How Soundgarden Hit a Commercial Peak With ‘Black Hole Sun’
By 1994, the grunge music movement had been fully embraced by mainstream America.
Flannel-wearing Gen Xers had already helped make Nirvana and Pearl Jam two of the biggest bands on the planet. Still, Soundgarden, Seattle's first grunge group to sign with a major record label, found themselves on the fringes of rock stardom. That would quickly change with the group's 1994 breakthrough hit "Black Hole Sun."
Whether by destiny or just dumb luck, the song’s inspiration came to singer Chris Cornell by accident. “I had misheard a news anchor, and I thought he said ‘black hole sun,’ but he said something else," Cornell recalled during a 2014 conversation with Entertainment Weekly. “So I was corrected, but after that I thought, ‘Well, he didn’t say it, but I heard it,’ and it created this image in my brain, and I thought it would be an amazing song title. It was a thought-provoking phrase, and it became that song.”
With the title phrase resonating in his head, Cornell worked up a melody. During a long car ride home, he sang and hummed ideas to himself. "I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn't forget them," he remembered while speaking to Uncut. "I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar -- a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title."
Cornell later estimated he wrote ‘Black Hole Sun’ in about 15 minutes.
Watch Soundgarden Perform 'Black Hole Sun' Live
The song’s structure deviated from previous Soundgarden tracks. Because of this, Cornell was concerned about how his bandmates would respond to it. “I thought they might like it, but not think of it as a Soundgarden song," he said. "I wasn’t sure myself. Sometimes a song is pushing the boundaries and you may not feel it belongs to the personality of the music that comes under the banner of that band.”
The singer gave his mock-up to the other members of the band; their response was positive, but also cautious.
“It wasn’t the heavy, guitar-orientated song we were used to -- it had more of a pop construction,” recalled guitarist Kim Thayil. “We understood it had very strong commercial potential. We didn’t know what that would mean for us. If it became huge, would people expect to play it everywhere we go? There was hesitation.”
Perhaps most enthusiastic was producer Michael Beinhorn. “I felt like I’d been hit by a bus," he said while remembering the first time he heard "Black Hole Sun." "There’s usually a point with music where your attention span wanders, but this was like my head was in a vice. It was one of the most incredible pieces of music I’d ever heard. I played it 15 times in a row. I told Chris he was a genius.”
Listen to a Demo of Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun'
The band decided to record a demo of the song. Emphasis would be given to the dark, haunting elements of the track, since the musicians believed this would enable them to stay true to their band’s established attitude. A key component to this goal would be Thayil’s dizzying guitar solo, appearing a little more than halfway through the song.
“The solo allowed me to do something manic and noisy, which is one of a few things stylistically that augmented the song and brought out the dark, psychedelic Soundgarden side,” he'd later recall.
“Black Hole Sun” became track seven on Soundgarden’s seminal album Superunknown. Surprisingly, the song was not chosen as the first single ... or even the second. Those honors went to “Spoonman” and “The Day I Tried to Live,” respectively. Record label "A&M wouldn’t release it as the first single,” Beinhorn later remarked. “I think they were feeling cocky, they knew people would play it anyway.”
Watch a News Report About Soundgarden
Superunknown was released on March 8, 1994. Less than a month later, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his own life. His death sent shock waves throughout the music world, especially within the Seattle music scene.
When “Black Hole Sun” was released as a single on May 13, many uninformed fans misinterpreted the lyrics. Beinhorn remembered the response: “It hit a very strong emotional chord. People [made] their own connections with it. Some people thought it was about Kurt Cobain dying.”
The song became Soundgarden’s biggest hit, spending a total of seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Meanwhile, its accompanying video received heavy rotation on MTV.
The clip, directed by Howard Greenhalgh, juxtaposed twisted, demonic images of suburbia with shots of the band performing. “I love the video because it worked,” Cornell later admitted to Artist Direct.
“It just happened to be a guy with a great idea who happened to believe in our notion that we're reluctant video stars who are going to give you nothing. The contrast of us giving you nothing and your vision is actually going to be better than if we're jumping around acting like crazy rock people and you're doing these flash jump-cut edits and crazy lighting. We're weird enough as it is, and we're tired of trying to not be. It worked. It was a big lesson.”
Watch Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun' Video
Powered by the success of “Black Hole Sun,” Superunknown went on to sell more than 9 million copies worldwide. The song also took home the award for 'Best Hard Rock Performance' at the 1995 Grammys.
Since its release, "Black Hole Sun" has been covered by a wide swath of eclectic artists, including Peter Frampton, lounge singer Richard Cheese and Japanese alt-pop group Cibo Matto. A portion of the lyrics were also used in "Weird Al" Yankovic’s 1996 song “The Alternative Polka.” A piano instrumental of “Black Hole Sun” was also featured in the pilot episode of HBO’s Westworld.
Watch Peter Frampton Perform 'Black Hole Sun'
In 2014, Cornell reflected upon the legacy of "Black Hole Sun." “It was a good song for us to have as an international hit because it defied categorization on just about every level," he explained. "It’s a moody, somber song, but it was a summer smash and the look of the video helped, with that eerie springtime thing. It creates a feeling, but I can’t tell you specifically what it is about. And if I can’t, how is somebody else going to connect to it? Maybe it’s just open enough that people can make it a soundtrack to their moment.”
In 2019, NASA scientists took the first photograph of a black hole, located 54 million light years from Earth. Soundgarden fans petitioned to have it named after Cornell, who died in 2017. The petition was too late, as the black hole was given the name Powehi. Still, the effort shown by music lovers proves that "Black Hole Sun" continues to shine long after its release.