MTV Unplugged was a staple of the '90s, home to legendary performances by some of the biggest acts of all time – Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Alanis Morissette, Nirvana. It was always event viewing, and something many '90s kids and teens feel nostalgic for. So it makes sense that the kings of event viewing in the modern era, BTS, would take us back to that feeling with MTV Unplugged, introducing a whole new generation to what's special about that stage at the same time.
BTS are known for their extravagant choreographies and spectacular sets. But anyone paying attention – mostly their dedicated fandom, ARMY – knows that some of their most goosebump-inducing moments come from more low-key performances. That's never been more apparent than with their MTV Unplugged offering. BTS, above all else, are storytellers, and they utilise their five-song setlist to exhibit this in flawless detail.
The story they're telling, as always, is one of light and shade, of comfort and understanding. Beginning with "Telepathy" – a b-side from their pandemic-inspired November 2020 album BE, performed for the first time here – BTS invites us into their colourful world of good vibes, good music, and joy in one another's company. The stage is decorated with comfy chairs, old-school games, and nostalgic MTV memorabilia – a neon sign even reads "nostalgic night" – while the members of BTS are all dressed in cartoon-emblazoned casual wear. It feels like a homecoming of sorts – for MTV Unplugged, for us as viewers, and for BTS themselves; performing together after a period in which Suga (who co-wrote "Telepathy") had been out of action due to shoulder surgery.
The song itself is the perfect entry point for this set. As Suga notes after the performance, he was inspired to write the song because he misses performing for fans. But rather than focus on yearning, "Telepathy" explores the comfort and sense of connection we can feel in being sure of someone's love, even when they're not physically with us. "For a moment, with useless worries put to rest, for a moment, let's enjoy it together," Jungkook sings (per fan translator Wisha at Do You Bangtan), exemplifying what this whole performance is all about.
BTS' comfort isn't shaped by toxic positivity, and so while their next song – pop ballad "Blue & Grey" – might feel like a sharp turn after the upbeat "Telepathy", it's really a different side of the same coin. Another b-side from BE, co-writer and co-producer V reveals the lyrics, like Suga's in "Telepathy", were partially inspired by how much he misses fans, as well as his own feelings of "burnout".
A sense of heaviness and aching permeates the performance. In stark contrast with "Telepathy", the members wear subdued grey outfits and walk around a narrow passageway, not interacting. Their isolation, even as others are nearby, is palpable, evoking the feelings of depression that run through the lyrics. This performance is an acknowledgement of how hard things are, a reassurance that it's okay to not be okay, and a chance to rest within these feelings.
The progression from "Blue & Grey" to a surprise cover of "Fix You" by Coldplay feels natural. It's a song about grief, an emotion none of us have escaped in the past year. Jimin reveals the song provided comfort for the group during their difficult times, and they want it to comfort others in turn. For this performance, the BTS members, still dressed in grey, sit in a row and let the song and their sublime vocals take centre stage. Moving forward from the isolation of "Blue & Grey", the lyrics speak of healing each other, of another type of homecoming, communicated through transcendent harmonies. It's not hard to see why BTS took comfort in this song – watching them perform it is like being wrapped in a warm aural hug.
With their first two performances, BTS showcase their ability to turn a live show into what effectively feels like a music video, while the stripped-back staging of "Fix You" allows the vocals to shine; each approach revealing different sides to the act. For the final two songs in the set – their Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits "Life Goes On" and "Dynamite" – they highlight another side. Still seated in a row, this time they're closer together and have their live band, Ghost, backing them up, bringing a new, fresh dimension to the songs.
The storytelling continues. "Life Goes On" brings together all of the themes BTS has touched upon so far, exploring the frustrations of pandemic life and a wistfulness about the past while also offering an acceptance of the present and, crucially, a hope for the future. "Here, hold my hand, let's fly to that future...the day will surely return," the members sing in harmony.
"Dynamite" brings the set full circle and back to the collective moment of joy set up in "Telepathy". A boppy disco funk track with lyrics that focus on having a good time and losing yourself in music, BTS does exactly that, unleashing their powerful voices and very best chair-dancing to send the audience off on triumphant note.
All together, it's a cathartic journey full of powerful moments. Whether you're a fan or a newcomer to either BTS or MTV Unplugged, this is a memorable performance worthy of each of their histories.
Written by Jenna Guillaume, an entertainment journalist and author of YA rom-coms What I Like About Me and You Were Made For Me. Follow her at @jennaguillaume.
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