Me Alone” and Dangerous’Why You Wanna Trip On Me” – the majority of HIStory's unfettered anger made those heavy-handed pleas feel like metaphorical flights of fancy.

Amazing lead single “Scream” – released twenty years ago today – however offered a more relatable and enjoyable sense of catharsis. A duet with younger sister Janet Jackson, and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, “Scream” finds the pair spitting out tightly wound lines railing against the press almost through gritted teeth, the industrial beats and clattering percussion encasing an incredible vocal performance from Michael that peaks with the line, “oh brother please have mercy 'cause I just can't take it”. Its sense of unleashed frustration makes it one of Jackson's most enduring songs outside of his 80s purple patch, the aggression sounding defiant as opposed to bitter. It also came with one of the best (and allegedly most expensive) videos of all time, director Mark Romanek housing the siblings in their very own wipe-clean, hyper-modern spaceship, complete with indoor zen garden, remote controlled art gallery and futuristic squash court. To celebrate its anniversary, here's a look at some of the stories surrounding the making of “Scream” and its video.


Prior to “Scream”, Michael and Janet's only time in a recording studio together had been in 1982 on Thriller's “PYT”. Since then both had gone on to have reasonably successful careers separately, but the general consensus was that “Scream” represented Janet – who'd released the career-defining Janet. album two years prior – showing support for her beleaguered brother. Not that she was about to keep it low key to make him look good, mind you. In a 2012 interview, Jimmy Jam recalled the first studio session in New York. “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.


During the same interview Jam also recalls how far Michael would go to get the right handclap sound – ie he was a bit of a nightmare. “We’d spend a day just on the volume of the handclaps. I mean, literally,” he explained. “And we’d turn them up and he’d say, 'Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll listen to it again.' We come back the next day, and he’d go, 'Can we turn that up just a little more?' Yes, we turn it up. 'Okay, make me a tape.' Okay. 'I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll listen again.' I mean, it was literally like that.” While handclaps aren't exactly the elements that leap out in amongst the metallic clatter of the song's cacophony, Jimmy Jam did share this ‘jampad’ picture that clearly shows “MJ clap on chorus last ones”. “Last ones” in this context seems to translate to “oh God I hope these are the last ones”.


When Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were asked to work on HIStory – the first time they'd worked with Michael – they called Janet into the studio “for inspiration”. In total five separate tracks were created and presented to Janet, before the duo would then go and play them for Michael. One of the tracks immediately caught Janet's ear, but not for "Scream". Telling Jam and Lewis that she hoped he wouldn't pick that particular one, she also suggested one that he knew he'd love "Scream". In end she was right, with the latter becoming "Scream" and Janet's favoured track eventually becoming "Runaway" from her hits collection, Design Of A Decade. Asked on Twitter last year if the song samples Michael's vocal from "Remember The Time", Jam confirmed again that it was one of the ones they initially thought would work as a duet before deciding the song's lyrical content needed something more sonically aggressive.


Even back in 1995, big pop releases had a way of somehow worming their way into the ether. 13 days before “Scream” was officially due to premiere, the story goes that Michael switched on the Los Angeles-based station KKBT-FM and heard the whole thing in full. With the song on complete lockdown at Jackson's label Epic, and with a lot of their employees not even having heard the song themselves, questions were raised as to how the station got hold of it. KKBT and its sister station KMEL in San Francisco weren't exactly swift to divulge that information, choosing instead to play the song once an hour until they were served with a cease-and-desist order. “The record company was furious, lawyers were involved and the situation got hairy,” said Michelle Santosuosso, the program director at KMEL, in an interview with The New York Times. “But on a release as big as Michael Jackson’s, there's no way we're going to wait if we receive a leak. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because his security is really insane.” It didn't exactly harm sales though – “Scream” became the first song in Billboard's history to enter the Hot 100 Top 5.


The sci-fi extravaganza is often cited as the most expensive video of all time – even though this is a claim its director Mark Romanek has refuted on numerous occasions: “I always found that an incredibly dubious distinction”, he said in a Twitter conversation with Jimmy Jam. Allegedly costing over £4.4 million to make, the scale and size of it (seven sound stages were built) was mainly due to the timescale Romanek had to work with. “There was a sense that this was a historic moment in pop culture history,” Romanek said as part of the Work Of The Director DVD series (see from 6:52 below). “They wanted it to be big and they needed the video in like seven weeks. It took two weeks to plan it and two weeks to shoot it so I had to build it big.”


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. From that moment the record executive guy knew he was pretty much screwed.” The space-age visual influence of “Screram” can be seen in the likes of TLC's “No Scrubs”, Lil Mama's “Shawty Get Loose” and, more recently, Ciara's “I'm Out”.