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“Unplugged” Turns 21: Yes, It’s Still Alive, But Has A Shaky Future

As Justin Bieber unleashes his first acoustic album onto shoppers today, there’s a slightly more mature and pleasant milestone to celebrate in the world of stripped-down performances: Unplugged, MTV’s experiment in minimal concert performance programming, turns 21 today.

Originally turned down by MTV executives in 1989 who suggested that the concept be taken to PBS, the show has created some of the most epic and beloved music moments of the past two decades. In an age when the “M” in MTV has officially (officially!) lost all meaning, the Unplugged format is shockingly still alive, and actually gives that “M” its last remaining bit of dignity.

Although its most recent incarnation is an online-only feature and the 2009 Emmy-winning series consisted of performers like Katy Perry and Vampire Weekend — not exactly Lauryn Hill and Nirvana — it still adds a flavorful counterpart to the VMA-type megashows. Perry’s Unplugged even manages to prove that she can sing, for which it should win a zeitgeist-shattering award, at least.  Phoenix and Reba McEntire have also been featured recently, and it’s not like that’s at the Ke$ha and Fall Out Boy, right? But that’s where it’s probably headed, says former Unplugged director Matt Mills.

“B.O.b. does not deserve an Unplugged,” he told us about the one-hit outfit whose performance was done in September. When we searched for a video, we found MTV TJ Gabbi Greg’s blog, where she wrote about how much she loved B.O.b’s Unplugged cover of MGMT’s “Kids” — and yes, the song was fine, but unfortunately, it was actually a cover of “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” by Vampire Weekend (and no one seems to have noticed).

“And Adam Lambert? Really? He doesn’t even play an instrument,” says Mills, who was the first director to win an Emmy for Unplugged (for “Best New Approach”) and whose company Space Station Media is no longer in charge of the series.

Now the series is overseen by vh1, and Unplugged is under the “Vh1 Live” umbrella. With the exponential rise of popular music acts who you might be terrified to hear without autotune, the Unplugged format finds itself in a strange middle ground: those artists who can shine in acoustic settings should be a treat during a series that spotlights their talent, but if its parent company starts featuring performers who never plugged in their guitars in the first place, is it even interesting anymore? And if the internet lets us listen in on more compelling artists on their own Youtube pages or on La Blogotheque’s “Take Away Shows,” is the middleman even necessary? Unplugged masterfully lives up to MTV’s focus on reality programming and its original toast to the essence of music — but its way of doing it is probably no longer what execs have in mind.

Later today we’ll have a look back at the best Unplugged shows ever, so if you have a favorite you’d like to include, tell us in the comments, and click here to enjoy an MTV Uncensored video about the history of Unplugged.

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