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All Stripped Down: MTV Brings Back ‘Unplugged’ and the Myth of ‘Real’ Music

The beloved 1990s show returns, along with the antiquated belief that acoustic songs are the truest form of artistry

On Friday, MTV Unplugged relaunches, the cable network bringing back one of its most popular programs from the 1990s by featuring acts who were infants when the show first gained prominence. That’s certainly the case with Shawn Mendes, who headlines the premiere. When Variety interviewed the 19-year-old recently about his decision to do Unplugged, he explained that he’d been impressed watching a clip of Pearl Jam on the program back in 1992: “It wasn’t so much about the commercial, showman side of it,” he said. “It was really about the music.” For Mendes, Unplugged offered a creative challenge as well: “I feel like if I can do this right, then it will be a moment for me — where people can really understand and see me as a musician and a singer, and where I’m coming from.”

Mendes was too young to witness the original Unplugged, but his attitude exemplifies the program’s let’s-do-this-thing-with-just-acoustic-guitars appeal. He’s also repeating a misconception that’s long pervaded popular music — the notion that turning off the amps is the only way to become a meaningful artist.

In the last two years, Mendes has had two chart-topping albums and three Top 10 singles, delivering his emotional, catchy songs with dreamboat sincerity. Hits like “Stitches” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” are slick love songs that have all the snap, crackle and pop expected from commercial radio. They’re fun but disposable. So it makes total sense that an artist like Mendes would jump at appearing on Unplugged to bolster his creative bona fides. Considering that he built his “Mercy” video around him earnestly playing a guitar in a rehearsal space — see how his art pours out of him, man — he’s no doubt hoping that Unplugged will spotlight how much blood, sweat, tears and other clichés go into his work.

This isn’t to pick on Mendes but to illustrate an age-old belief that “real” music needs some sort of purity or austerity attached to it. Unplugged leaned in to that idea from the start. Created by songwriter Jules Shear in 1989 to promote an acoustic album he’d released, the show featured legendary or red-hot acts in performance spaces that sought to replicate the intimacy of a Greenwich Village folk club. An early get was Paul McCartney, who said in 1992 about his decision to do Unplugged, “I liked the idea that there was a show that reduced music to its bare essentials. I liked the idea that to be on that show you had to be able to play your instrument and sing live.”

Some of Unplugged’s best episodes involved R.E.M. and Neil Young, who found novel ways to locate their songs’ poignancy and craftsmanship in this acoustic setting. But the format tended to favor rock acts for a simple reason: Even with the electricity turned off, those songs didn’t sound that different since they were still mostly played on guitars, bass and drums. If anything, the stripped-down sound added nobility and gravitas, making familiar songs iconic and timeless.

This was never truer than when Eric Clapton recorded his Unplugged session in early 1992. A master guitarist steeped in a love of the blues, he delivered weary, resigned remakes of some of his biggest hits — most notably “Layla,” which (back when it came out in the early 1970s) was an anguished cry of unrequited love full of squealing solos and angst-ridden riffing. In this new version, it was a wistful plaint, a polished shuffle played with hushed assurance.

That performance might be the height of what Unplugged achieved — as well as the moment when the show started to become formulaic. When he taped his MTV special, Clapton was famously coping with the recent death of his young son Conor — a grief he expressed in “Tears in Heaven” — and the show caught him in a reflective, unguarded moment. As Unplugged producer Alex Coletti would say later, “Eric Clapton was ‘unplugged’ in more ways than one at that performance. There, in front of a large studio audience — and later an enormous MTV and record-buying audience — an artist who is known to be very shy dealt with the most painful experience anyone could ever imagine.”

No doubt that pain infused the heartfelt performance, but it also played into the assumption that stripped-down music is somehow more authentic, too. By this way of thinking, songs aren’t powerful because they’re emotional and incisive — they’re that way because the volume’s been turned down (way down).

That rationale — along with McCartney’s mention of the show catering to artists who “are able to play your instrument and sing live” — felt like a dig at non-rock genres that often get criticized for not being “real” music. I’m talking about pop, dance, disco and hip-hop — genres that don’t parade their solemn sincerity in the same way that rock bands do.

Unplugged’s popularity, in part, was a backlash against those other musical styles. Focusing on synthesizers, computers and samplers, 1990s pop and rap came across as “phony” to old-school purists, and so MTV’s frequent presentation of dudes playing in a circle with their acoustic instruments seemed like a nostalgic rebuke. (Let’s also remember that the 1990s were a time when a popular pop act, Milli Vanilli, was publicly humiliated after it was discovered that the two band members never sang a word on their hit album.)

Twenty years later — as Auto-Tune, Pro Tools and similar tricks help shore up shaky performers, and rock recedes further from the mainstream — that desire for “real” music remains just as potent.

It’s not that accomplished hip-hop acts didn’t come on Unplugged — it’s just that they weren’t all that good. In 1991, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J and others passionately embraced the stripped-down format, but a bunch of plinking guitars couldn’t hope to re-create the power of “Can I Kick It?” or “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Does that prove that hip-hop is inferior to rock? No, it just proved the genres are different. Unfortunately, it also probably helped cement, for people like Mendes, a belief that acoustic, unfussy music is the best test of someone’s talent. This naive assumption is the same reason Adele won the Album of the Year Grammy over Beyoncé — and why Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett won Grammys for their Unplugged records.

Clapton’s Unplugged became the bestselling live album of all time, but it also subtly instituted a staid sonic template for the show — one in which more laidback, safe, “classy” renditions of well-known songs would become the trademark. In October 1993, Kurt Cobain talked to Rolling Stone about the frustration this refined approach created. “It’s impossible for me to look into the future and say I’m going to be able to play Nirvana songs in 10 years,” he admitted. “There’s no way. I don’t want to have to resort to doing the Eric Clapton thing. Not to put him down whatsoever; I have immense respect for him. But I don’t want to have to change the songs to fit my age.”

Ironically, a month later, Cobain would hit upon Nirvana’s possible future when the band did its own Unplugged session. Instead of toning down his amped-up songs, he focused on his band’s more melodic tracks, as well as selecting covers, like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” that suggested new directions they could pursue.

When it was released in 1994 — about seven months after Cobain killed himself — MTV Unplugged in New York hit listeners hard because of the frontman’s passing. But the album remains a triumph because it refuses to play into the program’s format. There’s nothing coffeehouse cute about the performances. (Twenty-three years later, it’s still fun to hear Cobain make snarky asides to his bandmates between songs, as if to puncture the stuffiness of the hushed setting.) But what’s strongest about MTV Unplugged in New York is that it never feels sedate or “authentic.” The performance is as raw and electric as anything else Nirvana did, especially on the visceral closer, a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

When Mendes’s special airs Friday, with luck it’ll provide him a platform to showcase his songs in new settings, bringing out fresh details and dynamics within the recordings. But neither he nor his audience should think that he’s suddenly turned them into art. As entertaining and illuminating as Unplugged sometimes was, the mere act of unplugging doesn’t guarantee worthier music. Anyone who thinks otherwise shouldn’t be as concerned about stripping down as much as lightening up.