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MTV Unplugged premieres

The television series MTV Unplugged, featuring stripped-down acoustical performances by a wide range of artists not usually known for such performances, makes its broadcast premiere on this day in 1989.

The premiere episode of MTV Unplugged was only lightly promoted by the network, in part because it featured a lineup whose biggest name was the English pop group Squeeze—a band whose greatest popular success was already several years behind it. The episode also featured performances by the relatively unknown singer-songwriter Syd Straw, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton and singer-songwriter Jules Shear, who went on to act as host in the first season of MTV Unplugged. Following this less-than-star-studded debut, subsequent episodes featured a smattering of moderately popular acts like 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Penn along with performers with little or no name recognition among the MTV generation, like Graham Parker and Dr. John.

Late in its first season, however MTV Unplugged began to gain popular momentum with noteworthy appearances by Sinead O’Connor and Aerosmith. It was a second-season appearance by Paul McCartney, however, that probably turned the show into the success it became when McCartney released a recording of his performance as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)—an album that enjoyed tremendous popular success. Soon enough, MTV Unplugged became a popular stop not only for some of the biggest contemporary acts of the early 1990s, such as R.E.M. and Nirvana, but also for older artists looking to relaunch their brands with a younger audience, such as Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Tony Bennett. Unplugged albums released by the latter three artists each went on to sell upwards of a million copies, making the MTV Unplugged brand a saleable commodity.

The program has not been without its critics. Steve Albini, for instance, who produced Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero, told Time magazine in 1995, “From an artistic standpoint, it’s a total joke…. You take bands that are fundamentally electric-rock bands and put acoustic guitars in their hands and make them do a pantomime of a front-porch performance.” Nevertheless, MTV Unplugged is among the most successful original programs ever produced by MTV.

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