MTV Unplugged's 10 Strangest Moments
Plugs are tricky, sometimes.
Those of you fond of criticizing the lack of music on MTV, take note: The network's venerable Unplugged series returns on Sunday with a performance by British indie-poppers Florence and the Machine. It'll be the first of eight shows planned for this year, with The Civil Wars and Dierks Bentley already on tap to record episodes.
Unplugged has been responsible for some terrific, intimate performances from a wide range of performers over the past 20 years, from Nirvana to Shakira. It'll be good to have it back for another round. Craig Hlavaty wrote about some of the show's best moments last year.
It hasn't all been great, though. Credit MTV for taking a few risks, I guess, because Unplugged has a tendency to get weird. Will Sunday's episode veer into the surreal? We'll be watching to find out. In the meantime, enjoy ten of the head-scratchingest moments from the show's brilliant-but-spotty run.
10. Springsteen Plugs In: Bruce Springsteen is money with an acoustic guitar in his hands. That's exactly what fans were expecting to hear in 1992 when the Boss signed on for Unplugged, but what they got was an intense, fully electrified Springsteen concert.
It's a pretty fundamental disconnect, really. Whether the show's format wasn't explained to him too well or he just wanted to show off the amplified oomph of his Human Touch-era backing band, Bruce didn't deliver on the promise of a spare, intimate performance of folky story-songs that many were hoping for. Oh well. The set was later released as a live album, In Concert/MTV Plugged.
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9. Maxwell Gets Closer to God: Cover songs are a bit of an Unplugged tradition. Nirvana, for example, turned in classic covers of tunes like "The Man Who Sold the World" and "Lake of Fire" during their appearance on the show, so it wasn't unexpected that neo-soul star Maxwell might slip a couple into his 1997 set, too.
What did come as a surprise was that he'd choose to cover "Closer," the raunchy, industrial Nine Inch Nails hit featuring the refrain, "I want to fuck you like an animal." It could have been a lot more hilarious than it was, but somehow, Maxwell pulled it off pretty well. His band was definitely cookin,' almost certainly introducing more soul fans to the music of Trent Reznor than anyone before or since.
8. Liam Takes the Piss: Oasis was a pretty obvious choice for Unplugged in 1996. The group's latest album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? was a massive hit that promised to translate beautifully to the show's acoustic format. It was a highly anticipated, can't-miss performance all set up to be the season's highlight.
Maybe that was a little too safe for singer Liam Gallagher. Or maybe his throat really did hurt. Whatever the reason, Liam pulled out of the performance at the last second, leaving brother Noel to perform the vocals. Fortunately, he was more than up to it. The session turned out great. According to most, anyway -- Liam, treating his "sore throat" by smoking and drinking in the balcony, heckled his bandmates mercilessly between songs.
7. Queensryche Folks Out: Queensryche was the first heavy metal band to score an Unplugged session, and they weren't a half-bad choice. In 1992, the group was riding high on the success of Empire, which included tracks like "Silent Lucidity" that seemed tailor-made for the stripped-down acoustic treatment.
What not a lot of headbangers likely foresaw was the group's choice to cover a Simon & Garfunkel classic, the British folk song "Scarborough Fair." The decidedly un-metal tune was a bit of a surprise coming from a group best known for a concept album written about a junkie assassin and his hooker-nun girlfriend, but hey, it worked. Thanks in large part to the inimitable voice of Geoff Tate, the group did a good enough job with the song that they weren't laughed out of the building.
6. Lauryn Hill Might Have Some Issues: Lauryn Hill's solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill blew up real, real big in 1998. Maybe too big. In 2000, she largely disappeared, retreating entirely from her star persona and doing very little in the way of recording and performing. That's why her Unplugged session was such a big deal. Hill would be debuting new material that had never been heard before.
Put kindly, the show was fucking weird. Performing alone with a ragged voice and an acoustic guitar, the former superstar refused to get gussied up for the taping and railed against the music-industry machine between songs. The new tunes were spare and sounded unfinished. There were some tears shed by the artist.
Far from the triumphant return many fans were praying for, it was a confusing, disappointing set from a performer who had earned worldwide acclaim and five Grammys only four years earlier. Rolling Stone called it the performance "a public breakdown." It wasn't that, exactly, but it damn sure wasn't the return many expected, either.
5. Friends Don't Let Friends Scribble on Guitars: Alice in Chains' episode of Unplugged was a poignant affair. Late singer Layne Staley looked gaunt and near death from his crippling heroin addiction, but his voice retained its power. It was the first concert the group had performed in three years, and it wouldn't be another nine until the remaining members reformed.
What was initially confusing was the semi-cryptic phrase written in Sharpie on bassist Mike Inez's guitar: "Friends don't let friends get haircuts." What kind of obscure drug reference was this supposed to be? Later, fans realized that it was a message to members of Metallica --some of whom were in the audience -- who had infamously just cut their hair short ahead of the band's Load album. Why Inez couldn't have simply told them he hated their haircuts remains unclear; life was odd before texting.
4. Plug Back In, Please: Not everybody is well-suited to the Unplugged experience. Nu-metal gods Korn proved this conclusively with their 2006 performance. Robbed of the down-tuned fury of the band's signature slap-bass and seven-string crunch, singer Jonathan Davis' vocals sounded thin and dumb, particularly with insightful lyrics like "Life's gotta always be messin' with me." Mercifully, his trademark scat singing was mothballed for the show.
Tacked-on appearances by members of the Cure and Amy Lee of Evanescence only added to the frowns. Korn was not meant to unplug -- period. The group's off-putting performance was a nadir of the series, gladly forgotten by fans of Korn and Unplugged alike.
3. Y Kant Tori Continue? In 1996, Tori Amos seemed like an obvious choice for Unplugged. Often, it's just her up onstage with her piano, anyway, so why not just stick her in a studio with an audience and some candles? Slam dunk!
Well, not quite. Turns out the show was a little too intimate for the songstress. Tori told the awesome site WorstGig.com all about it:
What happened was I just couldn't harness the energy. And I got really mad at myself because I couldn't harness it. And I do this every night and I can usually harness something, and I couldn't understand why. What was wrong? What was I missing here? So I walked off (crying).
Talk about emo. It looked like the show was over. Luckily, Amos said, her anxiety had a simple fix: Lowering the lights.
All the lights were up to catch the audience and I felt like somebody was watching me take a shower. So they dimmed the lights, I felt better. By that point because I'd made the choice to stop it and make some changes, I felt like I began again. And I turned the whole show around.
2. Lil Wayne's Cows are Out: Rap can work on Unplugged. LL Cool J and Jay-Z proved that by rhyming over a live band on the show, something a lot of us had never seen before on TV. Lil Wayne got the live-band part right, but he must have not had cable growing up, because his set last year did not resemble the classic series whatsoever.
Weezy's Unplugged was bigger, louder and brighter than a Kiss concert. Not only was everything electrified and cranked to 11, he even busted out the auto-tune for a portion of the show. But the best part of all was that his fly was open the whole damn time, and that shit got reported in Billboard! Read for yourself:
The only time Wayne's band truly went unplugged was for "Mrs. Officer" and a minimalist slow jam version of his club hit "Lollipop," where acoustic guitars softly accented Weezy's growl. But he was unzipped for much of the show. As in, Weezy's fly was down.
It began during the low-slung groove of his huge hit "A Milli," when Lil Wayne grabbed the mic stand in his best rock star pose and revealed that the barn door was open.
You had to ask yourself: Is it possible that one of the world biggest rappers would jump onstage for a one-take performance without examining his zipper?
Possible? Yes. How? Blunts.
1. Katy Perry Gets "Jazzy" Katy Perry was an odd choice for Unplugged. Sure, she's a big star with a big voice, but intimate performance and deft instrumentation aren't quite her specialty. MTV forged ahead anyway. The result is pretty unintentionally hilarious, featuring Perry's backing band turning the candy-coated pop pabulum "I Kissed a Girl" into the strangest coffee-shop jazz you never wanted to hear.
Katy does her best to hang, but lyrics like "The taste of her cherry Chapstick" simply can't support the show's serious production format, turning the whole show into an amusing farce. The most surreal moment comes when the camera pans to the young teen girls in the front row, singing along earnestly to a soft bebop version of one of the silliest gimmick singles of all time.
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