MTV Unplugged—arguably MTV’s most important contribution to music—returned to MTV on September 8, with Shawn Mendes as the first performer. The show airs every Friday and is available online on the channel's website.
"I'm so thrilled and honored to be able to help bring the Unplugged series back," Mendes told MTV. "It's a show that truly highlights artistry and brings unique performances to fans."
Bleachers played the second episode on September 15, with special appearances from Lorde and Carly Rae Jepson.
In this incarnation of the show, each episode takes place in a different venue that's significant to the artist performing. Mendes played at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles while Bleachers played at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
This isn’t the first time the series has been revived—Unplugged officially ended in 2009, but it has been airing one–off episodes until this year’s reboot, which will mark the first time the show will air each week. The reboot was originally supposed to air last year.
The show has a long, complicated past that spans musical genres and generations. Pearl Jam, Rod Stewart, Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Rita Ora, and Vampire Weekend are just some of the artists who have played the series.
The idea of playing acoustic, stripped–down versions of songs is familiar to both audiences and performers. It was revolutionary and rare around the time the first episode aired on November 26, 1989.
There are conflicting accounts about how the idea for the show came up. According to an article on the Grammy Awards website, the series was actually created as a promotion strategy for Jules Shear’s acoustic album, The Third Party.
"What if we put these people together and create a show which consists of everybody playing songs together, but only with acoustic instruments, and we'll try to get it on HBO or something?" Shear said.
According to The New York Times, Shear got the idea from watching Bon Jovi members Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora play an acoustic set during the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.
A third version states that the show’s producers, Jim Burns and Robert Small, were inspired by an acoustic encore at a Bruce Springsteen show.
HBO, PBS, and MTV initially turned down the idea, but MTV took it up the second time around. Shear hosted the first–ever episode, which included performances from Syd Straw, Squeeze members Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton.
The first season consisted of 13 episodes and included performances from Elton John, Hall & Oates and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Within the first two years of the series, Sinead O’Connor, Sting, Elvis Costello, Aerosmith, and The Cure all played their own Unplugged sets.
Paul McCartney performed on the show in 1991 and got a successful album out of it, Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), and his performance garnered a lot of popularity for the show.
He said, “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves. We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album.”
1991 also saw Unplugged’s first rap episode, with performances from LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and instrumentals by Pop's Cool Love.
MTV’s first Spanish–language broadcast was Shakira’s Unplugged set that same year. Her album, Shakira—MTV Unplugged also won a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album in 2000.
The following year, Eric Clapton performed on Unplugged. His album from the performance won six Grammys, including Album of the Year. It was the first Unplugged album to win that award. During his Unplugged set, he performed “Tears in Heaven," written after the death of his 4–year–old son Conor in 1991. This version of the song won three Grammys, among them Song and Record Of The Year.
Nirvana won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1995 for their album MTV Unplugged In New York. Nirvana famously played Unplugged on November 18, 1983—just six months before frontman Kurt Cobain passed away.
Alicia Keys performed on the show in 2005, after Unplugged’s three–year hiatus. She collaborated with Mos Def, Common, and Maroon 5 during her performance.
The show was revived for a short period in 2007, featuring sets from Korn and Ne–Yo. In 2009, it was revived again, as monthly installments, with Adele and Katy Perry as two of the performers. Unplugged stopped airing new shows that year, but it has had a number of sporadic episodes since, including performances from Florence + the Machine and Miley Cyrus.
According to the Grammys website, Cyrus told MTV, "I wanted to do Unplugged because at the end of the day I'm a musician, that's what I love to do. I like shock value… but that is all second to music for me."
The show has become iconic for its ingenuity, ability to transform music, and legacy. As Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams described when she played the show in 2009, “It felt like we were doing an in–store performance, a real intimate one, and not a TV show."