The genre that gave us Soundgarden was unique to the 90s. That mournful, yet almost sultry tone of Chris Cornell being the norm for other bands of the time like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. And yet, where others were willing to give straightforward visual renderings of their music, Soundgarden dared to go outside of the box with the narrative of one of their most successful releases, “Black Hole Sun.”
Long before Katy Perry thought she was creating a depth-laden tale to go with her “purposeful pop“-oriented “Chained to the Rhythm” video, Soundgarden was making a macabre statement on that which lies beneath the surface of everything via the 50s transported into the 90s. And yeah, that basically means a set inspired by The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Because, in so many ways, the 90s were a re-creation of the type of suburbia that thrived in the Eisenhower era–as evidenced by the sale of “healthy” products like Capri Suns, Sunny Delight and Squeez-Its (there really was a lot of fake juice back then). It was red meat all over again. Maybe it had to do with the novelty of divorce that became normalized in the 70s and 80s being played out and the American family unit wanting to go back to a “purer” state again or maybe it was that, under the relative prosperity of the Clinton administration, people felt secure enough in their comfortable comas to start buying houses and, with them, the useless shit one needs to furnish them.
Very much a child of cable, I would see the the song’s accompanying video often, as it was one of the most frequently played cuts on MTV when it first came out in 1994. Though still young at the time, the impression it made on me, I think, contributed to a lot of my later weirdnesses and ambitions–chiefly to get the fuck out of suburbia. Opening with an “innocent” enough tableau of a group of religious types (probably modeled after Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses) flocking to the neighborhood with their “literature” and a sign that reads “The end is nigh,” a man mowing his lawn looks over to him and smiles–that kind of plastic smile that The Stepford Wives taught us was sinister. At times, the video also harkens to Edward Scisssorhands, with color palettes and scenes of an older woman watching a muscled man do push-ups as she overapplies lipstick in a way that alludes to Joyce (Kathy Baker) and her appetite for Edward.
The lyric, “Boiling heat, summer stench,” is timed perfectly to a housewife boiling water and chopping a fish as she, too, smiles for no reason. The imminent approach of the black hole sun still doesn’t manage to wipe anyone’s expressions away, instead only making them more pronounced. The director of the video, Howard Greenhalgh, had incidentally just come fresh from working on “Rhythm is a Dancer” by Snap!, thus he was perhaps especially eager to go in a bizarre direction. Cornell, on the other hand, had no desire to make the video at all, suffering from that sort of Kurt Cobain Syndrome where too much fame equals too much questioning of one’s existence (though he was happy far more often than the legend now indicates).
There must have something chic back then in talking about weather phenomena in songs and using girls in tutus to dance around, because, just like Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” “Black Hole Sun” also features an overweight ballerina prancing about. Scenes from suburban life intensify in their perversion as the video comes to its conclusion, with a Barbie burning on the spit of a barbeque (get it?), a tanning woman whipping her tongue out like a frog and a Great Dane taking a bath with its owner. Stylized, yes, and yet, more fucked up shit than this happens behind the confines of gated communities and in the darkness of culs-de-sac. I can tell you. I lived through it. But maybe I wouldn’t have tried so hard to leave, noticed so suddenly the taint around me if not for “Black Hole Sun.”
Ironically from the album Superunknown, “Black Hole Sun” launched Soundgarden to the forefront of alt rock fame the same way “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did to Nirvana. The retrospectively grim B-side to the single, “Like Suicide,” feels bittersweet now, and undercuttingly speaks to how having a mainstream single as a grunge band often equates to artistic death. But the more things go awry, the more everyone else around you just keeps smiling wider like nothing is happening.