Much has been written about Soundgarden's 1994 grunge masterpiece Superunknown and particularly its iconic hit single "Black Hole Sun" — what the dark, esoteric song actually means and how Chris Cornell wrote it after a fit of inspiration late-night inspiration.
What's less clear is why Cornell wrote "Black Hole Sun."
It's a strange question to ask of such surreal piece of music, but Soundgarden engineer Michael Beinhorn says Cornell had to be pushed to write more authentic music during the demo stages of the album.
Beinhorn recalled Cornell first giving him a demo tape containing about a dozen songs. But the material was uninspired and odd for a band that was just a few years removed from another grunge classic, Badmotorfinger.
Beinhorn felt something was up with the singer, so he called Cornell to find out what was on his mind. It turned out, Cornell thought that to recreate the success of Badmotorfinger, he had to try and write songs like those all over again.
As far as Beinhorn was concerned, kowtowing to some vague idea of what fans 'want' was a recipe for disaster. He recalls pleading with Cornell, asking him to focus on trying only to please himself with his music.
"'They’re listening to you because of what you’re giving them … what they’re getting out of your music, not because you’re giving them what they expect,'" Beinhorn recalled saying. "They’re along for the ride with you. … They’re following. Do something that’s amazing and they’ll follow."
Beinhorn pressed on, asking Cornell what music he liked.
Cornell still wasn't convinced, worried about losing the sound of the band with such an approach.
"'You and your band are Soundgarden,'" Beinhorn responded. "'You play the song, it will sound like Soundgarden because you're playing it. It's very simple.' Obviously, hypothetical, because I don't even know what we're talking about song-wise."
Three weeks later, Beinhorn received a cassette with "Fell On Black Days" and "Black Hole Sun." After the first few measures of "Black Hole Sun," Beinhorn says he was hooked.
"I played it 15 times in a row," he said of the demo. "I couldn't stop listening to it. I was like, 'This is incredible. Absolutely incredible.' And I called him up and was like, 'You're a goddamn genius! Let's go make a record right now!'"
As to why "Black Hole Sun" has been so enduring, Beinhorn says he thinks it's because it wasn't like anything on the radio then or now.
"It's an interesting moment in song composition, and I don't think that Chris was even aware of it when he was writing it. And it's kind of antithetical to the way people compose songs now ... everything now is about hooks. It's constant release, it's all about giving it up, giving it up, giving it up. ["Black Hole Sun"] has almost none of that! This is all about tension. It's one quality that people don't really put in music these days but it's absolutely essential. You can't have really good, listenable music that takes people on a journey without tension."
Beinhorn points to the chord changes of the song's intro as evidence of how the song wallows in musical tension and winds up but never fully lets go. He says he has "no idea" how Cornell wrote the song.
Cornell himself said that he wrote the song in a matter minutes after mishearing something on the radio that sounded like a news anchor saying "black hole sun." He said he didn't expect his band mates to like it and was even more surprised when it became a hit.
Superunknown debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and won Grammys for Best Metal Performance for "Spoonman" and Best Hard Rock Performance for "Black Hole Sun."
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