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How Jim Burns Transformed American Pop Music

Dec 27, 2017
Originally published on December 27, 2017 5:26 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today we're remembering a man who transformed American pop music. Jim Burns was not a well-known musician himself. He created the program "MTV Unplugged," and he was the show's executive producer during its original run through the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARS IN HEAVEN")

ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?

SHAPIRO: Ann Powers of NPR Music joins us now to discuss his legacy. Hi, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing today?

SHAPIRO: Good. So for people who are not members of Generation X, what made "MTV Unplugged" such a pop culture phenomenon?

POWERS: There were several reasons why "MTV Unplugged" hit us hard as Generation Xers. One, it felt like MTV grows up, you know? It was musicians stripping down, playing their songs in an acoustic setting. The audience is seated. It's not like Twisted Sister doing "We're Not Gonna Take It" in a crazy video, you know?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

POWERS: It's something a little more somber. And the other reason is just the fact that it showed the baby boomer generation that hung over Gen X like a bad cloud that our bands could also play acoustically and that they were real bands.

SHAPIRO: Even Nirvana had an unplugged set that almost redefined them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT")

KURT COBAIN: (Singing) My girl, my girl, where will you go? I'm going where the cold wind blows.

POWERS: Oh, my goodness, Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged" is right up there with "Nevermind," their classic album, as an equal classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT")

COBAIN: (Singing) My girl, my girl, don't lie to me. Tell me; where did you sleep last night?

POWERS: One reason is because it was really Nirvana's last performance - major performance before Kurt Cobain died. And it seemed to presage his passing, and it became almost like - I don't know - an elegy before the fact for Cobain.

SHAPIRO: Just off the top of my head, I can think of so many memorable "Unplugged" performances. These are things still in my head from 20 years ago - Eric Clapton, 10,000 Maniacs and on and on - Alanis Morissette. Which ones really stand out to you?

POWERS: For me, the hip-hop ones were super important - Jay-Z with The Roots, for example, right after he'd released "The Blueprint." And you know, LL Cool J - the "Unplugged" rendition of "Mama Said Knock You Out" remains just one of his high points in his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT")

LL COOL J: (Rapping) Don't call it a comeback. I've been here for years. I'm rocking my peers, putting suckers in fear, making the tears rain down like a monsoon. Listen to the bass go boom - explosions.

SHAPIRO: Jim Burns co-created this program with Robert Smalls (ph) and executive produced it at the height of MTV's popularity, but it did not exist in a vacuum. Where did this idea come from?

POWERS: There had been a series in New York City which I think was very influential. The DJ Vin Scelsa had a series at The Bottom Line nightclub where he would have singer-songwriters gather and tell stories. It was actually modeled on one here in Nashville where I live at The Bluebird. Beyond individual models, it was just the moment for the tide to turn. We had all had our ears blasted out by the rock 'n' roll that had come out of Seattle, Pacific Northwest. And I think it was mostly just that time. It was time for it to happen.

SHAPIRO: That's Ann Powers of NPR Music. Thanks, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: We were discussing "MTV Unplugged." Jim Burns helped create the program, and he died at the age of 65 after being hit by a taxi in New York over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE THERE")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) Don't you know, baby? Yeah, yeah, I'll be there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.