The show was directed by Beth McCarthy and aired on the cable television network MTV on December 16, 1993. In a break with MTV Unplugged tradition, Nirvana played mainly lesser-known material and covers of songs by the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly and Meat Puppets. Unlike prior MTV Unplugged performances, which were entirely acoustic, Nirvana used electric amplification and guitar effects during the set. They were joined by rhythm guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, plus members of Meat Puppets for some songs.
MTV Unplugged began airing on MTV in 1989, with artists performing their hits on acoustic instruments in intimate settings. Nirvana had been in negotiations to appear for some time; Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain finally accepted while touring with the Meat Puppets. Nirvana wanted to do something different from a typical MTV Unplugged performance; according to drummer Dave Grohl, "We'd seen the other Unpluggeds and didn't like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars."
Nirvana rehearsed for two days. The rehearsals were tense and difficult, with the band running into problems performing various songs. During the sessions, Cobain disagreed with MTV about the performance. Producer Alex Coletti recalled that the network was unhappy with the lack of hit Nirvana songs, and with the choice of the Meat Puppets as guests, saying: "They wanted to hear the 'right' names - Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who."
The day before filming, Cobain refused to play, but he appeared at the studio the following afternoon. Cobain was suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness at the time; one observer said, "There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him ... everyone was more than a little worried about his performance."
Nirvana taped their performance on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. Cobain suggested that the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Coletti asked him, "You mean like a funeral?", to which Cobain replied, "Exactly. Like a funeral."
Nirvana was augmented by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, who had been touring with the band. Despite the show's acoustic premise, Cobain insisted on running his acoustic guitar through his amplifier and effects pedals. Coletti built a fake box in front of the amplifier to disguise it as a monitor wedge. Coletti said, "It was Kurt's security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on 'The Man Who Sold the World'. It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp."
Unlike many artists who appeared on the show, Nirvana filmed the entire performance in a single take. The 14-song setlist included one song from their debut album Bleach, four songs from their second album Nevermind, three tracks from the recently released In Utero, and six cover songs.In Utero's "All Apologies" had not yet been released as a single, which means the only contemporary hit the band performed was the Nevermind single "Come as You Are".
Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets joined to perform three Meat Puppets songs with Nirvana. The set ended with a performance of the traditional song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", following the arrangement of blues musician Lead Belly, whom Cobain described before the song as "his favorite performer ever". After the band finished, Cobain argued with the show's producers, who wanted an encore. Cobain refused because he felt he could not top the performance of that song.
The Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged was first broadcast in December 1993. It was 45 minutes long and omitted the songs "Something in the Way" and "Oh Me." After Cobain was found dead in April 1994, MTV aired the episode repeatedly. To meet demand for new Nirvana material and to counter bootlegging, in August 1994, DGC announced a double album, Verse Chorus Verse, comprising live performances including the entire MTV Unplugged performance. However, the task of compiling the album was too emotionally difficult for Novoselic and Grohl, so the project was cancelled a week after the announcement; the group opted to release just the Unplugged performance.Scott Litt, who produced the performance, returned to produce the record. The performance was released on DVD in 2007.
MTV Unplugged in New York was released on November 1, 1994. It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 310,500 copies, the highest first-week sales of Nirvana's career. By March 1995, the album had outsold In Utero with 6.8 million copies sold.
The album received positive reviews from critics. Tom Hibbert of Q said that as an acoustic ensemble, Nirvana sounded "most moving, possessed of a ragged glory".Rolling Stone writer Barbara O'Dair found the record "stirring and occasionally brilliant" with "spare and gorgeous spots everywhere", highlighting the band's chemistry on "All Apologies" and Cobain's unaccompanied performance of "Pennyroyal Tea". Ben Thompson from Mojo felt that unlike most "unplugged" releases, the format's "colourless, generic aspect" and not seeing the actual performance benefits Nirvana's record because of how intense it seems in light of Cobain's death.[clarification needed] In Entertainment Weekly, David Browne felt unsettled listening to it: "Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: the delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone."
In a retrospective review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said MTV Unplugged in New York was "fearlessly confessional", as it found Nirvana and Cobain "on the verge of discovering a new sound and style". Jason Mendelsohn from PopMatters believed its intimate folk rock quality was radical from Nirvana and Cobain, "as crass of a business move as it was" by their record label. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), journalist Charles M. Young called it Nirvana's "second masterpiece" after Nevermind, and claimed that Cobain could have "revolutionized folk music the same way he had rock" because of his striking voice; he said his songs worked equally well with "a loud band bashing away behind you" or "with just an acoustic guitar". Maeve McDermott of USA Today called it "an album of transcendent folk rock that glimpsed what could’ve been the band’s next post-grunge era, had frontman Kurt Cobain survived long enough to see its musical leanings through."
For the final line, "I would shiver the whole night through," Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word "shiver" so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word "whole" and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that's hard to describe: he opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity.
According to Acclaimed Music, MTV Unplugged in New York is the 309th most ranked record on critics' all-time lists. In 2012, it was placed at number 313 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The 2020 edition of the list placed it at number 279.Rolling Stone also named it the 95th best album of the 1990s. The readers rated it the 8th best live album of all time.NME placed MTV Unplugged in New York at number 1 on their list of the "50 Greatest Live Albums". Kerrang listed it among the 11 best live albums of all time. In July 2014, Guitar World ranked MTV Unplugged in New York at number 30 in their "Superunknown: 50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994" list. The same magazine listed it at number 4 on their list of "The 10 Best Live Albums You Must Hear". Far Out magazine also included it at number 4 on their list of the best 20 live albums of all time. In 2020, The Telegraph included it at number 13 on their list of the best live albums of all time. Also in 2020, Planet Rock magazine included the album in their list of "The 100 Greatest Live Albums Ever". The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
The MTV Unplugged In New York performance was released on DVD on November 20, 2007. The DVD release featured the entire taping, in 5.1 DTS surround sound, including the two songs ("Something in the Way" and "Oh Me") excluded from the broadcast version. Bonus features consisted of the original broadcast version of the performance, a 1999 MTV special titled Bare Witness: Nirvana Unplugged featuring the recollections of MTV producers and audience members, and five full-band songs taped during the pre-show rehearsal: "Come as You Are", "Polly", "Plateau", "Pennyroyal Tea", and "The Man Who Sold the World".