Harry Connick, Jr. On Being an American Idol Judge: You Have to Tell it Like it Is

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On Thursday, Harry Connick Jr. spoke with reporters about the upcoming season of American Idol, including what it’s been like working with fellow judges, Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, and what he feels about the talent so far. Read the Q&A below:

What made Harry want to become an American Idol judge? “My whole life has been a lot of interaction with people who are a lot better than I am. Whether it’s in a one on one teaching situation, or a clinic, or a mentorship, or a masterclass. And as I got older, I started to be on the giving end of those things. I would spend a lot of time talking to kids in high school, college–even professional people about how they can improve. I feel very comfortable in that kind of environment. So, when American Idol called a few years ago to ask me to be a mentor, it felt like a very natural thing to do. Then they called me back last year to do it again. I had a great time. I really, really really enjoyed spending time with those talented young performers. And then, they called and asked me if I wanted to be a judge. which is different than being a mentor. You don’t really have the intensity of the interaction, but you get to share your views with a lot more people and try to help them develop their talent. It just felt like a natural thing to do, plus I love television. I love being in front of an audience. I love talking about music. There’s a lot of things about being on American Idol that I really really like. It feels really good so far.”

How are the relationships going with the other judges? “I really love being up there with them. They’re extremely bright people, highly successful, have very strong work ethics, very strong convictions about what they do. They’re the best in the business at their respective jobs and we’re completely different. Different brains, different personalities, different philosophies. I have a lot of experience as a player, as a singer and as kind of an overall entertainer that’s unique to my life. The movies I’ve done are different than the ones Jennifer’s done. And the concerts I’ve played are different than Keith’s. Just by virtue of my own experience, I think I can bring something a little bit different.”

How is the male talent this year? “There’s some crazy guy talent, man, I mean for real. No joke. There’s some guys that are really good. Some great young women too. It’s hard to say if it’s a 50/50 split. It’s impossible to know. And we certainly would never try to reach any kind of quota. Because, that would be biased. We just respond to the people we see.

How has adding the guitars impacted the competition? “I think it’s a great thing, because it’s very telling. When people pick up a guitar, and they’re not good players it shows immediately. A. That they should put the guitar down and B. A lot of the decisions that they make as singers are not dissimilar to what they’re doing on the guitar. In other words, if you’re playing some chords that make no sense…when they sing, it’s obvious why they’re making the choices they’re making. There’s this weird ‘ignorance is bliss’ type of attitude. These people are coming up there playing guitar in front of Keith Urban, OK? That takes some guts. And maybe they don’t realize what they’re doing. And maybe their family and friends have told them that they’re really good, and you should go on American Idol, but eventually, they’re going to have a realization that ‘Oh, maybe I’m not quite as good I thought.’ And then, there may be some people who pick it up and ‘Oh, this person sounds great with a guitar’ and that’s the kind of artist they are. I think it’s all around a good thing, because it’s very telling.”

On the importance of the contestants understanding the meaning of the lyrics of the songs that they chose, “That’s huge. Unless they’re singing a tune that’s really a groove based tune, like a lot of those disco tunes I grew up listening to, it’s really not about the lyrics. The lyrics are there to have you sing something. Sometimes they sing tunes that the lyrics aren’t that important, and I really don’t care. But if they’re going to sing a lyric, then you have to really start picking it apart. Sometimes they’ll listen to you when you say ‘Understand the words’ but then they’ll oversing it, or maybe it’s kind of one dimensional. There’s a lot of little roads you can go down for improvement. But absolutely! These are singers! You need to know how to sing a song. You need to know what you’re singing about. Interestingly, to me, that’s not that important to a lot of singers. They just sing, but they’re not connected to the lyric. That’s profound to me. It’s interesting to talk about. I’m glad we have a chance to do it on this great show.”

Did he catch Carrie Underwood on The Sound of Music Live? “I did not see it. I was on a movie set. But I’m a big Carrie Underwood fan. I’m sure she did a great job.”

On being a judge vs a mentor, “It’s different, but it’s not a surprise. I know what the show is, so I was really familiar with what it would be like to be a judge. From the very first contestant we saw in Boston, it just felt very natural. You sit in that chair, and you’re with two people that you respect very much, and like very much. And people start coming in and singing. It all gets turned on. You zoned in on them. You critique that performance and it’s exciting stuff.”

How does it feel in that room without Randy, “Randy Jackson’s great. He’s a great musician. He’s legendary in this show. He’s an icon for the many, many years of great television he provided to all of us. But it’s a new show now. It’s got different producers, different directors, different panel. different contestants. It’s got a new look, it’s got a new feel. It’s a new day for this great show. Fortunately for all of us, Randy is still a huge part of it. I think the show is going to be very lucky to have him on their side.”

On giving bad news to a contestant, “Sometimes you do have to give bad news. And sometimes that’s the best thing these kids can hear, the truth. At ALL times, it’s the best thing they can hear. Sometimes the performances are great, and sometimes the performances are terrible. And I would want to be told. Or I would want my friends, or children to be told the absolute truth. I think you can be diplomatic about it. But you also have to be real. You have to tell it like it is. There was one group that came out here yesterday that I thought was horrible. I don’t think you have to make personal commentary on people about the way they look–it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s got to do with the performance. I thought it was terrible. I said, “that was terrible.” I couldn’t wait for it to end, and then move on to the next one. They come out and give a killer performance, and you use that. It’s a very healthy, honest, spontaneous environment. It feels right to me.”

Which of the judges is the biggest troublemaker when it comes to joking around? “We’re all kind of troublemakers in a way that we all kind of goof around and are silly sometimes. I do it a lot because I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I was kind of the class clown. It’s really hard to label people, but if you HAD to pick the person who was the goofiest, it would probably be me. They all get silly and serious and sentimental. All of us are complex, grown people.”

How do you deal with criticism? ”As a kid, when my teachers would critique me, and it happened every day for years and years and years, you develop a tolerance for it, especially when it’s right, when it’s sincere, when it helps you. If I do something wrong, and somebody I know and love says ‘Hey man, that was a mistake’ I’m at the point in my life where I can admit it almost immediately. Criticism from the noise out there, because somebody doesn’t like the way I look or the way I sing, the way I talk–it just doesn’t even register with me.”

Did Keith and Jennifer give him advice about being an Idol judge? “No. I think they knew that I was really familiar with the show. You could tell from the first contestant that this was going to be a lot of fun. It’s not rocket science, right? We go up there, and we just–it’s a very simple concept. They hired us to judge, and all of these young performers line up to be judged. That’s it. They sing, we judge. It’s pretty easy.”

Is there something on the show he’s looking forward to taking part in? “Honestly, I really am just looking forward to being on the show. We work, I don’t know how many days. But if you include the audition days, Hollywood Week, all of these things–every time American Idol is on the calendar, I just bound out of bed with great excitement and enthusiasm. It’s really, really fun. It’s extremely intense. The days are long. It’s very emotional, but it’s just the wildest ride, and it’s a wonderful ride with great people. I really just like being a part of it. I thought it would be like that. But it’s hard to speak on the specifics before you’ve actually done it. I’m telling you, it’s a great, great show, with great people at the helm. We’re just having a ball.”

  • Andrew Elva

    Such!! If you want to become an idol then fallow these things>>

  • ellen8

    “It’s hard to say if it’s a 50/50 split. It’s impossible to know. And we certainly would never try to reach any kind of quota. Because, that would be biased. We just respond to the people we see.”

    How can this be true since the top 48 or 36 or whatever are always a 50/50 split even if the talent is not evenly divided by gender. Each year I feel that some boys or girls who deserved it more are cut because of the 50/50 split. Even if the judges aren’t thinking like this when they chose, that concept does eventually determine who goes to the live shows. So does Harry’s statement mean that bias will not happen this year ?? I hope so because…

    The only reason I point this out is that I have always wanted the best contestants to go through regardless of gender and have never understood the reasoning behind the 50/50 gender split.

  • fuzzywuzzy

    I’ll wait until the live shows before I believe that Harry will be allowed to “tell it like it is”.

  • ladymctech

    I don’t think you want the split to be too lopsided, though. I’m not sure how I would react to a season where the top 12 is composed of, say 10 men and 2 women, or vice versa.

  • Incipit

    The Live shows are the Litmus Test, I agree, fuzzywuzzy.

    Since a lot of folks feel that way – it ought to get AI plenty of initial viewers, waiting to see why happens next. I know the new Producers will also have their own agenda – so how skillfully these folks can execute the dance is really the question. Maybe, like Emily Dickinson advises, they will be able to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant – success in circuit lies…”

    No more of the ham-fisted, obvious manipulations of the previous era would be enough to start with, for me…then we shall see.


  • roarpen

    I’m looking forward to watching these shows. I like Harry a lot as a mentor. I agree that the live shows will be the litmus test. But if I were a betting person at this juncture, without seeing it yet, I would bet that adding Harry is a big positive. We will see when it all starts.

  • Bobbi

    I’m looking forward to Harry as a judge. It is reassuring to read his enthusiasm for the show and what he’s doing. I will watch again and I wasn’t sure I was going to, after last year.

  • helo23

    Just going by his answers here, I like him. I have my doubts about S13. Strange that the reporter asked about the male talent and not the girls. I guess, with what a trainwreck S12 was and NO guys in the top 5, people are more interested in the boys this season then the girls. But when is it NOT like that? lol I think this season will be either like S8 or S9: Have a bunch of good guys and a handful of mediocre girls, or a bunch of guitar players. There really is nothing bad with having an equal quantity of boys and girls in the semis. My problem is that Idol always puts about 4 or 5 lousy peeps in the top 24 (fodder), and get rid of other actual decent contestants because they are too similar to TPTB few TCOs. If AI does put them through the semis, they just end up sabotaging them in the top 24. It happens every season.

    ETA: TPTB need to stop putting contestants against each other by having them sing the same song in the semis. This has happened the past two seasons, and it’s not really fair for the other contestant.

  • Sassycatz

    It’s like anything else. You want some diversity, just as you would in terms of subgenres of music and guitar players. There’s been plenty of complaints about those things and I recall a season where the lack of women made things rather dull.

  • Matthew Kitson

    Harry will be the perfect judge I think. He’ll be harsh at times, but not to the extent of being insulting as Simon tends to do.

  • Lin Brand

    What do Ben Folds and Harry Connick have in common? They are both real musicians, not “popstars”. That’s why Ben is a fantastic judge on the Sing Off and Harry will be great on Idol. I’ll watch just for his commentary.

  • Montavilla

    There’s a specific part in the process where there’s gender parity: Usually it’s from the first contestants offered for public vote to the finals. That essentially means a 50/50 split at the “green mile” (or “judge’s mansion” or whatever they choose to call it), leaving a 50/50 gender split in a group that will number from 20-40 people. Once that’s culled down to 10-13, the gender parity disappears.

    So, in the auditions and first 3-4 rounds of the process, there are no quotas. There are also no quotas in the last 8-10 rounds of competition. The part of the process that has been 50/50 is maybe three rounds total.

    Which is not to say it couldn’t be different. In Seasons 3 and 8, there were gender imbalances in the finals. It was split 8/4 in favor of the girls in Season 3, and 8/5 in favor of the boys in Season 8. That was because, in both seasons, the audience picked 3 finalists per semi-final group: The most popular female, the most popular male, and the second (or third) most popular singer of either gender.

    I wonder if Season 12 might have been less criticized if they had used that format? Maybe we would have ended up with eight girls, plus Curtis and Lazaro. We still would have ended up with a top five girls, but maybe we would have felt less manipulated about it?