Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" Should Resonate Even More After Chris Cornell's Tragic Passing
When I was a little kid, Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" music video thoroughly freaked me out. It was probably watching the scarily clean-cut suburban families that reminded me of the ones I knew growing up on Long Island being sucked into a blackhole that I found so frightening. But after the unexpected death of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell at the age of 52, that video was the first thing I thought of. I wanted to immediately go back and watch the 1994 clip, to remember what it felt like to be a little kid scared of the unknown. And it seems fitting that, on this sad day, fans and non-fans alike look back on a song that didn't sugarcoat sadness or cynicism.
At 9 years old, the "Black Hole Sun" video, which, according to Soundgarden's lead guitarist Kim Thayil in a 1996 interview with Guitar Magazine, was one of the few videos that the band was "satisfied" with, was like my deepest fear come to life. I used to think about what happens after you die. Where do you go? I wouldn't imagine some heaven. Instead, it would be an abyss, a black hole that swallows you whole. Not unlike the one that unexpectedly takes the Soundgarden suburbanites away from their pretty little box homes with white picket fences.
While things may appear pristine, it's almost immediately clear that something is not quite right here with these Stepford people. Their plastic smiles mask something horrific. Their eyes are bulging out of their heads, and their mouths expand to gaping holes. An older woman draws on her lipstick, but can't seem to find her lips while an expressionless little girl in a bow regurgitates her vanilla soft serve. They're images that are hard to shake once you've seen them and hard to look away from while you're watching.
It all seemed so confusing to me as a kid, and it was easy to write it off as being just plain weird. But to watch it now that I'm older is to really understand how much deeper this video really was. Oh, it's still freaky, no doubt about it, but in a much more complex way than it was during the happy-go-lucky '90s when it seemed like nothing could go wrong. Maybe it's even scarier in a way, since Cornell's apocalyptic messaging feels a little too close to reality under the reign of the current president Donald J. Trump. "Times are gone for honest men," he sings. "And sometimes far too long for snakes."
The track off the band's fourth album, Superunknown, was an unexpected hit, probably their biggest still to this day. And not because it was part of the grunge movement, but because it felt real and honest. It's hard not to compare it to The X-Files, which premiered a year earlier. Both seem to be sending the same message: "The truth is out there," just make sure you keep looking.
Now, in hindsight, Cornell's lyrics feel ahead of their time. It's as if they were a prediction for the reality we've recently come accustomed, one that is filled with fake news and "alternative facts." The song is a glass half empty message to stay vigilant, with a video that shows things aren't always as they appear.
It's hard to believe that anyone heard Cornell sing lines like "Hang my head, drown my fear/ Till you all just disappear," with his forlorn four-octave range and thought "Black Hole Sun" was a happy song. It's definitely not, as Cornell explained to Melody Maker in 1994: "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."
He's right; it is a bit ridiculous to think of "Black Hole Sun" as some kind of positive anthem when it so clearly gets at something much darker. Something that hides within us all that few talk about. The video tried to mask how truly sad it was with surrealist images that would have made Salvador Dali proud, but this sad, cynical song just resonates more with adults because of that dissonance. Cornell has the ability to lean into the sadness that he felt in a way that let others like him know they weren't alone.
The video scared the hell out of little children, but I'd dare to bet that it's those same adults now who aren't so surprised by anything the world throws at them. In fact, they've been waiting for it.