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Jacksons' 'Scream' is more surface than substance


What may be the most expensive and elaborate promotional campaign in the history of popular music slipped into high gear last night as MTV offered the exclusive premiere of Michael Jackson's new video, "Scream."

With a production budget of some $7 million, it's a hugely expensive promo clip, costing three-and-a half times as much as TLC's elaborate, effects-laden "Waterfalls" video -- and that's not counting duet partner Janet Jackson's share of the royalties.

But that's just a drop in the bucket compared with the $30 million Jackson's label plans to spend on promotion for his new album, "HIStory." Even though the double-CD set won't arrive in stores for another week, consumers have already been subjected to a $4 million "trailer" for the album, in which Jackson, looking like a cross between a boy king and a socialist despot, marches at the head of a column of troops to unveil what appears to be a 15-story statue of himself.

So what do Jackson fans get for his $7 million?

Not a lot, actually. Unlike the ostentatiously gimmicky video for "Black or White" -- the singer's last big MTV launch -- "Scream" takes a much more subtle tack, trading the eye-popping special effects of yore for a more studied look that evokes the glory days of black-and-white science fiction flicks.

That's not to say director Mark Romanek has taken a totally cheesy approach to the visuals. There's plenty of "morphing" here (especially shots of Michael turning into Janet, and vice-versa), and lots of perspective-warping scenes in which Michael dances up the walls as Janet sings in the foreground. Add in the video's spaceship graphics and a barrage of crosscuts, and it's easy to see where much of the money went.

Trouble is, Jackson and Romanek invested more in surface than they did in content. Jackson spends most of the video grimacing, grabbing his head and grinding his hips; the rest of his screen time is given over to shots of him smashing a guitar or knocking some sort of futuristic hockey puck into a series of ceramic vases. Painstaking as the editing is, there's only so much that can be done with slo-mo scenes of vases shattering.

Given the furor that erupted after "Black or White" showed Jackson caving in car windows with a crowbar, no doubt we'll soon see stories from the heartland claiming that Jackson's game of whack-a-vase had an ill effect on the nation's youth. ("Mom Blames Video for Tennis Match in Living Room."). Truth be told, though, it's Janet who comes off as the truly naughty Jackson. By the video's end, she's made more than one rude gesture and has spent a surprising amount of time wearing Tina Turner's hair. What's this world coming to?

Still, as silly as "Scream" sometimes seems, it does convey the single's irresistible pulse quite nicely. And if that kinetic energy can be passed along to the general populace, the Jacksons will surely end up getting their money's worth from the clip.

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