"Black Hole Sun" might be Soundgarden's most recognizable and enduring song, but the man who wrote it wasn't sure he'd even be able to sell it to his bandmates.
"I wrote the song thinking the band wouldn't like it," Chris Cornell said, "then it became the biggest hit of the summer."
The perceived problem was that the song was too safe. As Soundgarden lead guitarist Kim Thayil said, "[It] wasn't safe as milk, but it wasn't glass in someone's eye either. It was the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now it's the 'Dream On' of our set."
"Black Sun" sculpture on a cloudy day in Seattle (shocking!)
thanks, Kim Suwak
The music-buying masses certainly didn't seem to have any problem with the song. Released in summer 1994, the song held #1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart for seven weeks. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.
The weird video with super-snazzy special effects (for its time) was almost as big as the song itself and became inextricably intertwined with it. It shows scenes of a seemingly idyllic suburban town that was actually creepy and dark underneath, painting a story of the secret malevolence that every angst-ridden teenager knows is lurking beneath the polite smiles of their parents and neighbors.
The video helped shape the way people perceived the song, but the truth of the matter is, the song doesn't actually have any concrete meaning - at least, not according to Cornell. "It's just sort of a surreal dreamscape, a weird, play-with-the-title kind of song," he said. "It's funny, because hits are usually sort of congruent, sort of an identifiable lyric idea, and that song pretty much had none. The chorus lyric is kind of beautiful and easy to remember. Other than that, I sure didn't have an understanding of it after I wrote it. I was just sucked in by the music and I was painting a picture with the lyrics. There was no real idea to get across."
The one thing Soundgarden's frontman was certain of was that the song was not optimistic. "No one seems to get this, but 'Black Hole Sun' is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it's almost chipper, which is ridiculous."
At least one part of the song did seem to make unambiguous sense to the singer. Speaking of the lyric, Times are gone for honest men
, he stated, "It's really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom. It's going to become more and more difficult, and it's going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry and are willing to fuck the next guy to get what they want. There's so much stepping on the backs of other people in our profession. We've been so lucky that we've never had to do that. Part of it was because of our own tenacity, and part of it was because we were lucky."
It is that sentiment that wins Seattle, Washington, as the Songplace of this song. There are also rumors that the song was inspired by a Seattle sculpture named "Black Sun," created by Isamu Noguchi and located on Capitol Hill. Cornell seems to have dashed this rumor, however, when he stated that he got the idea after misinterpreting something a news broadcaster said. Creativity is a mysterious thing, after all, and it's entirely possible that Cornell saw the sculpture and still had it embedded in his subconscious. Or, more mystically, perhaps his psyche was so connected to Seattle that the city's artifacts called out to his soul to be made into song. (Yes, let's go with that one.)
Regardless, on some level Cornell was indeed thinking of his band and the state of the world, and the place where that evolution started for him was in Seattle. There are few bands, in fact, whose legend is more tied to their city of origin than Soundgarden. Interestingly, most of the other competitors for that title - Nirvana and Pearl Jam - are also tied into Seattle and the grunge myth.
Soundgarden was actually the first Seattle band to get courted seriously by major labels, though Mother Love Bone, before the demise of frontman Andrew Wood
, preceded them in some ways.
Before his death, Cornell had often spoken about how drastically the "grunge" thing (a term few of the actual "grunge" artists ever liked to use) changed the Seattle music scene. When he was coming up, the bands were essentially playing for each other and their friends. It was an enclosed musical ecosystem cut off from the mainstream, just like the rest of the Pacific Northwest.
With success came new challenges for everybody. It may seem strange to some, but artists who define themselves as being counterculture and against-the-system run into all kinds of existential problems when they become part of that system.
The Space Needle, 2017
Thanks, Shawna Ortega
Cornell's issues hardly started with his success, though. He talked about suffering from severe depression as a 12-year-old and dealing with emotional difficulties all his life. There's all kinds of talk out there about what caused his psychological troubles, some of it well-informed and some of it not, but that's not territory that will be covered here. No one else can really understand another person's ghosts - certainly not some writer living on hand-me-down impressions.
One thing for certain is there are still plenty of Seattleites hoping for a black hole sun to come wash away the rain. Though the total rainfall of the city is exaggerated in stories told around the country, it really doesn't get much annual sunlight. Gray skies are the norm.
Also, the town is known for something called the Seattle Chill. As romantic as the city is presented in popular culture (and to be clear, there are certainly many romantic and beautiful aspects of it), the place is downright lonely for lots of people who live there. Many theories have been batted around for why it came to be this way, but whatever the explanation is, Seattle truly can be a difficult place to make friends. The Seattle Chill, for whatever reason, is real.
Maybe Cornell caught that chill as a kid, like a psychic cold, and never was able to shake it. Maybe the Seattle Chill has even spread since the '90s, overtaking all of America with isolation. Maybe that's why the song seems so optimistic to so many folks - we're all living in rain and hoping for something, anything
, to wash it all away. -Jeff Suwak
August 26, 2020
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