MTV is bringing back ‘Unplugged.’ First artist: Shawn Mendes. Will his young fans tune in?

MTV Unplugged Shawn Mendes
Shawn Mendes performs during a taping for MTV’s newly revived “Unplugged.”
(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for MTV)
Pop Music Critic

With room for 1,600 or so, the Theatre at Ace Hotel is about as intimate as it gets for Shawn Mendes, the teen-pop heartthrob who is launching MTV’s newly resuscitated “Unplugged” and whose current arena tour stopped at Staples Center for a sold-out show in July.

But it wasn’t the relatively small crowd size that most stood out on a recent evening as Mendes performed at the downtown venue — it was the lack of glowing smartphones in an audience accustomed to documenting everything on social media.

How to explain the unusual focus on what was happening onstage? Mendes’ young fans didn’t really have a choice: They’d had to check their phones at the door in order to witness the taping for the revitalized “Unplugged.”

Well known among people from the pre-Instagram era, “Unplugged” was the cable network’s influential acoustic showcase that featured memorable performances by some of the biggest rock acts of the 1990s, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette.

The series also drew veteran artists like Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett; LL Cool J even made an appearance, as did Jay-Z in 2001, before MTV began slowly shifting away from music programming and toward shows like “Teen Mom” and “My Super Sweet 16.”

Now the network is bringing back the series as part of what it’s describing as an overall rededication to music, with the first episode, featuring Mendes, set to premiere Friday night and then viewable at or on demand.

Yet “Unplugged” returns at a moment when teens and twentysomethings are abandoning old-fashioned television in ever-increasing numbers. Last month MTV’s flagship Video Music Awards attracted 5.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen, down significantly from the year before.

What’s more, “Unplugged’s” format is widely imitated online; today it’s not hard to find pop stars doing stripped-down versions of their songs on YouTube and Spotify.

Sure, the kids at the Ace Hotel were paying rapt attention as Mendes, who turned 19 last month, sang his top-10 hit “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back.” But will millions like them turn away from Snapchat to tune in?

Amani Duncan thinks so.

The MTV executive in charge of “Unplugged’s” reboot said the network’s “brand equity” is still strong enough to pull a large audience, at least when it’s presenting a popular artist with his own ultra-devoted fan base (and said artist is promoting the show on his closely followed social-media channels).

And, she said, “Unplugged” fits into a larger ’90s revival — think TLC and “Twin Peaks” — that’s clearly resonating with people who weren’t born until after that decade. As proof, she pointed to Internet search statistics for Nirvana’s episode of the show, which originally aired in 1993 and was later adapted for a quintuple-platinum album.

In addition to “Unplugged,” MTV is bringing back “TRL,” the daily live show that once gave crucial boosts to acts like Eminem and Britney Spears.

“Everything ’90s is cool again,” Duncan said.

That’s one of the reasons the executive didn’t want to mess too dramatically with the “Unplugged” formula, whose rampant emulation she says demonstrates its persistent value.

Still, there was room for minor tweaks, Duncan said, such as shooting the show in a real venue instead of a studio or soundstage (“It brings more connectivity”) and adding “digital components” that weren’t available back in the days of grunge and “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Duncan described the version of “Unplugged” that will air on MTV as just one part of the series’ relaunch; bonus content will also roll out on MTV’s website and other platforms such as the music video site Vevo.

Mendes’ manager, Andrew Gertler, said that kind of digital presence is a necessity for any property trying to attract millennials and members of Generation Z. And he should know: Mendes developed his original audience by posting short clips on the video sharing app Vine; now the singer reaches a combined following of nearly 40 million on Twitter and Instagram.

But it was the promise of a TV show, not a YouTube hit, that made Gertler want to get his client on “Unplugged.”

Having the show air at a specific time “event-izes it in a way online can’t,” the manager said. “It makes it more exciting.” The show’s length was appealing, too.

“It’s pretty rare in the current state of things that artists get an entire hour to showcase their talents,” Gertler said. “For an artist like Shawn, who was birthed in this bite-sized social-media era, it’s amazing to have this recurring medium come back that allows artists to do that.”

Indeed, for all of MTV’s efforts to repackage “Unplugged” for a younger audience, the show represents something of a prestige play for Mendes, who’s open about his eagerness to be taken more seriously than he is by people in their 30s and 40s.

Onstage at the Ace, Mendes admitted he was nervous because he’d been preparing for the taping by watching old clips of Pearl Jam and Nirvana on “Unplugged.”

“These aren’t artists Shawn grew up with but who he sees as legends,” Gertler said. “So he’s, like, ‘Wow, I get to follow in those footsteps?’ ”

MTV’s Duncan said the show’s reputation still commands respect years after it fell out of regular rotation on the network.

“When we announced that we were officially back in the ‘Unplugged’ business, the phone did not stop ringing,” she said. “The list [of acts interested in appearing] is four pages long, and it keeps growing.”

As in the original go-around, the show will mix fresh-faced stars with the occasional “heritage artist,” said Duncan, who helped bring Jay-Z to “Unplugged” back when she was working in video promotions at the rapper’s record label, Def Jam.

“Unplugged’s” second episode, set to air Sept. 15, is built around a performance by the electro-rock band Bleachers filmed at the Stone Pony club in the band’s home state of New Jersey.

And beyond that?

Though she wouldn’t name names, Duncan used a buzz phrase familiar to those marketing to millennials in saying she’s determined to keep the show’s booking “very diverse.”

“I can say with great confidence,” she added, “that it’s not just going to be people who primarily play the acoustic guitar.”

Time will tell if “Unplugged” produces new moments to rival some of the old classics. Here are three that set the bar high.

Nirvana performs "The Man Who Sold the World."

Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (1993)

Taped just after the release of the band’s “In Utero” album, Nirvana’s “Unplugged” laid bare the pain in Kurt Cobain’s most tortured songs. But the frontman also took the opportunity to pay tribute to some of his heroes, covering tunes by Leadbelly and the Vaselines along with this spooky David Bowie cut.

LL Cool J performs "Mama Said Knock You Out" at around the 12-minute mark.

LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1991)

“Pots and pans, grits and gravy — y’all ready, baby?” the rapper asked the members of his band, and were they ever: Transforming the boom-bap original into a rootsy hoedown, LL and his musicians somehow gave “Mama Said” even more swagger than it had before.

Maxwell performs "This Woman's Work."

Maxwell, “This Woman’s Work” (1997)

At its best, “Unplugged” can make a viewer feel like he or she is sharing a physical space with an artist. That was certainly the case with this remarkably delicate performance by Maxwell, who sings Kate Bush’s late-’80s ballad as though he’s imparting a treasured secret.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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