For $7 million, you could buy a mansion on each coast. You could finance Feed the Children's anti-hunger operations in 10 countries for nearly two years. Or, if you were Michael Jackson, you could make what might be the most expensive rock video in history. The reported price tag for Jackson's ''Scream'' clip costarring sister Janet and slated for a June 14 release confirms a strange trend in a period of general austerity: the return of the video extravaganza.
Back in the go-go '80s, record companies poured big bucks into that hot new medium, music television. But ''people started spending way too much and not seeing the return,'' as one industry analyst puts it, and a backlash set in. The average budget settled down around $80,000, and while the biggest artists sometimes spent 10 times as much,they tended to keep quiet about it. Pressures for frugality were underscored in 1994, when Pearl Jam reached the top of the Billboard charts with Vs. while shunning videos altogether.
In recent months, however, mammoth budgets have again become part of the buzz around a select crop of clips. Madonna's ''Bedtime Story'' (directed, like Jackson's ''Scream,'' by Mark Romanek), came in at more than $2 million. The Rolling Stones' ''Love Is Strong'' in which the band is digitally blown up to King Kong size cost a million or so, as did TLC's upcoming ''Waterfalls.'' And we're not just talking about fodder for MTV and VH1. On Memorial Day weekend, theaters will begin showing a ''teaser'' for Jackson's HIStory: Past, Present and Future-Book One, the album (due June 20) on which ''Scream'' appears. Filmed in Budapest, the four-minute spectacular features jackbooted battalions, swooping helicopters, Michael-mad mobs, and a huge statue of the star. The damage: a rumored $4 million.
In part, video's new conspicuous consumption may simply reflect impatience with the '90s ethos of sober restraint-the same impulse that's brought back high glamour in women's fashion. But for aging superstars like the Stones, Madonna, and Jackson, an ultra-lavish clip is also a means of asserting the right to remain on top. ''It's their way of saying, 'You've put me up here, I'm going to give something really big back to you,''' says Lee Chesnut, VH1's vice president of music programming. These artists are willing to spend their own cash (record companies usually don't contribute more than 50 percent) on extras, locations, and computer-generated special effects, for what Andy Schuon, senior VP of music programming and promotion at MTV, calls ''a blockbuster feel.''
For Jackson, of course, image-bolstering is especially crucial. It's been four years since the Gloved One released his last album, Dangerous, and in that time he's been buffeted by child-molestation allegations (resolved out of court last year in a multimillion-dollar settlement) and criticism of the plastic surgery that's transformed him into a deracinated, doe-eyed androgyne. Along with 15 digitally remastered oldies (an attempt to consolidate Jackson's King of Pop status), the new album also contains 15 new numbers, several of which include lyrics that directly address his detractors. ''Stop f---in' with me,'' Jackson warns in ''Scream''; in ''Childhood,'' he speaks of compensating ''for the childhood I've never known.'' He and new wife Lisa Marie Presley will grant their first joint interview, to ABC's Diane Sawyer, the day the ''Scream'' clip is released another effort to restore his battered reputation.