This week, you have the opportunity to take another look at one of the most acclaimed television shows of the past season: Paul McCartney’s April appearance on MTV’s high-energy, low-volume acoustic show, Unplugged. These days, McCartney isn’t exactly rocking the record charts — though he tries hard to create new hits, he’s a pop genius whose innovative work seems behind him.
So why the cheers for McCartney’s Unplugged performance? Because, since the show’s inception in January 1990, Unplugged has had a soothing, liberating effect on even the most uptight musicians. It’s as if, freed to emerge from behind their amplifiers and the deafening wall of sound that characterizes most of their performances, rockers can unplug the cotton from their ears and relax. And if anyone needed to get loosey-goosey, it’s McCartney, who, for all his crinkly-eyed winsomeness, has always been a stiff-necked, self-conscious performer.
On Unplugged, McCartney is flanked by Robbie McIntosh and Hamish Stuart; they bash away happily at acoustic guitars, strumming the likes of ”Here, There and Everywhere,” ”Blackbird,” and a heavenly version of ”We Can Work It Out.” There’s some discreet drumming from Blair Cunningham, a few minimal keyboard fills from Paul ”Wix” Wickens, and — what would a McCartney show be without her? — some sullen maraca shaking from Linda McCartney. The hour, expanded from Unplugged’s usual 30 minutes, is completely charming.
And leave it to McCartney, the businessman’s Beatle, to take full advantage of his excellent performance here: He’s releasing the soundtrack of the show as Unplugged: The Official Bootleg on June 4. It will be interesting to see whether longtime fans who haven’t exactly been captivated by his ’80s work will buy this artful TV souvenir.
When Unplugged began, it emphasized the novelty of seeing gnarly hard rockers applying their supposed ham-fists to acoustic instruments. But it turned out that the members of rough, tough bands like Aerosmith, Great White, and Tesla were skilled, engaging performers — rock & roll ravers who were actually closet folkies eager to enunciate.
To its great credit, though, Unplugged hasn’t invited acts only from MTV’s standard hard-rock playlist. Mass-appeal eccentrics R.E.M. fit right in — the revelation of their show was the strength of Michael Stipe’s voice, too often buried on their albums. Another recent installment showcased the rap and hip-hop acts L.L. Cool J, De La Soul, MC Lyte, and A Tribe Called Quest. Hip-hop, with its reliance on computer sampling, record scratching, and vocal enhancement, is commonly thought to be the pop form most dependent upon technology, but this edition of Unplugged reminded viewers that the music is rooted in doo-wop and rhythm & blues.
The show was uneven — A Tribe Called Quest performed halfheartedly, and De La Soul proved themselves the novelty-act jokers that some of us skeptics have always suspected. But MC Lyte performed her song ”Cappucino” like a rapping Aretha Franklin: Lyte brought out the soul in her lyrics. And L.L. Cool J was extraordinary, turning his ”Mama Said Knock You Out” into a new kind of vocal music that had the emotionalism of the blues and the relentless catchiness of rock.
In the course of its brief existence, Unplugged has destroyed one myth but inadvertently bolstered another. The notion that pop stars are poor musicians overly reliant on electronic trickery is swiftly disabused here; on the other hand, the idea that performing unplugged is the true test of a real musician is a shortsighted, even elitist, one.
The show has been unfairly used as a club with which to beat some stars. A few observers have said only half-jokingly that Unplugged could be used as a litmus test for talent-that, say, Paula Abdul, Madonna, and Milli Vanilli should be forced to perform to prove they can ”really” sing and play. This reasoning is antithetical to the open-mindedness that Unplugged was created to inspire, and rock fans playing this game should remember that this is exactly the kind of criticism that big-band and folk aficionados employed to try to discredit rock & roll in the early ’50s.
In coming weeks, Unplugged will feature acts as disparate as Elvis Costello and the arty punk-metal outfit Jane’s Addiction. You may find yourself dreaming up ideal future guests: How about a show featuring an unplugged Luther Vandross? Bonnie Raitt, in a return to her folk and blues beginnings? Or funk father George Clinton?
And, hey, MTV-how ’bout a companion show called Plugged In? Get performers who usually work at low volume or acoustically — everyone from Randy Newman to the a cappella group Take 6 — and surround them with a revved-up band. That might bring fresh force to their music. Just a thought… A