Mariah Carey’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ Turns 20: Backtracking

Despite the extraordinary successes of her first two full-length albums — 1990′s self-titled debut and 1991’s Emotions — young star Mariah Carey had yet to embark on a world tour of any sort, restricting her live performances to television and awards shows. Though Carey defended her actions in the press in these early stages of her career, citing the vocal strain of back-to-back gigs and her then unshakable stage fright, some were unconvinced. According to her detractors, Carey’s distinctive voice was a manufactured gimmick designed to sell albums.

Yes, even in those pre-Britney days of the early ’90s pop’s reigning princess had to face accusations of studio trickery. How could Carey’s team take the heat off their most valuable rising star? Enter MTV’s live acoustic concert series, Unplugged.

Filmed on March 16, 1992, Unplugged was to be Carey’s response to her critics, her chance to prove to the world the full prowess of her powerful pipes. And prove them she did: The then 22-year-old singer’s performance became one of the series’ most-aired episodes to date, prompting Columbia Records to release it as an EP on June 2, 1992. The record sold over three million copies in the United States alone, but despite considerable sales overseas, didn’t break past the #3 spot on the Billboard 100. Chart performance aside, Unplugged helped propel Carey to superstardom, securing her place alongside pop’s reigning divas for the remainder of the decade.

Although the melismatic style of singing made popular by Carey seems passe by today’s Auto-Tuned, vocal fry-heavy standards, there’s a certain timelessness embodied in her Unplugged set.This is early ’90s pop-infused R&B at its absolute finest — pure, precise and oozing with charismatic innocence. From jazzy torch songs (“If It’s Over”) to light R&B dance hits (“Make it Happen”), Carey adapts her voice to an impressively wide range of styles over the course of the career-changing EP’s seven tracks.

Looking much like the long lost sister of Elaine Benes (albeit a much more glamorous version), Carey’s initial on-stage awkwardness is palpable as she sidesteps through the smooth jazz swagger of “Emotions.” Halfway through the song, she loosens up; the anxiety quickly vanishes from her face and, more importantly, from her voice. As Carey reaches the end of the second verse, she lets out a powerful, glass-shattering note from her whistle register — one of those characteristically Carey high notes so many of her critics claimed to be a hoax. Hold on world, this girl is the real deal.

Mariah Carey, “Emotions” (MTV Unplugged)

The original recording of Carey’s first single, “Vision of Love,” suffers from a synthesizer infatuation left over from the previous decade; the track overflows with distracting and dated glassy leads and drums. But her Unplugged reworking is something of a marvel, replacing the canned effects with lush strings, jaunty piano riffs and Gospel-tinged doo-wop backing vocals that service Carey’s voice rather than blemish it.

Mariah Carey, “Vision Of Love” (MTV Unplugged)

By far the most famous track from Carey’s Unplugged is her cover of The Jackson 5’s 1970 chart-topping hit “I’ll Be There.” A last-minute addition to the show’s set, Carey’s rendition — performed as a duet with her longtime collaborator Trey Lorenz — went on to be the singer’s sixth #1 single, garnering two Grammy Awards nominations and reaffirming Carey’s ability to be a hitmaker for Columbia. Neatly arranged and far more intricate than the Jackson 5 version, Carey’s “I’ll Be There” retains much of the same emotional sincerity of the original while giving the song much-needed new life. The single was hard to escape in 1992 (I recall it being on both sides of a mixtape my mother often played), and still shows no signs of vanishing from pop’s ever-evolving lexicon.

Mariah Carey, “I’ll Be There” (MTV Unplugged)

“You know I’m not used to doing this,” Carey quipped before launching into the impromptu closer, “Can’t Let Go,” referring directly to the many criticisms that initially prompted her Unplugged stint. Yet, early jitters aside, as the EP progresses Carey transforms from a nervous twentysomething into a natural stage presence, a musical force to be reckoned with. If Carey still felt anxious by the performance’s conclusion, there’s absolutely no way to tell.

Mariah Carey, “Can’t Let Go” (MTV Unplugged)

Peep the power in that hair flip at the beginning.