brucekluger.com

    TV Guide, May 1992

    MTV—Without the Glitz: Mariah Carey
    On MTV Unplugged, the music channel's no-frills showcase, pop stars like
    Mariah Carey get back to basics

    By Bruce Kluger


    Classic good news/bad news. First, the bad.  
    Fans who tune into MTV Unplugged this
    week in the hopes of seeing a big-name star
    make a big-time mistakelike the time Paul
    McCartney forgot the word to "We Can Work
    It Out" and had to start all overare likely to
    be disappointed.  Debuting this Wednesday,
    May 20, at 10 P.M. (ET) on the cable music
    network's popular acoustics-only series is
    R&B pop vocalist Mariah Careyand she's
    absolutely perfect.

    And that, folks, is the good news.

    "Unplugged is an artists' show," says the program's executive producer, Joel
    Gallen, "and Mariah goes well with its concept. I can safely say she's the best
    singer we've ever had on it. She just shines."

    But, for the artist herself, who shot to Grammy-grabbing stardom in 1990straight
    from the studio, with little-to-no live-performance experiencethe MTV gig was an
    eye-opener. "It's hard for me to be unplugged, if you know what I mean," says
    Carey, relaxing in her midtown Manhattan hotel suite a few days after the taping.  
    "the setup there was very raw, and I'm used to hearing more of a studio sound
    when I sing. I'm really very hard on myself, so when I hear imperfections, I get
    freaked out.

    "Still, the whole idea of Unplugged is cool," continues the 22-year-old singer-
    songwriter.  "It allows the artist to be an artist without having to be a video star or lip-
    synching their record. You can go out there and really be true to what you do."

    Which is precisely MTV's intention. Since its premiere in January 1990, Unplugged
    has captured the imagination of an ever-growing audiencea faithful following that
    takes its music seriously. Featuring mini-concerts shot in locations from Los
    Angeles to London, Unplugged has offered up a grab bag of headliners that
    virtually spans the radio dialincluding Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, Sting, and L.L.
    Cool J, with Paul Simon and John Mellencamp soon to come.  

    While audiences have routinely embraced the up-close-and-personal free for the
    show, the performers themselves find the departure into no-frills music just as
    enchanting. "Welcome to Unplugged," said Elton John at the start of his 1990 low-
    voltage gig, "the program that lip-syncers dare not come on!" And McCartney was
    so smitten by his Unplugged experience, he's released a limited-edition recording of
    it entitled Unplugged: The Official Bootleg.

    The series w was the brainchild of Robert Small and Jim Burns, whose RSE
    production company also now produces The Nick Hit List for Nickelodeon. Small
    and Burns envisioned a no-electric-cords-allowed program that would permit
    recording industry mainstays to return to their roots via small concerts in intimate
    settings, as well as get world-wide TV exposureand all in one perfectly packaged
    shot. To be sure, the Unplugged concept was innovative one, but it was also a
    tough sell.  

    "Everyone we too the idea to looked at it as a folk show," remembers Small. "But
    MTV saw it as alternative programminga place where today's rock-and-roll stars
    could do acoustic music and experience something different."

    "There's an intimacy here that big-name artists don't get anymore," adds Burns.
    "Like, when's the last time Elton John played to a crowd of 150 people? In his living
    room?"

    If the audience at Carey's performance reflected the kind of relaxed ambiance
    Burns refers to, the action on stage was anything but. Backed by 25 musicians
    including two alternating keyboards, a string section, the Saturday Night Live horns,
    and a 10-voice gospel choirCarey makes her Unplugged debut with gusto.
    Aerobicizing her four-octave pipes through five numbers from her two albums,  
    Mariah Carey and Emotions, she sweeps the audience in a hooting frenzy
    especially when she skyrockets into her trademark high-high falsetto. According to
    Gallen, taping the show before the small crowd of New Yorkers "was pretty
    magnificent and a little scary. It was the most people we've ever put on that stage at
    once," he says. "In the olden days, having three acoustic guitars up there was big."

    As many artists who appear on Unplugged, Carey also performs a number she
    hasn't recorded, offering up a personal rendition of a Jackson 5 classic (to reveal
    its name would only spoil the delightful surprise).

    But the unexpected has become an expected part of the Unplugged package. Who
    knew, for example, that R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe was just as powerful a singer
    without the aid of studio sweetening? Or that rappers De La Soul and MC Lyte
    really don't need computer sampling and turn-table backtracking to get their
    audiences cheering?

    "So a lot of people will be surprised to sis cover that Mariah isn't just a studio
    performer, either," says Unplugged producer Alex Coletti. "She really proves that
    she can pull it off live."

    Critics agree that the Unplugged experiment gained credibility when such recording
    industry veterans as Neil Young and Aerosmith began taking their turns beneath
    the spotlight, and Gallen says it was Don Henley's Unplugged stint that marked the
    show's "turning point," adding that the former Eagle's performance convinced MTV
    that the show didn't even need a host.

    But this doesn't bother more recently arrived superstars like Carey, whose huge
    success is remarkable for one so young. For her generation, television has always
    been a part of the music business, so the leap from recording studio to sound
    stage is a natural one.

    "I basically grew up with MTV," says Carey. "It was on throughout my whole teen life.
    I think it was even around before that," she adds, breaking into a smile, "but I didn't
    have cable then."

    Unlike many of today's popular recording artists, Carey found stardom by
    eschewing the late-night club grind and marching straight from high school into the
    sound booth. "I guess I could have done the little club scene and tried to get heard
    that way," she recalls, "but I don't think I could have handled people drinking beer
    while I was trying to sing. So I just continued to waitress and work in the studio."

    With the help of an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show ("I was thrilled to go on
    there but I was scared. I was unknown, and Arsenio gave me a chance") and a
    debut album that racked up two Grammy's, three Soul Train Music Awards and
    sextuple-platinum certification, Carey became a Coast-to-Coast sensationand
    precisely the kind of star MTV like to unplug.

    "It was a totally positive experience working with Mariah," says Coletti, pointing out
    that Carey joins Sinead O'Connor, Michelle Shocked, and the Indigo Girls as
    among the few female acts the program has showcased. "But it was especially fun
    watching her reactions up therewatching her respond to a live gig."

    Which brings us to our little white lie. Carey does have moment of imperfection in
    her Unplugged debut: Just as she launches into her hit single "Vision of Love," the
    usually poised songstress momentarily breaks into giggles when she recognizes a
    familiar face in the audience. The culprit who causes the disruption? Her mom.