I groaned, as I’m sure many did, when I saw the commercials for The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart, yet another spinoff from the (already bloated) love and dating franchise. “It’s like a real-life Star Is Born!” host Chris Harrison enthused in the ads. What can that possibly mean, I wondered? Someone dies at the end?
Well, not exactly. The show, currently airing Mondays on ABC, casts musicians from all across the country (a lot of them from Texas) who are looking to find big, hetero love. In the first two episodes, they go on dates and figure out if they have romantic and musical chemistry. They’re then judged — by a revolving assortment of judges, including a fedora’d, and surprisingly committed, Jason Mraz — on that chemistry during performances. Couples will get eliminated each week until only one duo remains — winning love and their own recording contract.
This might sound corny and contrived, and of course it is — it’s from The Bachelor, after all. And yet, weirdly, it all feels much less shticky than the recent rash of Netflix shows that haphazardly throw reality genres into a blender — Catfish meets Big Brother, The Bachelor meets 90 Day Fiancé — often without any clear rules or follow-through. Listen to Your Heart’s carefully structured, glossy singing competition turned reality dating mashup is improbably compelling escapism, somehow perfectly suited for this upside-down moment.
There’s always been an organic connection between music and drama in the Bachelor universe. Who can forget Jed, the cheating aspiring country serenader, famously dumped by Hannah Brown last year? Or the time that Soulja Boy came on The Bachelorette to help the contestants create a “right reasons” rap video? (Which doubled as an unforgettable study of the show’s whiteness.)
In last season’s most talked about episode, country singer Chase Rice was brought on the show as a musical guest to perform for Bachelor Pete Weber on his date. But in fact, he was used by producers to stir up drama with a contestant whom he’d dated.
That bonkers moment hinted at the way the original franchise was running out of steam, becoming less of a dating show and more of a commentary on the lengths people are willing to go in order to get a platform on national television. Most of the contestants seemed to be aspiring influencers, and spent a lot of their time complaining about how the others were just there for social media clout. Well, Listen to Your Heart is actually about these authenticity issues, and the contestants are unquestionably there for a platform, looking for both a duet partner to further their career and love.
These twenty- and thirtysomething musicians have all been passed through the Bachelor filter — which means they’re mostly white, with pearly teeth and Instagram-model-fit bodies. They have to have talent, or at least be able to sing on key, and some are, refreshingly, total Bachelor Nation neophytes. (Matt, a butch bearded guy from Austin, deemed to have the biggest arms by the women, even confuses Chris Harrison with Chrises Hansen and Hemsworth.)
Women get first choice on partners, as the show starts with more women than men, which makes it feel more like the superior Bachelorette, with the guys in the hetero dating hot seat. Jamie, a 21-year old restaurant host, is stuck between Ryan, a green-eyed Shawn Mendes lookalike from Michigan, and Trevor, who looks like he was plucked fresh from one of those wholesome frat boy porn sites. When Jamie and Ryan get a recording session with John Mayer’s producer, they sing his song “Gravity” together. (Is there a better performer/lyricist than John Mayer to pick for a show about rosy hetero romance and fuckboys? I don’t think so.)
On Jamie’s next date, at a park with Trevor, they sang a duet on an acoustic version of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” (Maybe I just love that song, but it was pretty magical; watching the show feels like flipping through YouTube music covers.) Jamie tells us she feels comfortable with the way Trevor lets her shine during the performance, unlike so many men who have “dimmed [her] lights.” And listen, at that moment I really saw how the show is like a real-life Star Is Born, as they figure out relationship dynamics through music.
Julia, a 27-year old from Texas, connects with both Josh, a guy rightly described on the show as a “jacked Mr. Clean,” and Sheridan, a long-haired crooner with a vulnerable vibe and a van named Stella. “He’s gigantic, he’s ripped, he’s bald,” Sheridan says of Josh, declaring himself intimidated. But Sheridan, who is otherwise shy, composes a song for Julia; a (thankfully brief) guitar solo that seems to let her see him in a different light, turning her on to his charms.
Among the predictable couplings there are some surprises about who gets picked during the first rose ceremony. Which is heightened in the lead-up to the second rose ceremony when the show brings in more women, and the men get their chance to pick. (It’s less fun, and while I won’t spoil anything, one thing that was more annoying than surprising is that when the guys picked, the Latinx, Asian American, and black women contestants were out after the second elimination.)
Maybe because they’re all supposed to be laid-back musicians, the drama feels less toxic than usual for a Bachelor show, even though there are attempts to instigate it. For instance, mid-episode, producers add in Natascha, an aspiring pop star, who describes herself as “a diva but not a diva,” to accuse Trevor of cheating on his girlfriend. It’s fun to see Trevor squirm when Natascha confronts him, and I could listen to their back-and-forth about whether or not he “emotionally cheated” forever.
Maybe because they’re all supposed to be laid-back musicians, the drama feels less toxic than usual for a Bachelor show, even though there are attempts to instigate it.
But unlike the original Bachelor, where hetero cheating would be the main point of the drama, here we have the music, and their working on it, to fall back on and defuse it. In this new setup, in addition to auditioning for romantic partners, they’re also auditioning work partners, which paradoxically feels less contrived than the usual "it's all for love" dating show ethos. Maybe it’s because the mixture of personal and professional drama finally moves away from the one-dimensional rosiness that was ruining the franchise.
And, of course, it’s not just the contestants who get to have a say on which couples’ motivations and chemistry are real and which aren’t. By the third episode, the dating musical chairs ends, and the contestants have to settle on their partners, spending the next few episodes preparing to sing duets in front of the judges.
In an American Idol twist, the couples are judged on both their romantic and musical chemistry, which might sound ridiculous, but that’s what fans do with pop stars all the time. (Shawn and Camila, anyone?) They smartly tapped former Bachelorette JoJo and her partner, Jordan — whom she met on the show — as two of the judges, because there is no one better to sort out who’s being fake on TV than someone who’s lived through the franchise already. They’re joined by pop icon Kesha, and the very random Jason Mraz, in the aforementioned fedora.
JoJo does her usual basic best girlfriend shtick while Kesha is loving and laid-back as a judge; but the real revelation here, maybe because we know the least about him, is Mraz. He’s somehow perfect in the role of Bachelor franchise Simon Cowell, taking not just his musical judgments seriously (giving us intense reaction faces as he scribbles in a notebook) but also instigating relationship drama. After Natascha and Ryan sing, he praises her “power and control,” then says her career “could explode” — while warning Ryan, “You’re also great, but she is swimming all around you.” When another couple sings together, he pointedly asks the guy, “Was she loving you or the audience?”
Nobody could have predicted that a lilting ballader with a penchant for hats would be a main source for stirring up relationship drama on a reality television show in 2020. Yet, in this economy, it really fits. In fact, Listen to Your Heart might be the savviest show about the ways that romance is inseparable from social media clout-chasing for people trying to “make it” in entertainment today. A socially relevant Bachelor show in 2020? Why the hell not?●