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Music

Why did MTV ban Soundgarden?

@SamWKemp

As one of the first bands from the Seattle grunge scene to gain worldwide notoriety, Soundgarden helped change the game – injecting the stale rock scene with a punk vitality intermingled with introspective and yet highly politicised lyrics. Formed in 1984, at the height of hair metal, Soundgarden signed to A&M in 1988, releasing their debut Louder Than Love that same year. However, it wasn’t until their third album, Badmotorfinger, that Soundgarden began breaking into the mainstream.

As well as allowing Soundgarden to access a previously untapped fanbase, the album’s first single, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, also saw the band incur the wrath of several religious groups, whose fury was so intense that MTV refused to show the song’s music video on its channel.

As Matt Cameron once recalled, Soundgarden came up with ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ in just under an hour, building furious guitars around a central drum pattern that Cameron had been playing around with for some time. As he explained to Louder Sound: “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.”

While ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ failed to chart on the US Billboard Charts, it debuted at Number 30 in the UK. Soundgarden crafted an accompanying music video to support the release, complete with various anti-religious images, including, notably, a burning cross. The video also replaced the figure of Jesus with a woman on a cross, alongside some skeletons. As Soundgarden would later note, they wanted to use the image of a woman on the cross to convey the persecution of women throughout history. The video caused an uproar in Christian circles, with religious right groups taking to the streets to protest MTV’s airing of it on The Beavis and Butthead Show. As a result, MTV was forced to ban the song. Eventually, the channel relented and started showing it on the late-night show Headbangers Ball.

Frontman Chris Cornell recalled the controversy in a 1993 interview with Raw Magazine: “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,” he began. “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…”

It’s easy to imagine that so much controversy over something so small would only be possible in America. But, according to Cornell, the anger from Christian groups was even more intense in the UK: “When we were over there touring,” he said, “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.”