Editor’s note: This is a sponsored article created in partnership with Visit Victoria, Australia’s home of live music.
There's something about witnessing raw musical performance, stripped of all the trimmings, that speaks to our innate experience as humans. It still feels like one of the best ways to experience music.
Since its inception, MTV Unplugged has aimed to deliver that exact pleasure to fans all around the world. Spotlighting the world's biggest artists performing with little more than their exceptional talent, MTV Unplugged broke new ground in forging an intimacy between artists and fans – long before social media was just a glimmer in Zuckerberg's eye.
It also pioneered a stripped-down format that continues to manifest itself today – over 30 years after it launched. And it's not hard to see why. There is something truly magical about seeing the world's biggest artists, many of whom are used to selling out arenas, strip things back completely to remind us why we fell in love with them in the first place.
While MTV Unplugged often evokes the legendary performances of Kurt Cobain and Mariah Carey, there is a bounty of hidden gems wholly worth revisiting.
So, in the lead up to Tash Sultana's debut performance on the MTV Unplugged stage in Melbourne, here's a run through of some lesser-known, glittering performances in the history of the series for a healthy smack of nostalgia.
Annie Lennox, Switzerland (1992)
Annie Lennox performed a string of songs for MTV Unplugged during her appearance at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival in 1992. While she isn’t rocking the inch-length, icy blonde hair most people associate her with, she does deliver a commanding and attention-grabbing performance like no other. Her distinct, unwavering vocals will send chills down your spine – more so than they have ever done while listening to her via stereo. There’s a string of Eurythmics songs in the mix, but the standout is the beautiful and sombre “Why?” – Lennox’s first ever solo single. It’s the most tender and heartbreaking a harmonica has ever sounded.
Midnight Oil, New York City (1993)
That’s right, folks. 25 years before the launch of MTV Unplugged Melbourne, our very own Midnight Oil took to Sony Music Studios in New York City to deliver a mammoth, 17-song set. While only a few of those songs were ever broadcast, the set did receive a full release on DVD back in 2017. And it’s a thing to behold. Peter Garrett’s skills as a frontman are no secret – he’s arguably one of the best Australia has ever had – but seeing him execute such restraint as he does during Midnight Oil’s MTV Unplugged performance is a reminder of how versatile he is. He does away with the signature dance moves (mostly) but still delivers an equally passionate and evocative performance.
Shakira, New York City (1999)
Shakira was a thing long before “Whenever, Wherever”. Having a more raw, rock-infused sound than what we know her for today, Shakira’s appearance on MTV Unplugged back in 1999 marked the first episode of the series ever to be recorded entirely in a language other than English (Spanish). She isn’t doing any of her isolatory, sensual dance moves – instead she’s standing (or sitting) by her microphone with red/brown hair, wearing a long-sleeve shirt and long pants. It’s a testament to the diversity of Shakira’s craft, proving that the dance moves she adopted in the new millennium weren’t for her to hide behind – but to add another notch to her belt. Particularly worth noting is her performance of “Inevitable”, where she sits strumming her guitar in an incredibly powerful and climactic display of her skill.
Hikaru Utada, Tokyo (2001)
When Hikaru Utada took to the MTV Unplugged stage in Tokyo’s Tennouzu Studio in 2001, she was just 18 years old. Yet, you’d find it hard to believe that such power beams from someone so young. Her bilingualism inevitably helped her bring a typically American sound into Japan at the turn of the millennium, but her quiet confidence echoes whether she’s singing in Japanese or in English. Reminiscent of other early noughties artists, specifically Stacie Orrico, Utada is the type of artist you wish you’d have heard about sooner. Keep an eye out for her stunning rendition of U2’s “With Or Without You”, by the way.
Lauryn Hill, New York City (2001)
OK so I know that I said these were MTV Unplugged performances that may have passed you by as the years have gone on – but an exception has to be made for Ms. Lauryn Hill.
It’s hard to describe the inimitable power and presence of someone so highly revered, but Lauryn Hill has always been unfiltered, and has always been liberated by her work. That freedom bleeds out of her stunning performance on MTV Unplugged in 2001, and would later be released as her live album – MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. Perhaps her performance’s legend has lasted because it became the second, and – at the time of writing – final, album Lauryn Hill ever released. But, even just watching a snippet you can tell that the legendary singer and rapper operates on a plane of all her own. Solange, Adele and Sam Smith have all said that this performance positively shaped them as artists, and it’s very easy to see why.
Jay-Z, New York City (2001)
2001 was a bloody year for MTV Unplugged. And, while Jay-Z’s appearance is another one that isn’t exactly unheard of, it’s still important in the lexicon of both MTV Unplugged and Jay-Z’s career. Anyone under 18 might think that Jay-Z’s music career is secondary to his wife Beyonce’s, and that he’s about his business empire more than anything, and, while both might be true, his impact on hip-hop over the turn of the century cannot be overstated. So, it seemed fitting that when he took to the Unplugged stage, he’d rewire the public’s perception of him once again. Redoing all of his performed songs with new production from The Roots, he delivers his bars effortlessly with no help from a backing track. It’s breathless at times, but it perfectly captured the future mogul at the peak of his legendary career.
Adele, New York City (2009)
Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to imagine a time where Adele wasn’t ADELE. While her charm and her charisma were always there, the sell-out stadium tours are only a relatively new part of the Adele zeitgeist. In 2009, before she dropped “Rolling In The Deep”, “Someone Like You” or “Hello”, she took to a small studio to deliver five songs that showcased her now beloved voice to its full potential. She’s still rocking the bee-hive as she sits beside her guitarist, but her vocal power is something that’s hardly going to go out of style. Her voice and presence are timeless – we know this now – but it’s refreshing to see it was always there. Her appearance on Unplugged in 2009 was a part of a 6-episode series that featured six different acts: Katy Perry, Silversun Pickups, Vampire Weekend, All Time Low and Paramore. Arguably, all of those acts at the time were more famous than Adele – but for me, her performance stood out the most.
This article is sponsored by Visit Victoria, Australia’s home of live music. Visit Victoria is MTV Unplugged Melbourne’s exclusive partner. The piece was written by music contributor, Jackson Langford.
Tash Sultana’s exclusive MTV Unplugged Melbourne performance will air on MTV Australia later this month. More details to come.