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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist: Music as a Metaphor

When I first meet someone, I have the habit of placing them into the realm of television plots and characterization. It’s not intentional, something in my mind has the ability to hear a friend’s pleas for companionship and I see this as a parallel to, say, the loneliness of Ryan in Wilfred. I can sense someone's overwhelming desire to succeed amidst a sea of failing prospects and correlate this with the thousands of films and television shows about the reality of life in one’s 20s. 

When I hear people say “the world needs more empathy” I chuckle to myself each time. To be empathic is much more than to hear someone’s words and reflect on how someone might be hurting. Empathy -  to me - is that voice in one’s head, the one that never goes away despite the constant screams and cries to do otherwise. 

It is the voice that listens to the motivations of my friends' worries and fears, and the pleas from their eyes that will never be spoken aloud. To converse with a friend, a coworker, or family and hear these darker thoughts is frightening. I want to believe that everyone has their shit together. But they don't, and I can help if it means less suffering in the world altogether. 

The protagonist of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist - Zoey- grapples with these same circumstances when a faulty MRI scan causes her to hear the inner emotions of those around her singing what she calls  ‘heartsongs.’ 

A synopsis of the first season reads: 

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is an American musical comedy-drama television series created by Austin Winsberg that premiered on January 7, 2020 on NBC. The series stars Jane Levy as Zoey Clarke, a computer programmer who discovers she has the ability to hear the innermost thoughts of people as songs. Each episode features multiple song-and-dance numbers that develop the storyline.

To better understand Zoey’s reluctance towards emotional reasoning, its best to look at the various dilemmas and situations surrounding her character. 

As a young programmer working for a tech company, SPRQPoint (I liken this to Google or even Silicon Valley’s ‘PiedPiper’), Zoey struggles to find the proper balance between her successful job, complicated love triangle with two coworkers, and difficulties with her family relating to her father’s terminal illness. 

How to Work Better (Through Song) 

Zoey serves as a programmer under prominent tech figure, Joan Bennett. The two are not only the only females on their team, but act as the most powerful members of that said team. Her character starts off as an introverted, naive 20-something year old, but grows to advocate for herself and her position of power through the help of Joan. Through hearing Joan sing songs like ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ regarding her estranged husband, or ‘Tik Tok’ as a means of wanting to party and enjoy herself, Zoey learns how to be the best leader she can be at work. 

How to Love Better (Through Song) 

The initial episode of the show introduces an apparent love triangle surrounding Zoey: Max, Zoey’s quirky and dedicated best friend and team member at work, and Simon, an engaged, sexy communications manager at SPRQPoint. At the core of Zoey’s ‘heartsongs’ is an inability to understand the feelings of those around her. So to hear Max sing songs like ‘Sucker’ or ‘I know you

want me’, she learns of Max’s passionate admiration for her and must find ways to show him the same. Simon, however, indulges in an affair of sorts with Zoey and her emotions, playing on the fact that the two both have dead or dying fathers. He tempts Zoey with songs like ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go,’ and keeps Zoey’s wondering as to where her feelings lie. 

How to Live Better (Through Song) 

Perhaps the most emotional aspect of the entire season is watching Zoey’s father slowly fall to the grips of a terminal neurological disease. Upon her initial use of her empathic ‘powers’, Zoey discovers that she can use this to better communicate with her father’s inner needs and yearnings. Though physically still and seemingly unaware, Zoey’s father frequently rises from his chair to serenade her mom with songs like ‘Perfect’ or ‘It’s Your Thing.’ These simple tones of the heart show Zoey how to live like it's her dying wish, to embrace uncertainty and surround yourself with memories of past times and long loves. From this, Zoey can embrace her father’s life through understanding rather than guessing what he may be thinking or feeling. 

Zoey’s circumstances and reactions almost perfectly echo the noted effects of maturity and development for people in their mid-20s. A great resource from the NYC Justice Corps recognizes the development of ‘later adults’ (Mid 20s+) through the lens of four distinct roles: 

  • Cognitive Development: refers to new levels of abstract thinking 

  • Moral Development and Problem Solving: refers to more complex problem solving and analyzing problems that have no moral dilemma 

  • Interpersonal Development: refers to enhanced leadership capacity 

  • Emotional Development: refers to a greater capacity for self-evaluation and an ability to perceive themselves from the perspective of others. 

Considering these facts, Zoey’s sudden ability to hear the desires and fears of others make sense, given that she too is in the process of understanding these things for herself. As she discovers her boss, her coworkers, her family are all grappling with the same basic emotions for themselves, she is able to reflect upon what this means for her own life. 

To understand another’s emotions is a sign of a maturing mind, but to empathize with them is to act upon these emotions. Zoey’s drive for success and prosperity in all aspects of her life could have left her vulnerable to life’s control. But as she begins to understand the meanings of the heart songs sung to her, her newly found knowledge and experiences continue to shape her understanding of the world around her, and her place within it. 

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