Everybody has a favorite Unplugged. Nirvana covering David Bowie, showcasing Kurt Cobain as we’d never seen him before. LL Cool J going all in on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The stripped down pop of Katy Perry and soul of Adele. Iconic performances from legends Jay-Z & The Roots and Eric Clapton.
All of these moments and more contribute to the enduring musical legacy of the Unplugged franchise, and fit in the framework of its evolution over the course of its nearly 23-year history. Launched on-air in November of 1989, Unplugged has evolved a few times over the years and is now an Emmy-winning music series that expands across all of Viacom’s Music Group brands – not only MTV, but also CMT and VH1.
With Florence + the Machine Unplugged in the leadoff spot for the new season kicking off on April 9 with State Farm serving as the exclusive digital sponsor, we sat down with Van Toffler, President of Viacom’s Music and Logo Group, to discuss Unplugged, its legacy and evolution, and the joys – and occasional pains – of bringing the show to music fans for more than two decades.
Toffler, whose tenure has spanned the life of the show, told us that while many an artist today clamor for a spot on Unplugged – and even a big-name won’t guarantee one – this wasn’t always the case.
“It really was experimental in the beginning,” Toffler said. “I think the first show was some combination of Nuclear Valdez and the Alarm and one other band that had sold seven records.”
In the early days, MTV couldn’t book the shows that have become the now-iconic Unplugged series. But as momentum built, Don Henley on a break from the Eagles agreed to do it, opening the doors to superstars like Clapton, Elton John and Paul McCartney.
“It was always intimate,” Toffler said. “For those superstars, it was showcasing their talent in a way they hadn’t performed in decades. McCartney had actually never performed a lot of the Beatles songs he did in the Unplugged that we shot in the UK.”
Everyone, it seemed, started winning Grammys – Clapton won 6, made his best-selling record of his career at 20 million units. McCartney, too, released a limited edition album.
“And then it got to be too much pressure,” Toffler said. “There was so much pressure when they did it to make it great, and that sort of defeated the purpose of this relatively loose, vibe-y unrehearsed thing – so we stopped.”
MTV put it on the shelf, and then feeling that there were new great artists who had the chops to perform in Unplugged, reincarnated it for the digital age.
The series now lives across all of our screens and has re-embraced its intimate connection with the audience, which according to Toffler, has brought back the hand-crafted feeling of the show.
“I’ve been at some of the tapings where it’s a crew of six people and an audience of six people, like Black Crows, and it’s really loose – and I think that’s the original spirit of Unplugged – trying at the height of sort of hair bands to just go completely different direction and strip things down and do it differently,” he said.
There’s still a lot of pressure for an artist to bring their all to an Unplugged performance.
“I think the legacy looms large,” Toffler said. “Florence, she was really nervous. But she loved the synagogue [where it was filmed], she loved the intimacy of it. But because she watched 6, 7, 8 prior Unpluggeds, she felt pressure not to blow it.”
Putting the legacy into words, Toffler said it comes down to real artists.
“It’s sort of unexpected, unique and surprising – but also a great showcase for artists, real artists, to do their thing,” he said.
Last year’s season really ran the gamut – from a newcomer like Lykke Li to Adele. It just came down to who’s got the chops. Folk duo The Civil Wars will appear on VH1’s Unplugged, and country artist Dierks Bentley will air on CMT this spring.
“Now it’s about the different music heads feeling like who can really kill it in an unplugged format, and that’s how it arises,” Toffler said.
Key to the longevity of the series, Toffler said, is artistry.
“You can’t phone it in, you can’t fake it,” he said. “You’ve got to have the chops, and if you don’t, then it shows. So real artists, doing their craft in a great way, doing unique versions of their classic songs, is really a great thing to watch. It’s a one-of-a-kind thing, so that’s probably what’s kept it alive.”
The one that got away? Grateful Dead.
“We almost had them a few months before Jerry passed,” Toffler said. “That would have been a memorable one to get.”
The Smiths have thus far eluded us, too.
“I’ve been trying to get the Smiths for 20-something years,” Toffler said. “If someone has Morrissey’s address, let me know because he doesn’t respond to phone calls or emails.”
But we’re assured that we can expect more music history in the making with a multitude of genres and artists that span different parts of their careers.