By the time Soundgarden released “Superunknown” in 1994, the band already had a platinum album (1991’s “Badmotorfinger”) and helped shape the defining sound of ’90s rock music. But it was the trippy video for “Black Hole Sun” that turned the band into megastars in the summer of 1994 and brought it its biggest audience ever. The instant-classic video was almost inescapable, not just because it was in heavy rotation on MTV but because it was also nearly impossible to look away from. The surreal visuals were so bizarre and hypnotic that changing the channel was unthinkable.
As it turns out, Cornell — who was found dead from suicide in a Detroit hotel room early Thursday morning — didn’t even want to make a video. By that point, Soundgarden had released four albums, the process of shooting music videos had become a slog, and the finished products never felt quite right.
“We focused a lot on working with directors and trying to get them to understand what we wanted, and it never seemed to work — ever,” Cornell told Artist Direct in 2012.
But the band was intrigued by a treatment that British director Howard Greenhalgh sent that “just read weird,” Cornell said during the interview. By that point, Greenhalgh had already directed the video for “Rhythm Is a Dancer” by Snap! and collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys, but he had a fresher, wackier idea for “Black Hole Sun,” complete with special effects and troubling spectacles.
The video features a Stepford-esque community of vacant-eyed neighbors going happily about their days — a man mows a lawn, a girl jumps rope, a woman applies layer upon layer of bright red lipstick. All sport huge smiles that are made even bigger and more unsettling with special effects. They’re creepy enough as it is before adding the fact that they seem utterly oblivious to the unsettling events around them, like a cloud of locusts flying around a living room or a Barbie doll roasting on a spit above a barbecue. At some point, the black hole sun itself makes an appearance and sucks up the community.
The suburban nightmare is intercut with footage of the band casually performing the song in a field. It seemed like a brilliant decision to juxtapose the craziness of the smiley neighbors with the relative apathy of the musicians, but it was apparently merely evidence of how fed up Soundgarden was with making videos.
Cornell said he told Greenhalgh: “We’re not going to do anything. You’re not going to get anything out of us. We’re just going to stand there because we don’t want to do this anymore.”
Greenhalgh loved that idea — and he made it work.
“The contrast of [Soundgarden] 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,” Cornell said. “We’re weird enough as it is, and we’re tired of trying to not be.”
Amazingly, the song, too, was almost an afterthought. Cornell wrote it quickly but didn’t think his band mates would be into it. When they were, none of them thought it had potential as a single, but their record label disagreed. “Black Hole Sun” was the third single from “Superunknown” and undoubtedly the most popular, helping the album sell more than 5 million copies in the United States.
“I didn’t think, lyrically, it would be anything that would be popular,” Cornell said during an interview with HuffPost. “I guess the repetitive chorus and the moodiness of it, but lyrically it’s pretty dark. To think it was going to be an international hit is strange.”
But that’s exactly what it became, aided by a music video that was unlike anything else on MTV at the time.