“At the end of the day, you have to realize that he could be here for the wrong reasons,” Listen to Your Heart contestant Julia Rae whispers from a water fountain in her ABC reality show’s third episode. She is talking about her on-again, off-again flame Brandon Mills, effectively accusing the 34-year-old of using Listen to find his dream career instead of a dream romantic partner and relationship (aka, the right reasons). “It seems a lot of people are,” Julia continues, suggesting Brandon’s official Listen partner Savannah McKinley, is equally untrustworthy.
With two gossipy sentences, Julia has banished Savannah and Brandon to the realm of forever sus in Bachelor Nation, an ABC umbrella supposedly built for creating ever-lasting relationships (and definitely crafted for Instagram influencer infamy now). There is no real way for people like Brandon and Savannah to lose of the stench of “for the wrong reasons” reality TV scheming once it’s foisted upon them. After all, they did join the reality dating show known for creating social media stars — that is almost evidence enough of an ulterior motive. One other misstep (like quietly manipulating two women into chasing you, in Brandon’s case) is usually the nail in the villainous coffin.
But Listen isn’t like any other Bachelor show. It may publicize itself as the journey towards A Star Is Born-style love — itself a shockingly messy promise — but it is also a singing competition with very appealing prizes. As Monday night’s “Week 3” reveals, the winning Listen couple will record their own original songs and go on tour. That is every cast member’s ultimate life goal. With a future like that on the line, no cast member can truly have the right reasons on Listen to Your Heart.
The ensuing “Week 3” confrontation between Julia and Savannah proves just how muddy the waters of Listen are, as contestants mix romance and ambition so nakedly. At this point in the episode, host Chris Harrison has already explained the way the more American Idol portion of the series will run — couples will compete with duets until one winner is left — and assigned the first round of songs. Julia is heartbroken and infuriated to see Brandon and Savannah immediately pack on the PDA now that they have settled on each other and active singing competition is nigh. Only a day prior, Brandon was mumbling about “figuring things out” with Julia.
“I just don’t know how to process people being so outrageously dishonest to get ahead,” Julia cries to a confessional camera, ignoring the fact that her fixation on Brandon is its own betrayal of her burgeoning relationship with trusting sweetie Sheridan Reed. “I feel like a lot of people are willing to fake things just to stay here. It’s just kind of disgusting to be honest.”
But holding onto a relationship in a desperate attempt to stick around Listen and become a successful musician is the name of the game. If you can’t make it work, you’re out (as we see with the abrupt exist of Gabe Baker). If you’re out, you can’t go on tour. Who wouldn’t do everything in their power to avoid such a disappointing fate?
Still, Julia confronts Savannah and accuses her of being “disingenuous.” Savannah counters, saying her romance with Brandon has changed drastically since they have began sharing something as intimate as music-making. Now, Julia feels “comfortable” and “safe” in the relationship, which has led to increased PDA. This is completely possible. It is also possible — even subconsciously — that Brandon or Savannah has begun to act extra touchy-feely to ensure they remain on a competition series obsessed with love stories above all else. It is also impossible to ignore Julia's personal stake in Brandon's romantic leanings and her own desire to win Listen. Viewers can never know the full truth of anyone’s motivations.
The performance section of “Week 3” confirms such a tricky maxim is true, even for the most allegedly “pure” contestants. While this portion of the episode is filled with sniping voiceovers from both Julia and Savannah about the other, they’re not the only ones who could be seen as dipping into strict Listen gameplay. Romantic frontrunners Bri Strauss and Chris Watson are one of the first couple performances of “Week 3.” During their critique, guest judge Jason Mraz tells Bri, “It seemed like you also wanted to entertain the audience. I couldn’t really figure out where you were. Were you in love with us, or were you in love with [Chris]?”
Considering Bri’s intrinsic identity as a performer, the answer to Jason's question is probably somewhere in the middle. It is difficult for Bri not to play to the screaming audience in front of her, even when she’s gazing into the eyes of her new beloved at the same time.
If we’re not quite sure that Bri and Chris are in this for the right reasons — no one is.