Pop culture and corporate forces love to tout “music” as a unifying metaphor. “Music” as an idea and Music™ as a business turn a bigger profit than music as music. And Hollywood is really taking “When words fail, music speaks” to heart this year.
NBC musical comedy-drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist premiered in January. The show follows in Glee’s footsteps, telling relatable stories with rousing covers of popular songs. But the Obama-era feel-good phenomenon of Glee benefited from its timeliness. Zoey does not.
The premise of the animated kids movie Trolls World Tour, which was released last week, likens coexisting musical genres to cultural diversity. Last month, Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot shared the now-infamous star-studded cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” featuring spliced-together clips of everyone from Kristen Wiig to Eddie Benjamin (who?) solemnly luxuriating in quarantine.
“Music” is supposed to be a salve for trying times. The first few months of 2020 have been relentless, with death rates and unemployment mounting with the spread of coronavirus. There is nothing that Hollywood can say to make this better, so they sing.
The latest, music-themed addition to the Bachelor franchise, Listen To Your Heart, premiered last night. “The world is what it is right now. We’re quarantined and we’re all desiring community right now, something to feel a part of,” host Chris Harrison told Billboard.
Listen To Your Heart positions music and love as one and the same. “Uniting two of the most emotionally powerful forces in human life — music and love, 20 single men and women embark on an incredible journey to find love through music,” the show description reads. “Singing well-known songs, both individually and as couples, they look to form attractions through the melodies, find and reveal their feelings, and ultimately, fall in love.”
If the A Star Is Born motif wasn’t immediately clear from that synopsis, the trailer highlights a couple singing “Shallow” and a contestant saying, “It’s just like a real life A Star Is Born!” I imagine the producers’ wheels were spinning overtime watching Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s onscreen chemistry at the 2019 Oscars.
Listen To Your Heart has everything you want out of a Bachelor show — challenges, love triangles, a girl named Bekah — and everything you will learn to accept and look past in a quarantine show, with an American Idol twist.
The contestants are like typical Bachelor contestants, in that they’re conventionally hot and almost all white. But these yoga instructors and social media managers want more than just love. They want a career in music. “There’s the alternative guy, the pop guy, the singer-songwriter guy,” 32-year-old Matt says to the camera. “The rainbow of music, if you will.” The rainbow turns out to be mainly pop-colored.
“Who’s here for the right reasons,” the trailer asks. “And who’s here for the song reasons?” To which I respond, of course people are there for the “song” reasons. That’s literally the show!
Sheridan, a 27-year-old soul-pop guitarist and singer, does not appear to be in it for solely the song reasons. He wore a large brimmed hat throughout the premiere, which would’ve made him instantly hateable if he wasn’t so soft-spoken. He and Julia, who runs her own nonprofit organization funding music therapy for hospitals, hit it off. “It’s hard to connect with people who don’t understand [music],” Sheridan admits.
Singer-songwriter Michael Todd, on the other hand, is clearly in it for the song reasons. “Savannah’s beautiful, but I’ll have to hear how her voice sounds,” he tells the camera before launching into a squinty-eyed a cappella snippet of his original song “Hot Touch.” Those 15 seconds will haunt me for the rest of quarantine.
Meanwhile, 30-year-old soul artist Chris sits at the piano, where he will remain for the majority of the night. Cheyenne, a 23-year-old R&B singer, joins him for a duet as other contestants look on approvingly and say “wow.” Julia is next in line, and she can’t get on key either. Aside from a few musical interludes, with Chris on permanent piano duty as girls take turns singing next to him, the episode is pure Bachelor drama. Chris is the unsung hero.
Elsewhere, Charlie Puth clone Ryan tells peppy 21-year-old Jamie that his dream date is a week in Bora Bora. Later, Jamie, who seems to be the season’s sweetheart, makes out with Trevor, who was on American Idol once.
The next morning, Ryan and Jamie go on a date to Capitol Records, which sounds like a very unromantic place for a date. Grammy-nominated producer John Alagía — whose credits include Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Dave Matthews, and John Mayer — works with them to record a cover of Mayer’s “Gravity.” Two things become clear in this scene, one being the show’s main dilemma, competing desires between love and success. In the heavily Auto-Tuned performance, Ryan geeks out over John Mayer while Jamie assesses their chemistry. (“Ryan’s ability to be flexible and change the key for me is really cool,” Jamie swoons.) The second realization is that all of these people stopped listening to new music in 2010.
Matt, who had spent much of the episode hot tubbing and canoodling with San Antonio-based singer Rudi, chooses the “indie-rocker” Mel as his date. The couple attend a private Plain White T’s concert while a heartbroken Rudi visits Chris at the piano to perform a tearful ballad. Mel is “mind blown” by the T’s.
Trevor plays an acoustic cover of John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” for Jamie. At this point, I am googling whether John Mayer sponsors The Bachelor. Jamie is crying, torn between Trevor (Idol) and Ryan (Puth). Everyone, including me and likely all of the quarantined “Bachelor Nation,” is visibly intoxicated. “I don’t want to live with any regrets,” Jamie wails. “That’s literally the show!” I yell for a second time.
The flavor of desperation that runs through Listen To Your Heart is even more distressing than the Bachelor franchise’s traditional “love”-driven chaos. Bachelor contestants typically go on the show seeking love and/or fame (love is referred to as “the right reason” in the Bachelor universe, fame is “the wrong reason.”) On LTYH, the goal is a codependent relationship and business partnership, a “musical connection.”
“Music” is nothing but a plot device. We’re reminded this every time someone hints at the theme — cut to host Chris Harrison telling contestants they could end up as one of the “iconic couples in music, like Jay-Z and Beyonce.” These people will more likely find love than real musical success on Listen To Your Heart. But many of them will find neither. And that’s how you make reality TV.