When flies get stuck in Vaseline, it's not pretty. They're not killed instantly, but struggle until finally meeting their doom. STP lead singer Scott Weiland, who wrote the lyrics, elaborated on the metaphor in an appearance on VH1's Storytellers, saying the song is about "feeling like an insect under a magnifying glass."
The title is spelled differently than the brand of petroleum jelly, which is spelled Vaseline.
This song deals with Scott Weiland's descent into drug addiction. At the time, he was doing his best to hide it from his bandmates and his girlfriend, but he knew he was turning into a junkie, a condition exasperated by the success of Stone Temple Pilots' first album, Core. When he sings here about searching and going blind, it relates to the cycle he started when he became an addict. In his autobiography, Weiland said the song is about "being stuck in the same situation over and over again," adding, "It's about me becoming a junkie."
That riff came in at a rehearsal one time, and when it came time to making the record it was like, "Hey, do you remember that riff?" We went into it with that very simplistic "da-da da-da da-da-da," and so I did the opposite and put a polyrhythm on top of that to simulate around it around it and around it. And at the time, I was thinking about having the biggest, most bombastic kind of John Bonham drum sound, which is the way the drum beat is. But when we got into the studio we were, like, 'You know what would be cool? If we could make the smallest little drum sound that we could.' Because the big drum sound was so obvious.
I got a little tiny 4-inch bass drum, and a little tiny 12-inch snare drum - detuned it so it sounded a little off. And I had a high hat and a rise cymbal. The smallest kit you could imagine for a rock band. Nice and simple. We recorded it in a small little drum room, which is great because the excitement is in the guitar and bass riffs, which became so much bigger.
The lyrics came together in 20, 25 minutes. It was one of those exciting moments when we knew, "Oh man, this second record can be fantastic!"
By the summer of 1994, Kurt Cobain had died and Pearl Jam had yet to release their Vitalogy album. This left the modern rock airwaves wide open for STP, who filled the void with their widely anticipated second album, Purple, which went to #1 soon after it was released in June. Their label, Atlantic Records, didn't issue the band's singles for sale in the US at this time, since they could get upwards of $15 for each album sold. Atlantic distributed promotional copies of "Vasoline" to radio stations as the second single from the album, following "Big Empty." The song rose to #1 on the Modern Rock chart and also made #38 on the Airplay chart, indicating that the song was also getting picked up by more mainstream radio stations.
Kevin Kerslake, who also did "Interstate Love Song," directed the video. The song isn't straightforward, and neither is the video, which shows a series of disjointed images - a clown, a Bavarian celebration, the band in old-timey formal wear - often from odd angles and through fishbowl lenses.
Kerslake made three different versions of the video, which were labeled "Version X," "Version Y" and "Version Z."