There are a few essential steps in a musician’s career that signify big-time success: releasing a best-of album, headlining a festival, and throughout the 1990s, performing live on MTV’s Unplugged. Alhough the series was hugely popular for a time, when major rock artists like Nirvana and Eric Clapton graced the stage with acoustic-only versions of their biggest hits, after eight seasons, Unplugged left the air, to return only for special occasions in the following years. Today, it makes a comeback, returning to MTV.com with a series of monthly performances from popular contemporary artists like Adele, Silversun Pickups and Katy Perry.
At its peak, Unplugged offered an intimate front-row view of rock's biggest acts, often resulting in recorded albums of the performance that became major sellers in the artist’s catalog. It was exclusive and raw, the equal-opportunity version of snagging a rare B-side or catching a secret club show. Viewers saw Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and Neil Young deliver rock 'n' roll sans amps, pedals, or whammy bars, relying on acoustic guitars, subtle percussion and vocals. Later, the show grew to include musicians from all genres, including a memorable set by Jay-Z and The Roots in 2001, and Alicia Keys with a slew of special guests in 2005. Although by then it was off the air, Unplugged was revived briefly in 2007 with performances by Korn and Ne-Yo.
Soulful singer Adele performs today to kick off the show’s return, with an acoustic six-song repertoire that includes “Chasing Pavements” and “Hometown Glory.” July will bring rockers Silversun Pickups to the Unplugged stage, followed by Katy Perry in coming months. Each band will play a six-song set, and MTV.com will offer interviews, artist-selected playlists, and exclusive photos. The network will also air segments from the show during their morning music portion, as well as on their subsidiary channels like MTV2 and mtvU, and the entire Unplugged series will be available through On Demand.
In an age where vocoders and Auto-Tune reign, Unplugged presents a unique challenge to artists whose music is aided by digital technology. For some, it will be a career-booster, a chance to show off vocal chops otherwise obscured by electronic beats (we hear you, Lady Gaga). For others, no doubt, it will illuminate the weak links where an artist’s live-performance skills have been crippled by the use of technology.
The goal of Unplugged is similar to that of the Black Cab Sessions or La Blogotheque, two popular websites that record and publish spontaneous live performances by contemporary bands. According to a press release, MTV hopes to use the Internet as a medium appealing to a younger generation, to engage those viewers in the Unplugged that was so popular only a decade ago. The show's return also signifies a chance for current artists to join the ranks of big names, like Nirvana and Clapton, who have performed on Unplugged for better or for worse. As another generation of musicians graduates to Unplugged, we tip our hats yearbook-style to the good, bad and ugly—the archetypes of past performances:
The Career-Reviver: Eric Clapton, 1992:
The Bad Fit: Korn, 2007:
The Unexpected Success: Jay-Z with The Roots in 2001:
The Somebody Plug This Guy In: Bryan Adams, 1997:
The Cult Favorite: Nirvana, 1993:
The Really, Really, Really Unplugged: Kiss, 1995:
The Aren't You Kind of Already Unplugged? The Indigo Girls, 1990:
The Newcomer: Adele, 2009:
YouTube: Nirvana - "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on Unplugged
News: Nirvana's MTV Unplugged comes to DVD
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