Grunge wasn’t supposed to make superstars. Everything about it — the throat-scraping lyrics, the grubby flannels, the basement-studio production fuzz — was anti all of that, a shrug and a shove against the goofy MTV-glossed pageantry and peacocking of the ‘80s rock mainstream.
But fame found them anyway, turning Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and Eddie Vedder into a new kind of idol: scrappy art-punks, skaters, and dropouts suddenly thrust into the role of stadium-filling, magazine-covering millionaires. (Some of them, like Cobain, Alice in Chains’ Lane Staley, and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, found temporary escape — and a permanent exit — in drugs. Cornell wrestled his whole life with substance abuse, and was always open about the struggle.)
If you watch old interviews, these are guys who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else; mumbling, dodging, gazing longingly toward the camera’s red light as if willpower alone was strong enough to switch it off. But Soundgarden embraced the media circus more than most; they seemed to take it all in like some great, crazy inside joke. And onstage it was hard to find a performer who pierced the fourth wall of stardom more fiercely than Chris Cornell: Stripped to the waist, his hydra of black curls flying, he crooned and yowled and stalked the stage, a goateed banshee in black jeans. (Grunge was an umbrella for all kinds of subgenres, but Soundgarden never lost the edge of metal; from the beginning, they proudly covered Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” at live shows, and they never, ever apologized for shredding.)
Cornell will probably always be shorthanded as a howler, the wild-eyed frontman with a cyclone in his vocal cords. That undersells the fantastic control he had over his instrument, though, and the vast nuance he could slip between the lines: Just listen to a delicate, decade-old acoustic take on “Black Hole Sun,” or his tender, shivery cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” from 2015. Eventually he would move on to other projects, including Audioslave and several solo albums, and he cut that magnificent hair; he had Hollywood friends and even modeled for fashion campaigns. Still, he always retained some core DNA of the singular presence that Cameron Crowe’s ’90s-zeitgest classic Singles captured so perfectly on screen in the “Birth Ritual” club scene: a contained weather system of raw power and striking purity. A lot of artists define an era, though not many of them transcend it. A lot of them embrace celebrity too; he earned immortality, and the world will be a little duller, and way quieter than it should be, without him in it.