As MTV entered its adolescence, out went the wall-to-wall music videos, and in came a raft of programming designed to demonstrate the maturing channel’s personality and its ability to keep up with ever-developing audiences. Alongside the first experiments (and now-ubiquitous reality shows such as The Real World) came MTV Unplugged, a format that was built around the station’s first strength, music, and which birthed spin-off albums from musicians as diverse as Nirvana, R.E.M., George Michael, and, in 2009, the reigning queen of pop, Katy Perry.
Back for a new generation
During the mid-90s and the time of Nirvana’s epochal MTV Unplugged In New York, the show was something of a rite of passage. By the first decade of the new millennium, however, the concept had become something of an afterthought; the endless recycling of the core MTV demographic – tuning in, growing up, and moving on – meant that MTV Unplugged was only sporadically programmed.
In an effort to relaunch the show in 2009, the station turned to Katy Perry to bring it back for a new generation. For the star, just 12 months from her breakthrough album, One Of The Boys, it was an obvious opportunity to showcase the musical ability that underpinned her larger-than-life video presentation and somewhat controversial choice of debut single (“I Kissed A Girl” had both thrilled and scandalized the globe in the spring of 2008).
An unusual opportunity
The structure of the show would remain the same as before: a largely acoustic performance interspersed with the artist discussing the songs and the inspiration behind them. Recorded in New York on July 22, 2009, Katy picked five cuts from One Of The Boys, an unreleased song, and a cover of 2003’s “Hackensack,” by Fountains Of Wayne, to perform in front of a small studio audience.
With a tight band around her, and the support of musical director Adam Marcello, the showcase was something of a gamble for Katy. In 2009, no one really understood her knack for penning consistent hit records – the triumphs of “Roar” and “Chained To The Rhythm” were many years away; her breakthrough had come about because she’d recorded a catchy but provocative, controversy-courting song; and many believed her success was largely down to the talents of the superstar hitmakers she had worked with, like Max Martin, Cathy Dennis, and Desmond Child. MTV Unplugged offered an unusual opportunity to showcase her work in an exposed, undercooked way and to reveal just how much of the real Katy Perry had been part of that flashy presentation.
Performing the three big hits – “I Kissed A Girl,” “Thinking Of You” and “Waking Up In Vegas” – was all but obligatory (though she didn’t record the album’s other big success, “Hot N Cold”) while “Ur So Gay” was an obvious choice, given that it led the EP that had first taken Perry into the mainstream. In Perry’s hands, the MTV Unplugged revamp transformed the show from a now-familiar mannered studio style into something raw, largely softer, and compelling (it would be fascinating to hear Perry pick tracks from her now much deeper catalog for a similar treatment today).
An artistic success
Released digitally on November 13, 2009 (with a physical version following on November 17), MTV Unplugged was an artistic success and a fascinating look at Perry’s growing confidence in front of a crowd. What shines brightest is her warmth and assured vocals, stripped of the comfortable tricks of contemporary pop production. “Thinking Of You” – a lush orchestrated ballad in its familiar form – emerges as a tender, fragile thing, lightly melodic but achingly well played. Meanwhile, “Brick By Brick” was never released in any other guise, so MTV Unplugged offers the only chance to hear this sweeping pop nugget.
On “I Kissed A Girl,” reimagined as a lounge set piece, what the song loses in sassy self-confidence it gains in edgy pathos and drama. The band keeps the performance tight and engaging: it’s a strong showing that few were really expecting.
Given the warm critical reaction, a CD+DVD release of the show was inevitable, and the set – issued in a few markets – made the charts, including in the US. With a continuing and steady level of interest – supported by Katy’s growing profile – MTV Unplugged, featuring an interview with Katy, gained some traction but remains a largely overlooked early jewel in her glittering career. However, everything you need to understand about the icon she would become can be seen here.