The Weird Nostalgia of Watching ‘Listen To Your Heart’

Somehow, the last reality TV show feels like the first

Earlier this year, in the waning weeks of The Bachelor Season 24, ABC previewed a new reality romance show. The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart is a kind of karaoke Bachelor. But instead of merely lumping together a group of lovesick 20-somethings, LTYH’s contestants are lovesick 20-something musicians.

In its preview, LTYH’s initial purpose seemed clear: give Bachelor fans something for the off-season — eyeball exercise to keep us warm while we waited for the Bachelorette to debut in a few months. As an added bonus, we’d have a new cast from which producers could select fresh blood for the real jewel in the Bachelor franchise’s gaudy Neil Lane ring of rotating shows: Bachelor in Paradise.

In short, LTYH seemed like a supplement. Then things changed. The pandemic forced reality TV to shut down. The Real Housewives were housebound. The Amazing Race quit. Big Brother stopped its surveillance. In an update posted to Instagram in mid-March, Bachelor franchise host Chris Harrison said production of The Bachelorette would stop for two weeks — but a month later, nothing has changed. ABC’s next proposed spinoff, the The Bachelor Summer Games has also, like the real Olympics, been postponed. But LTYH wrapped before the lockdown, which means that, apart from limited other options, it’s all we have — that is, unless The Bachelor: Quarantine starts rolling.

But here’s the thing about LTYH: It’s…good? At least, I think so? But why?

Reality TV feels different now than it used to. Somewhere along the line, it shifted. Now, it feels closer to hyperreality.

In the early years of reality TV, its contestants appeared to viewers (and likely, in many cases were in actuality) as relatively true representations of themselves. For those watching, to see was to know, to understand, the people on the screen. Only as time went on did that sense of documentary fade, giving way first to acceptance of deliberate manipulation and story creation, and more recently to the understanding that it acts mainly as a device to transform bland, mostly forgettable people into bland, mostly forgettable Instagram people.

Watching reality TV these days is like staring into a cocoon at the metamorphosis underway as someone transforms from a regular person into their own digital avatar — the influencer’s mutation process. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Bachelor family of shows, which now collectively act as a self-perpetuating content farm for digital platform capitalism. With increasing frequency, people who enter a Bachelor show holding out for love finish it hawking meals-in-a-box or dental whitening kits or various tea-based cleanses on their Instagram accounts. This trajectory is now obvious to everyone watching, as well as those participating. The shows have been infected by this knowingness and feel increasingly performative. Every season, the sweethearts get more intentionally sweet, the villains get more intentionally villainous. Everyone is primed.

Still, rarely does anyone willingly admit they’re on The Bachelor because of this potentially lucrative post-show influencer career. For the most part, contestants maintain the charade, never deviating from the quasi-holy reality TV attestation to which everyone has sworn since the genre’s genesis: that they’re in it “for the right reasons.” Except for Jed Wyatt. Early in Hannah Brown’s season of The Bachelorette, Jed admitted that, while he was open to finding love, his motivations weren’t singularly romantic. But Jed’s goal wasn’t Instagram influencer status. He wanted to be a famous singer.

LTYH feels fresh. It’s like watching a reality TV show from 2005, not one from 2020.

During a one-on-one date with Hannah, Jed told her that when he signed up for the show, “my first thought was: This is a huge platform.” That is, he wanted to catapult his music career. “I value your honesty with me,” Hannah told him. “It’s exactly what I’ve been asking for.” Jed eventually won Hannah’s engagement. It didn’t last, but notwithstanding the season’s outcome, at the time, his admission felt like a meta-commentary on the current state of The Bachelor’s influencer creation churn. That is, Jed purportedly wanted the platform so he could be famous for something other than the platform itself. Hannah was right about Jed’s confession. On its face, and in the context of the intensifying push for pseudo-fame that surrounded him, it felt, well, honest.

In fairness, outside the strict talent competitions, reality TV has never really created celebrities for any reason other than they existed within its borders, but the superficiality of that fame has intensified. LTYH, as Jed did, attempts to change that course, if only slightly, in an effort to give itself some depth. And, as was the case with Jed, it might just pull it off for just long enough. But the obvious similarities between Jed’s appearance on Hannah’s season and this new concept hide a key difference: other than Trevor’s looks, most of the people who’ve entered the mansion in LTYH’s first weeks don’t feel like other Bachelor contestants.

They seem to generally lack the savvy of their Bachelor predecessors. They have Instagram accounts, but their followers are in the thousands or tens of thousands, not millions. They appear slightly less knowing, less purposefully calculating. Sometimes, they don’t seem to know what they’ve got into. And they do normal things. In early episodes, they were wowed by the size of the mansion. They jumped in the pool on the first night. The women let their hair get wet in the hot tub. One dude proudly drives a Subaru. They all have bad clothes. The guys aren’t exclusively lantern-jawed he-men. The women aren’t all bikini-ready babes. They skew older.

In contrast to Bachelor contestants of recent seasons, their normality borders on naiveté. They feel weirdly innocent. And the whole show is lighter as a result, a break from its franchise predecessors and their relentless image-diven hyper-capitalism that sucks you in until just watching them is like a kind of side-gig you have to maintain to stay culturally liquid. LTYH feels fresh. It’s like watching a reality TV show from 2005, not one from 2020.

But maybe it’s only fitting that the last reality TV show made somehow feels like the first.

Maybe this is really the crux of it. Maybe this is why this unimaginatively derivative spinoff of a flagship reality program nearing its 20-year mark won me over. Nostalgia.

I miss the years when reality TV felt like a tremendous, harmless collective lark — back when we didn’t know what we were getting into. A time before reality TV became the contextual framework in which we all live, one that has over the years informed not only its direct touchpoints in the culture industry, but also political and civic discourse, policy and governance, consumerism and economics, and personal expectations of relationships, status and, yes, even love. Before influencers and the TV-to-instagam, screen-to-screen, doom loops. When we still all had a backstage.

I miss a time when two-dozen or so 20-somethings could live in a house together for weeks and all kiss the same person in the same night and then fly around the world together. A time when we could still make reality TV shows. Before we ever thought about cancellations and lockdowns and quarantines.

A time that feels very much in the past now.

writer.

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