Scream is a statement song. After the intense scrutiny and demoralization of the previous few years, Jackson was ready to fight back with the most powerful weapon he possessed: his music. Perhaps no other song in Jackson’s career has the kind of roundhouse punch of “Scream,” a furious expression of indignation. In previous tracks such as “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “Leave Me Alone,” and “Why you wanna trip on me,” of course, he had expressed some of these “pressures,” denouncing media lies and societal hypocrisies. Never before, though, had the singer been this direct, personal, and viscerally angry. “Superstars don’t make records like this,” wrote one critic in 1995. “They make safe, nice records. You know, easy on the ear, simple, friendly…. This is Michael fighting back. And he’s delivered what could be a knockout blow.”
The track begins with Jackson screaming as if trapped in a glass box. It is a brilliant aural effect that captures the entrapment and suffocation he feels as a dehumanized media subject. The guttural scream contains a sense of desperation, anguish, and rage and as he lets it out, the imprisoning glass shatters. Instead of being a spectacle or victim, he is empowered. His music, once again, provides a sense of liberation. “Tired of injustice,” he begins. “Tired of the schemes.” It is an appropriate opening line for HIStory – the most political album of Jackson’s career – and he bites into the lyrics with an intensity that assaults the listener’s ears. Indeed, sonically, “Scream” was far ahead of the curve, blending Nine inch Nails industrial metal TV on the Radio elctro-funk, the mechanical angularity of Rhythm Nation with the techno-alienation of OK Computer. With its hair-raising fuzz bass and glass-shattering backbeat, it is a song that demands good speakers or headphones for full effect.
“Scream” also made a statement with its language. A once famously devout Jehova’s Witness with a Peter Pan image, Jackson shocked many listeners when his opening single replaced the refrainin the chorus, “Stop pressurin’ me” in one line with the brash, “Stop fucking with me!” (Jackson would also not-so-discreetly flip the bird in the music video) According to assistant engineer Russ Ragsdale, Jacksonwas reluctant to swear on the track. “I was in the room when Jimmy Jam asked him to sing the chorus of ‘Scream’,” he recalls, “and he would not say the F-word. He kind of made it very percussive instead of singing the full word. Janet carried the majority of that background vocal. It was not in his nature to use words like that at all. I never heaed him swear. So it was a surprise that he used other words like that on the record. We all kind of smiled when we heard it.” The language incited disapproval and condemnation among some parents and critics. For Jackson, however, ir was a means of expressing his fierce outrage at deceitful and hypocritical media.
Ironically- given the “family values” controversy about the language- the song was actually a symbolic demonstration of family solidarity in the face of adversity. “Scream” was Jackson’s firstand only duet with his sister Janet. Hearing the superstar siblings sing together for the first time- and in such circumstances- gave the song even more power and drama. Janet was at her peak of popularity in the early mid-90’s; her loyal support mattered deeply to Michael. Her contribution wasn’t tepid either. In the secon verse she comes with just as much indignation as her brother. “You sellin’ out souls,” she sings, “but i care about mine/ I’ve got to get stronger/ And I won’t give up the fight.” The chorus has the 2 perfectly harmonized as they demand their dignity and respect.
As with most songs on the album, Jackson attaches his personal struggles to larger social concerns. The injustice he has experienced is only a small part of a larger system of deceit and corruption. In the bridge of the song in fact, as sirens blare, we hear a faint report: “A man has been brutally beaten to death by police after being wrongly identified as a robbery suspect. The man was 18yrs old black male…” This subtle allusion to another victim of the system- in this case, of racial profiling, police brutality, and media exploitation- is a testament to Jackson’s sharp cultural awareness. On Dangerous, his method of defiance was to “Jam”; 4yrs later, the pressure had increased to such a degree he could only scream.
- Man in the music