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
Fans who tune into MTV Unplugged this
week in the hopes of seeing a big-name star
make a big-time mistake—like the time Paul
McCartney forgot the word to "We Can Work
It Out" and had to start all over—are 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 Carey—and she's
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 1990—straight
from the studio, with little-to-no live-performance experience—the 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
"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 audience—a 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 dial—including 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 exposure—and all in one perfectly packaged
shot. To be sure, the Unplugged concept was innovative one, but it was also a
"Everyone we too the idea to looked at it as a folk show," remembers Small. "But
MTV saw it as alternative programming—a 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
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 choir—Carey 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
"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 sensation—and
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 there—watching 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.