Does Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Still Hold Up in 2022?

Antonio C.

In December 1993, Nirvana members Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and cellist Lori Goldston performed for the acoustic series MTV Unplugged.  Nirvana decided to make a MTV Unplugged album because they wanted to promote new material but didn’t want to make a new studio album because they were hestitant after going mainstream with their breakthrough album Nevermind. Even though this album was released almost 30 years ago, it’s shocking how this album still has influence to this day. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged which highlights the raw energy and emotion of Kurt Cobain, is a serious contender for the best album of all time.  Legendary artist Neil Young remarked Cobain’s performance was “unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” In that venue, as the show progressed, it was obvious history was being made.  

The final months of Kurt Cobain’s life were very chaotic to say the least. While the performance stands on its own merits in other ways, it bears significance as one of the last works of lead singer Kurt Cobain. Cobain wanted to do prove to himself he could do this performance in an artistic way, his own way. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged being 5 months prior to Kurt Cobain’s death really hits close to home for fans and signifies its importance. Many of the song lyrics in the set illustrate how emotionally affected he was. It’s difficult listening to lines like “don’t expect me to cry for all the reasons left to die¨ and ¨I swear I don’t have a gun¨ without thinking of Cobain’s death which was controversially deemed a suspected suicide.  In addition to the song choices, Cobain’s interactions with stage crew and even other members of the band are telling. During the concert, Cobain becomes disgruntled with drummer Dave Grohl, telling him to “shut up,” after Dave told him “Pennyroyal Tea” sounded good when he did it alone. Clearly, Cobain is so uncomfortable with who he has become, he can’t even share a moment with his bandmate without being negative.  It didn’t help Nirvana had never done an unplugged concert before, which made the rehearsal sessions very tense. 

The setlist for this live album was a mix of mainly Nirvana’s own discography mostly off In Utero, which ironically was their least popular album.  Covers included hits from David Bowie, Meat Puppets, The Vaselines, Lead Belly, and others. For the covers of The Meat Puppets, Nirvana had Cris & Curt Kirkwood from The Meat Puppets onstage to sing their songs. When it came to choosing songs of their mainstream favorite Nevermind, they only chose a few songs from that album because most of the songs wouldn’t work acoustically. 

Not only was the setlist carefully curated, Nirvana ensured the performance was treated with precision. This wasn’t like any other unplugged performance for the time. For example, Pearl Jam did an unplugged concert too and they approached the performance like it was every other concert they perform, with typical rock band anger and adrenaline, even in an acoustic setting. However Nirvana’s vision was the opposite, Nirvana wanted this concert to be calm and wanted to close in on something different for the band.

Anytime I walk into a record store and I see Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged it reminds me of the first time I listened to the album—I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Even though this album was released almost 30 years ago, it still is regarded as one of the best albums of all time.  This is one of those albums that I think everyone should listen to at least once and enjoy the experience it brings.  MTV Unplugged the series has had over 100 performances from all genres of artists and many of them don’t come to being as iconic as Nirvana’s. Nirvana itself has had a tremendous influence on all kinds of music and artists from Kid Cudi to Linkin Park.  Nirvana will continue to influence new music culture as history goes on.