While I was in Chicago recently, I purchased a used copy of REM’s recently released MTV Unplugged concerts on compact disc. As has always been my experience with REM, I did not really know what to expect at the time of purchase because while I appreciate the artistry of the band throughout their careers, their music is generally hit or miss for me. There are generally two to three songs I like a whole lot per record and the rest are usually “well this was a neat idea that I appreciate, but I’ll probably never listen to it again.” As I listened to my newly acquired REM record, however, I found myself thinking about what a difference musical accompaniment can make in the evaluation of artists and songs because I found myself – for the first time – head over hills in love with an entire REM release.
Upon reflection, this experience is not all that surprising, and in fact has happened before with other artists I appreciate but do not necessarily enjoy all that much. I’m reminded of my own boredom mixed with appreciation for the style with Nirvana until they released their own unplugged record, which remains one of my favorite albums. I’m also reminded of my experience with metal music that I absolutely love to see and hear played live, but that I absolutely cannot stand to listen to (much of the time) when not experiencing the performances live. I am also reminded of how much I enjoy Aaron Lewis’ country and acoustic recordings even though I cannot stand most of his electric and rock work with Staind. I also think about how much more I love acoustic covers of old classic rock songs than the songs themselves, and how much I enjoy live and acoustic renditions of Hip Hop and Soul compositions that I cannot stand in their glossy, (in my opinion) often overproduced forms. I also think about Beck and the way my appreciation for his work rises and falls depending upon which musical style he is playing with on a given record. I also think of my experience early this year after a friend recommended Brandi Carlile to me, I got a studio recording, I was bored, and then heard a live acoustic performance of hers on the radio one evening and was floored and have been collecting all her work ever since.
I also realize that I’m not alone in this regard. I remember clearly a friend who collected every Hip Hop record that came out while I knew her, but would not go to a live show because it just didn’t sound right no matter the acoustics of the venue. I remember the friend who only liked Phish live, but would not listen to their studio recordings because, as he said, “it killed the feeling.” I remember the friend who complained about as much as I celebrated whenever a rock band did an acoustic record because, as ze put it, “that is not rock n roll anymore, just soft old people shit.” I also remember a friend who lost interest in one of her favorite recording artists because when she went to see a live performance she realized the artist’s voice was adjusted (or produced) on the records in ways that the live experience did not even come close to replicating.
All these observations lead me to wonder what’s in a plug, or any other technology used to change the sound of music from one thing to another across the spectrum of possibilities. How do people react to plugged in verses unplugged music in varied ways, and what aspects of each type of music speak to a given set of listeners? For me, I realize as REM transforms from just another group I kind of appreciate at times to one of the greatest sounds ever by simply removing the plugs, this type of variation in the interpretation of music seems fascinating, and I cannot help but wonder how it plays out in our world.