The song became a critical and commercial success, peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100; it was later certified platinum by the RIAA. The single's success was widened with the release of its accompanying video, which was frequently played on music television channels. It won the "Viewer's Choice Award" and "Breakthrough Video" at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
"Under the Bridge" allowed the Red Hot Chili Peppers to enter the mainstream. David Fricke of Rolling Stone said the song "unexpectedly drop-kicked the band into the Top 10", while Philip Booth of The Tampa Tribune commented that it was a "pretty, undulating, [and] by-now omnipresent single." Its success led in part to the departure of guitarist John Frusciante, who preferred the band to remain underground. The song has become an inspiration to other artists, and remains a seminal component of the alternative rock movement of the early- and mid-1990s.
For several days Frusciante and Kiedis worked on the song, and it became one of the few tracks written and completed prior to the band moving into The Mansion where they recorded the album. After the song was recorded, Rubin felt the grand and epic outro would benefit from a large group of singers. Frusciante invited his mother, Gail and her friends, all of whom sang in a choir, to perform.
Kiedis' feelings of alienation from his bandmates led him to believe that the city of Los Angeles was his only companion. Kiedis reflected, "I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city. I'd spent so much time wandering through the streets of L.A. and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhuman entity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me." The line "Sometimes I feel like/My only friend/Is the city I live in/The City of Angels/Lonely as I am/Together we cry" shows a direct link to Kiedis' isolation and sense of susceptibility. Despite these feelings, Kiedis believed his life was better without his addictions, telling Rolling Stone that "no matter how sad or lonely I got, things were a million percent better than they were two years earlier when I was using drugs all the time. There was no comparison". This ideology gave birth to the chorus of the song: "I don't ever want to feel/Like I did that day/Take me to the place I love"; the place he loves being his fellow band mates, friends and family.
One of the most notable verses in the song discuss the harsh effects of drugs, their role in destroying many of Kiedis' past relationships, and their impact on his happiness. Based on one of Kiedis's experiences, the verse illustrates his efforts to enter a gang territory under a bridge to purchase drugs. Kiedis was forced to pretend that a sister of one of the gang members was his fiancée to be permitted inside. Although he successfully acquired the drugs, Kiedis considers this moment to be one of the worst of his life as it demonstrated the level he was willing to sink to feed his addiction. Because of this, the singer refuses to acknowledge the location of the bridge, though he notes that it is in the downtown Los Angeles area.
The song continues with another verse and subsequent chorus, when the bass finally enters. After the next verse an E major seven chord again marks a break before the start of the chorus. The second chorus transitions into a different verse, where Chad Smith begins to play the drums, and Kiedis sings "Take me all the way/Yeah/Yeah-e-yeah/Oh no, no". A choir, whose presence was added to make the ending sound more epic, sings "Under the bridge downtown", in which Kiedis sings "Is where I drew some blood/I could not get enough/Forgot about my love/I gave my life away" in between. As the choir, Kiedis and drums stop, Frusciante and Flea play the outro until the song ends.
Critical response to "Under the Bridge" was universally positive. Tom Moon of Rolling Stone felt the song "revealed new dimensions. The rhythm section displays a growing curiosity about studio texture and nuance". David Fricke of Rolling Stone said "Under the Bridge" is a "stark and uncommonly pensive ballad", commenting that the song "drop-kicked the band into the Top 10". Philip Booth of The Tampa Tribune believed the single was "undulating [and] omnipresent" not only in the alternative rock genre, but pop music as a whole. Ben DiPietro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch praised the record as a whole, but was most impressed by Chili Peppers' shift from exclusive hard rock to adding more moderately paced tracks: "there's still plenty of sonic funk to bang heads to, but the best tracks are the slower ones such as 'Under the Bridge'". Amy Hanson of Allmusic noted that the song has "become an integral part of the 1990s alterna-landscape, and remains one of the purest diamonds that sparkle amongst the rough-hewn and rich funk chasms that dominate the Peppers’ own oeuvre". She went on to praise "Under the Bridge" for being a "poignant sentiment that is self evident among the simple guitar which cradles the introductory verse, and the sense of fragility that is only doubled by the still down-tempo choral crescendo".
"Under the Bridge" has been included in many publications' "Best of ..." lists. In 2002, Kerrang! placed the song at number six on their list of the "100 Greatest Singles of All Time". Q ranked the song number 180 on their compilation of the "1001 Best Songs, Ever". Life included "Under the Bridge" in the compilation "40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs Per Year 1952–1991", with the year being 1991. Pause and Play included the song in their unordered list of the "10 Songs of the 90's"; and the song ranked fifteenth in VH1's "100 Greatest Songs of the 90s". Rolling Stone and MTV compiled a list of the "100 Greatest Pop Songs Since The Beatles" in 2000, with "Under the Bridge" coming in fifty-fourth. Australian music channel MAX compiled a list of the Top 100 rock songs of all time and Under the Bridge came 23rd.
The music video for "Under the Bridge" was directed by Gus Van Sant, who photographed the band during their stay at The Mansion and provided the art direction for Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Van Sant knew Flea due to the bassist's role in his 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. The members of the band respected Van Sant both as a person and an artist and were elated when he agreed to direct the video for "Under the Bridge". Flea credits the video as "the thing that really made us break through the mainstream of American and worldwide pop culture".
The video was shot on the streets of Los Angeles and in a studio soundstage. It begins with Frusciante standing alone on a pedestal wearing a red-and-white-striped collared shirt, brown khaki pants, brown shoes, and a purple, green and multicolored pom-pom hat with white stitched wolves in the middle. He played a 1962 Ocean Turquoise Fender Jaguar behind the backdrop of a desert and an inverted cloudy sky. His shadow is projected on the left and right of where he stands. Frusciante's girlfriend of the time, Toni Oswald, selected his clothes that day. Frusciante remembers Van Sant's surprised, though favorable, reaction: "when I got [to the studio] Gus Van Sant was just looking at me and going 'God I'm so glad you wore that hat. I'm so glad you wore that shirt. Oh! Those pants are so great I'm so glad you wore those'". The video marks a significant shift in Frusciante's on-camera behavior; he no longer wished to jump around fervently as he had done in the band's prior music videos.
As Kiedis begins to sing he appears on camera bathed in purple light with blue fluorescent stars as a backdrop, surrounded by clouds. As the camera pans closer, an image of the skyline of Los Angeles is superimposed from his chin downwards. Flea and drummer Chad Smith are then placed into the image while playing their instruments. Van Sant wanted superimposing to be a notable component in the overall theme of the video; the idea came from a project he worked on with novelist William Burroughs. The scenes in the studio are coupled with scenes of Kiedis walking the streets of LA, wearing a white T-shirt with "To Hell And Back" printed on the front; as he walks, the camera focuses on various people. This, according to Kiedis, was vital; he felt the studio portion alone would not convey enough emotion: "the first time we shot [the video] it was all in a studio and that didn't seem to capture everything we needed to capture. It needed more; it needed to be combined with an outdoor, streets-of-Los-Angeles thing". Towards the end, Kiedis is seen running down the Los Angeles River in slow motion; the background is a shot of an atomic bomb exploding. The video ends with various superimposed images of the band, followed by Frusciante playing alone on a pedestal—this time with an inverted shot of the ocean as the sky.
MTV placed the "Under the Bridge" video on heavy rotation. At the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards the Red Hot Chili Peppers led the nominations, which included the categories of "Best Video", "Best Group", and "Best Direction". "Under the Bridge" won the group "Breakthrough Video" and "Viewers Choice Best Video"; the band's video for "Give It Away" won "Best Art Direction". The video ranked eighth best in a poll dictated by the readers of the Chicago Tribune called "The Best and Worst of '92".
At times Kiedis has also resented singing the song, especially during instances when he felt distanced from the song's lyrics. In the past few years, however, Kiedis has experienced a revival in interest: "Although there have been times when I was over ['Under the Bridge'], I've rediscovered it and now I feel close to it and it still has power, and life, and purpose as a song." Frusciante believed the flexibility of "Under the Bridge" has contributed to its success: "A lot of the time that is one of the ingredients of a hit; you can hear it over and over and it will still always mean new things, but you do go through cycles." Flea believes the reason "Under the Bridge" has had a recent revival in relevancy is due to Frusciante's return to the band (after a break between 1992 and 1998). Flea believes it is vital to have the four members who wrote the track together.
"Under the Bridge" was played at the 1999 Woodstock Festival, which the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined. They were the final act to perform. Attempts at distributing candles that were to be lit during the song backfired. The crowd, which was already disorderly, instead created a bonfire. Lighthearted foul-play escalated into violence when several women who had been crowd surfing and moshing were raped and nearby property was looted and destroyed. Other notable performances were at Slane Castle in August 2003 to 80,000 attendees; and in 2004 at London's Hyde Park. Over the course of three days an estimated 250,000 people attended the event. Released as the band's first live album, the event became the highest grossing concert at a single venue in history, with a total revenue of $17.1 million. "Under the Bridge" is also performed on the Chili Peppers' concert video Off the Map released in 2001, and their exclusive iTunes Originals set-list in 2006.
Alternative hip hop band Gym Class Heroes performed "Under the Bridge" on the 2006 assemblage Punk Goes '90s, an album that compiled popular rock songs from the 1990s being covered by contemporary artists. Gym Class Heroes continued to play "Under the Bridge" during their tour; lead singer Travis McCoy has said it is "a timeless song. It's one of those songs you hear and are like 'Damn did this shit just come out?'. The most successful cover version of "Under the Bridge" was released in 1998 by the pop band All Saints, with the single reaching number one in the UK. The cover removed the final verse of the song that discusses drug use. Red Hot Chili Peppers were, however, displeased with this version; Kiedis felt the cover was poorly recreated and, with the omission of the final verse, it lost all personal significance. The 1993 "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Bedrock Anthem", is part parody of "Under the Bridge" and "Give It Away". Yankovic's satire includes an intro similar to that of "Under the Bridge".
|Billboard Hot 100||2|
|US Hot Modern Rock Tracks||2|
|US Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks||6|
|UK Top 40 (1992/1994 reissue)||26 / 13|
|Australian Top 40||1|
|Ireland Top 40||20|
|Norwegian Top 20||10|