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Mariah Carey on "MTV Unplugged" EP cover
© MTV / Mariah Carey on "MTV Unplugged"
Mariah Carey's 'MTV Unplugged' EP turns 20

Idolator

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 unshakable stage fright at the time, 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."

Bing: Mariah Carey videos

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 3 million copies in the United States alone, but despite considerable sales overseas, didn't break past the No. 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 onstage 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.

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.

Also: Inside Mariah Carey s Lavish First Birthday Party for Her Twins!

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 No. 1 single, garnering two Grammy Awards nominations and reaffirming Carey's ability to be a hit-maker 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, and still shows no signs of vanishing from pop's ever-evolving lexicon.

"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 20-something 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.

Related articles from Idolator.com:
Mariah Carey Shakes It Off at Gotham Hall
Mariah Carey & Nick Cannon Renew Vows
Mariah Carey Is Most Definitely in Shape on 'Shape' Magazine

 

18Comments
Jun 18, 2012 1:12PM
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Nothing worse than an over 40 woman wearing short shorts, looking chubby yet thinking she is hot and still in her twenties.
Jun 16, 2012 12:39AM
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Well what can we say. It was her first single.....ever. Oh the memories.
Jun 7, 2012 9:31AM
Jun 7, 2012 9:31AM
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I LOVE MARIAH!!!! SHE IS ALL THAT!!!!  SHE MADE A GREAT IMPACT ON THE 90'S THO I WAS YOUNG SHE WAS THE FIRST SINGER I ACTUALLY RECOGNIZED ON THE RADIO AND  I STILL JAM WHEN I HEAR HER TUNES I LOVE HER AND HAVE ALL HER CDS AND I WISH SHE WOULD CONTINUE TO MAKE MORE MUSIC!!! YO GO GIRL U DESERVE EVERYTHING AND YOU GORGEOUS!!!!
Jun 4, 2012 2:13PM
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I've never liked her. Does she have a great singing voice?  I suppose, however, her snobbiness, thinking she is "all that", the surgery, and pretending that she is this HAWT thing, detracts away from her singing.  When her husband was sick and in the hospital she turned it into being all about her. She is a self-absorbed, narcissistic bitc*.
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