What is it?
After Bon Jovi’s appearance on stage singing “Wanted Dead or Alive” at the 1989 MTV Music Video Awards brought such rave reviews, the execs at the network were struck with an epiphany. Why not bring bands together that are ordinarily known for playing their music with amplifiers and put them on stage to play their songs without the plugs in the amplifiers? Why not broadcast this show on the network in primetime? And since these instruments were “unplugged” from the amps, why not simply call the show Unplugged? It was a stroke of genius from a group of people who also hired Martha Quinn.
Why is it underrated?
There’s a reason that the concept behind Unplugged works. Acoustic music always comes off as more sincere than amplified or synthesized music because you can’t hide behind the volume. You need to rely on your music itself. There’s a reason that Monie Love never had an Unplugged. Her music sucks. It’s overproduced, studio recorded crap and it wouldn’t fly in a situation where it had to stand on its own legs without the help of “studio magic.”
Televised rock shows don’t always have the feel that they are organic performances. In fact, generally speaking, the bad boy rock antics and casual banter with the crowd seem even more scripted than usual. There’s nothing more pathetic than watching Tommy Lee whip out his schlong on stage, while a detached audience sighs and think, “Yeah, like I didn’t see that coming.” Whether it was rigorously rehearsed or not (it was), Unplugged always had that impromptu feel. It was almost like MTV had just called the performers that day and said, “Hey, we’re taping this show tonight. It should be pretty cool. You want to be the headlining act?”
And that hastily-thrown together feeling was borne out by a few different occurrences, like Paul McCartney forgetting words to “We Can Work It Out,” Kurt Cobain casually conversing with someone in the front row, and Liam Gallagher heckling his own band from the balcony after refusing to go on stage with his bandmate brother.
Unplugged was a bitch mistress. If you performed poorly, you looked like a putz, so it made people raise their game. It would be hard to argue that the Nirvana Unplugged in New York album was underrated, but that acoustic set recorded just months before Kurt Cobain died made an average Nirvana concert look like Don Ho’s ukulele show in Kauai. It was unbelievable. And that goes double for other artists. Jay-Z’s Unplugged was an inspired performance, a spoken word masterpiece. LL Cool J? Despite the balled up deodorant cakes in his armpits, the performance was, as the kids say, off the hook. He dropped that shit like it was hot.
Unplugged was a callback to the popular late night music shows of the 1970s like The Midnight Special, before Late Night meant talk show or sketch comedy show. Notice that there hasn't been a show like that since Unplugged unplugged. That's because it's not that easy to pull one off.
Second Verse, Same As The First
MTV recently gave the show a facelift for the new MTV generation, and rechristened it, Unplugged 2.0. Apparently, MTV didn’t get the memo that applying the suffix “2.0” to anything immediately makes it sound lame and ridiculous. And frankly, booking acts like Korn isn’t helping the show’s credibility either. If Korn were a magazine, it would be People magazine. You know, not very good, but inexplicably popular.