Grunge wasn’t supposed to give us 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 pageantry and MTV-glossed 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: dropouts, skaters, and scrappy art-punks 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.)
GALLERY: Chris Cornell Through the Years
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 cut that magnificent hair; he had Hollywood friends and even modeled for fashion campaigns. Still, he always kept 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; Chris Cornell earned immortality, and the world will be quieter, and a little duller, without him in it.