Why Soundgarden’s Breakthrough Single Was Banned By MTV

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Torchbearers for the burgeoning grunge movement, Seattle favorite sons Soundgarden helped usher in a new age of rock music that was significantly heavier in terms of music and lyrical substance than the popular hair metal of the time. Having released a series of EPs on Sub Pop, the band moved to legendary punk label SST for their debut album, Ultramega OK. Relentless touring and a video on MTV’s 120 Minutes caught the attention of major label A&M, who released their follow-up Louder Than Love LP. Although steadily building momentum, it wasn’t until the release of their third album, Badmotorfinger, that Soundgarden broke into the mainstream.

As Soundgarden’s started to become a household name, the album’s first single, “Jesus Christ Pose”,  provoked the ire of a number of powerful religious groups. Under the threat of a boycott, MTV refused to show the video for a time.

In an interview with Louder Sound, guitarist Kim Thayil explained the song’s fast-paced writing process: “It think we were jamming, whacking that out on bass. That was definitely one of Ben’s riffs – the main riff. And then Matt started drumming on it. It was very quick. It was hard to discern exactly what the notes and the rhythm were from what Ben was playing, because it was very loud, blurry and quick. So while I was trying to figure out that groove, I came up with that weird guitar line. It was easier for me to hear that odd melody. Because all four members of the band contributed to the writing of the song they are credited on the track as songwriters on the track.”

Although it failed to chart in the US, “Jesus Christ Pose” was somewhat of a hit in the UK. The single’s accompanying music video included a number of theologically subversive images, including burning crosses and a woman on the cross in place of Jesus Christ. The provocative video set the Christian right into frenzy, with zealots in the streets protesting the video’s appearance on Beavis and Butthead. MTV banned the song for a time, only to partially backtrack and allow “Jesus Christ Pose” to be played on Headbangers Ball.

In a 1993 interview with Raw Magazine, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell recalled the scandal: “It ended up being the first video that MTV wouldn’t play on The Beavis and Butthead Show, cos it didn’t meet their standards. It turned out that it was the religious imagery that they were afraid of. They don’t seem to get uptight about the rap bands rapping about killing people and exploiting women, but religious imagery…”

The controversy followed Soundgarden overseas, with Cornell saying of their time in the UK: “When we were over there touring, they’d got this poster of a skeleton nailed to a cross all over the place to advertise the single, and we were getting death threats at the shows. If anyone’s gonna be sensitive to, or offended by something like that, then I think they’re a little too serious about what they believe in.”

Watch Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose”